The New York Times recently wrote that last Friday’s reception to celebrate the Woodruff Library’s exhibition on the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) “could have been more poorly timed, but not by much.”
I could not disagree more. The reception provided a vital context for assessing President Wagner’s statements and moving forward as a community.
The Civil Rights leaders who addressed the audience spoke warmly of President Wagner, but their remarks provided an ethical vision that is diametrically opposed to that which he has exhibited in his column and administrative decisions.
In his column, President Wagner praised the virtue of “compromise.” His example was a “compromise” that condemned millions of African Americans to enslavement in the service of the “higher aspiration” of preserving national unity.
The civil rights leaders who spoke Friday – Representative John Lewis, Charles Steele, Jr., Dorothy Cotton and Dr. Bernard Lafayette Jr. – spoke of the virtue of being uncompromising. Faced with a task that was in many ways much more difficult and daunting than that of the Constitution’s framers, they refused to compromise by leaving the most vulnerable behind or adopting methods that would harm others.
These Civil Rights leaders provide a critical rubric for assessing the compromises that we have made as a community.
In these pages, Black Student Association President Jovanna Jones has explained why she was “not surprised” by President Wagner’s statement. For Jones, Wagner’s statement was a reflection of an Emory community that “refuses to embrace the actual practice of understanding and appreciating diverse populations.”
It is indicative of what Kayla Hearst, leader of the Emory chapter of the NAACP, has described in the Wheel as a “culture of apathy and ignorance.”
These assessments contrast with the reactions of those of us who considered President Wagner’s statement an aberration. This contrast illustrates our own unwillingness to understand. We must examine the “compromises” that we have made with the culture illustrated by President Wagner’s analogy and make a sincere and systematic assessment of how our actions replicate harmful institutional dynamics.
As Emory’s leader for 10 years, President Wagner has played a crucial role in this culture. His essay must be assessed in the context of his policies. While the Wagner administration has made strides to foster diversity at Emory, we must examine the deleterious impact of the administration’s departmental cuts, labor policies and subversions of institutional transparency and democratic process.
We must also examine how the administration’s policies have contributed to an environment in which professional success, college rankings and academic fashion seem, at times, more valued than substantive intellectual and ethical engagement.
We must hold President Wagner accountable for both his statements and for his fostering of an institutional environment in which they have been thinkable, sayable and, sadly, defendable by people who should know better. Without such accountability, there can be no moving forward.
We will just wait until the media storm “dies down” before returning to our old ways.
We as a community cannot “compromise” on our president. President Wagner has failed significant segments of our population and greatly damaged our institutional norms. We must force him to drastically change his approach to his management, or – if we doubt his ability to do so – to resign.
Whatever our conclusion, the outcome cannot end the discussion.
It must be a starting point for a broader shift in Emory’s culture. One thing we can all do is to attend the “Rally Against Racism” this Wednesday, Feb. 27, at 6 p.m. Another should be to visit the SCLC exhibit and archives at the Woodruff Library.
There one can find a model for leadership that is truly ethically engaged.
Harold Braswell is a 6th year PhD candidate in the Graduate Institute of the Liberal Arts.