Wagner Pressured At Univ. Address

University President James W. Wagner engaged in heated discussions with faculty, staff and students at the ninth annual State of the University Address Tuesday evening.

The event, titled “Moving Emory Forward: Progress and Priorities,” took place in the Dobbs University Center’s (DUC) Winship Ballroom.

Wagner first discussed the University’s accomplishments and stated the administration’s three main goals for the University: “engaging our community,” “enhancing education that Emory provides” and “responding to world changes.”

Under Wagner’s first goal of “engaging our community,” his top priority was to “empower faculty responsibility for future opportunities.”

According to Wagner, great universities require the faculty to “imagine, own and implement” changes to their institution.

In terms of “enhancing the education that Emory provides,” Wagner applauded Dean of the College Robin Forman’s “courageous decision to imagine and implement a strategy for greater excellence and distinction.”

The plan, according to Wagner, will strengthen departments of excellence as funds are reallocated from the closure of other departments.

Finally, Wagner discussed “responding to world changes” and focused on the principle of internationalization by “refining our global strategy.”

Wagner cited “responding creatively to fiscal realities in the Woodruff Health Center,” “exploring partnerships with Georgia Tech” “and “exploring new markets for resource growth” – which includes online education – as examples.

“[The priorities] are highlighted topics that bring focus onto our energies to our forward progress of our collective enterprise,” Wagner said.

The University’s progress, Wagner said, is not limited to these topics.

“We need to continue this foot race together, encouraging each other and from time to time forgiving each other, rising above our occasional discomforts and applying our best selves to achieve and serve the excellence of mind and greatness of heart to which we are called and to which we aspire,” Wagner said.

Wagner also acknowledged that University’s obstacles, including Emory’s misreporting of SAT scores this summer and the “shameful chapter” of Emory’s School of Dentistry where the school disproportionately failed Jewish students.

Despite these wrongdoings, Wagner said that Emory is in a better position.

“We have helped to define Emory’s presence as a powerful contributor to the intellectual and social transformation in the world,” Wagner said.

Students and Faculty Take the Floor

Throughout his presentation, more than a dozen students held up signs that read “Reject the Cuts” and “We have questions” in reference to the controversial department changes announced in mid-September. A majority were members of the #EmoryCuts group, an organization against the recent department changes.

Once Wagner concluded his presentation, the floor was opened for questions. The question-and-answer session focused almost entirely on the closing or suspension of several programs in the College and graduate programs.

Audience members expressed concern for an allegedly undemocratic process behind the changes and also said the plan would disproportionatly affect minorities, women and international students. After nearly every question, the audience erupted in applause before Wagner began responding.

Amber Jones, a fourth-year Ph.D student in Educational Studies, said that the programs being effected have had the “greatest track record for retaining, recruiting and graduating African-American and Hispanic students” and that Emory’s Educational Studies program has been the number one producer of African American Ph.D students for 20 years.

With 40 percent African American students, the program boasts one of the highest numbers for African Americans in the nation, said Jones.

“How do you reconcile the stark difference between your rhetoric of diversity and your actions of cutting diversity?” she asked Wagner.

While the Wagner agreed with Jones’ numbers, he assured her that the decision-makers took that into account and highlighted several strategies Emory uses to increase diversity on campus, such as third-party assistance to increase Hispanic student admission rates.

A law student majoring in Gender and Sexuality Studies questioned Wagner’s “courageous leadership,” which she said “has divided the community and unleashed fear.”

“Leadership doesn’t always take people in the direction we would like to go,” Wagner said. “We trust our leaders … to take us in the directions we ought to go.” He cited the idea that the civil rights movement occurred because of leadership that went against the majority.

An Institute of Liberal Arts (ILA) graduate student asked Wagner why he supports, what she feels, is an undemocratic process behind the departmental changes.

“The authority to recommend these [changes rests with] the dean,” Wagner said. “My understanding is that the faculty is represented in the faculty governance bodies … And you might say I consider the process to be more like a republic than a democracy.”

A member of the Student Re-visioning Committee asked Wagner if he would be willing to work with his committee in the future to meet their demands: a reversal of the changes, formal participation by students, faculty and staff in administrative decisions and full disclosure of the College Financial Advisory Committee’s proceedings. Wagner said he would be willing to collaborate with the committee.

A neuroscience Ph.D student expressed concerns about the University’s commitment to fundamental values.

“When is the University going to realize that its integrity has been compromised, and the University’s prestige is in crisis?” she asked.

“Actually to the contrary … remarkably, the feedback that I get from other universities … [is of] great support and admiration with regards to the changes,” Wagner responded. Wagner said that other universities have asked if Emory can help lead them to make similar changes in their schools.

Switching the topic from the cuts to the issue of Chick-fil-A on campus, political science graduate student Andy Ratto asked Wagner why he and Nair have not responded to letters from Emory’s LGBT groups and Emory Gay and Lesbian Alumni (GALA).

Wagner said that Emory did issue a statement stating that the University does not share the values of Chick-fil-A, but that they would not remove the vendor from the school.

Shortly after, tensions came to a boil when ILA Department Chair Kevin Corrigan expressed his grievances that the changes “had no reasons, no data [and] no peer review.”

“For a research-intensive liberal arts university, where are the liberal arts?” Corrigan asked. “We have been supplanted effectively … Do you have a real vision for the liberal arts and for the humanities in this university?”

The president responded by explaining the three tenets of liberal arts, as he sees them: a facility of critical thinking, the ability to listen and discern and a process to fashion a creative answer and articulate it. Wagner argued that interdisciplinary studies could move beyond one core operation.

“Remember I’m an engineer, Kevin,” Wagner said emphatically. “Remember, I came to Emory because I had a passion for what is meant to be liberally educated.”

The two, then, proceeded to talk over each other, disagreeing over whether or not the ILA faculty members are being supplanted and whether Corrigan was aware of the conversations about the changes before they were announced on Sept. 14.

“I guess we’re at a stalemate,” Wagner said abruptly before switching to the next question.

After the event, Jorge Lawton, a former Distinguished Fellow at the Center of Ethics, said he thinks this type of open dialogue should happen more often than just once a year, given the tense atmosphere in the room.

“I found that there was something rippling in here,” Lawton said. “It seems to be a difficult moment in Emory’s life and maybe a test for seeing how deep the wonderfully espoused values are really rooted. There seemed to be more puzzlement and concern [around me] than thunderous applause.”

Lawton said he was most concerned about the state of Emory when he heard the exchange between Corrigan and Wagner.

“There seems to be a gap between the espousal of principles of ethical engagement and the process of full community,” Lawton said as he saw Corrigan “pleading for inclusiveness in practice and yet met by, perhaps, a dialogue of the deaf.” He said he did not see Corrigan trying to make points but instead saw a genuine issue of grievance.

Jones, who had asked Wagner about the University’s commitment to minorities, said she didn’t hear anything that gave her hope for his vision for the University.

“I think the dynamic [in the room] dodged our real concerns and countered with whatever rhetoric that they have,” Jones said. “But all they have is rhetoric.”

Comparative Literature graduate student Luke Donehue said Wagner’s reference to the civil rights movement was “the epitome of slimy stupidity,” citing the irony that the “bold leadership here is cutting the program that gave the civil rights movement some of its greatest luminaries.”

College senior Jonathan Katzner thought Wagner stayed calm throughout the session because he knew what to expect.

“I think that at times he seemed to get more emotional in his responses,” Katzner wrote in an email to the Wheel. “This may have been a result of the atmosphere or tone of the questions, but he certainly didn’t back down when presented with some interesting points [or] perspectives.”

Katzner said he noticed a “nervous tension” in the room and that some audience members were disrespectful in their questions.

“I do think that some of the questions were more hostile in tone and intent than others, which I don’t think added to the promotion of discourse in the room,” Katzner wrote. “It was disappointing to me that we couldn’t engage in an organized and productive discourse without interruption.”

 – Karishma Mehrotra

Photography by Jason Lee


  1. Avatar
    What's Wrong with this Picture? 6 years ago

    So let me get this straight…On the question of diversity, Wagner agrees – on the record – that these cuts are disproportionate in how they impact the makeup of the Emory campus. Asked how this could be appropriate, Wagner states that he trusts that the deans took race into account in their decisions and asks us to trust him trusting them. Because unquestioned, unaccountable, and top-down leadership are why we have Civil Rights. And all this in the context of his administration’s eliminating a century-old education department that produces more black PhDs than any other of its kind and which boasts a proud history of supporting the Civil Rights movement here in Atlanta and in the South more broadly. What’s wrong with this picture? And why is it that the people who talk the most about the need for trust always seem so obviously to deserve it the least?

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    Naive. 6 years ago

    What is Jonathan Katzner talking about? The only interruption of the dialogue was Wagner ending the event before everyone had the opportunity to ask their questions.
    And you are concerned that the questions were a little tough for old J Wags? J Wags publicly stated that the process for the cuts was sound and the outcome was favorable. That is a clear lie and President Wagner knows it. You can dress a wolf in sheep’s clothing but it’s still a wolf.
    We need accountability now. And when the university administration makes key university shifts without any input from the most impacted community members were far past engaging like little sheep with the tyrants.

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      JKatzner 6 years ago

      I was referring more in my response to the interruptions from audience members shouting out during some of the responses, not as much the questions posed by those during the Q&A. I honestly went in as a relatively neutral observer and it was something that disappointed me.

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    emory gets more laughable by the day 6 years ago

    Gotta love that the university cut the Q&A part of the address out of the video they posted online. What an open and transparent school we go to…….who wouldn’t trust these guys?

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    Walter Reed 6 years ago

    I am sick and tired of the patently false and evasive defense of these unconscionable cuts on the part of the Deans of the College and Graduate School, the Provost and now, the President. Emory’s reputation as a serious university is in rapid decline, internally as well as externally. No trust, no confidence.

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    Sarah Stein 6 years ago

    I am the “law student majoring in Gender and Sexuality Studies,” (I’m actually a concurrent JD/PhD student and my PhD is in Women’s Gender and Sexuality Studies) who asked a question about “courageous leadership.” This article makes my question sound far more hostile than it was and understates how President Wagner outright didn’t answer it. Because Wagner had called the cuts/reorganization/restructuring an act of “courageous leadership by Dean Robin Forman,” I asked what his plan for courageous leadership was in repairing a community of trust, which the aforementioned process had so clearly turned into an atmosphere of fear and anxiety. Instead of addressing how he would restore trust in the community, he chose to talk about leadership in the abstract and then make a completely inappropriate analogy to the civil rights movement–in which he ironically positioned himself as the courageous, pro-desegregation government leader and correspondingly implied that those who would revise the decisions take the position of racist southerners. You may notice that this in no way answers the question I asked, which was about how he planned to rebuild a community of trust in the wake of what had happened.

    I’d also like to mention that the reason I even got up to ask the question in the first place was because I was shocked with the way that President Wagner was responding to student questions, and this rose a question of leadership for me. At the beginning of the event some students handed out possible questions that folks could ask Wagner during the Q&A session. There were around 10 questions written out, and the questions were available for everyone in the room, if they were curious. A couple of students did stand up and ask these questions, and each time a student read a question off of the sheet, Wagner would mock them by looking down at the same list of questions in front of him and reading back part of the question to the student, as if to undermine the value of the question by noting that it was prepared in advanced, and therefore couldn’t be genuine. This struck me as completely off base.

    It takes a lot of courage to stand up in front of a room of very powerful people and question their actions. Encouraging people to do this by giving them sample questions does not render the questions invalid, it merely lends courage to people who might otherwise be afraid to ask by offering them some language to use in the process. Certainly President Wagner came to the event with prepared remarks, should we question their validity simply because they were written in advance? Or should we try to listen to what is being said and respond to it in a way that recognizes the value in the conversation? President Wagner’s demeanor during the Q&A session–particularly with regard to students who were asking difficult questions–displayed a tint of hostility that struck me as cowardly and arrogant. I asked my question about courageous leadership because I wanted to know how his leadership could take the character of the discussion from reactionary to reparative. He didn’t give an answer to that question–merely a reaction–and then he abruptly ended the discussion for the evening.

    If you had access to the Q&A from the event, you could see that for yourself. If you are concerned about–or even interested in–the way that the discussion of the cuts/reorganization/restructuring is unfolding, you might want to ask why the contents of Q&A session is only available to those people who had the time and resources to make it to the Winship Ballroom on Tuesday.

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      Bravo, Sarah. Your question was completely reasonable and respectful, and offered President Wagner an opportunity to apologize for the negative effects that the cuts will have on many students, faculty, and staff, as well as to outline a plan for a way forward. I was with him when he said that leadership sometimes means getting people to do something they don’t want to do, but I was shocked that instead of offering any kind of olive branch to the injured parties, he next compared students and faculty to Jim Crow racists. A staggering misstep; Wagner should apologize for that comment and give a better response after taking some time to prepare a less offensive statement about “courageous leadership.”

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    Emory Alum & Current Emory Faculty 6 years ago

    Accusation by students, staff & faculty who haven’t taken the time to fully engage and analyze the reasons for departmental changes are not particularly helpful to any discussion. Emory cannot be everything. Emory has extraordinary strengths and should focus on furthering its strengths. The obvious metaphor is pruning or amputation – if growth is required, sometimes [programs/departments/institutes/staff/faculty] must go to further the greater enterprise.

    The University is a republican entity, not a democracy. Constituents have representatives who THEY ELECT to act on their behalf. If we aren’t pleased with how they are representing us, it is incumbent on us to change our representation.

    Drs. Wagner & Forman have gamely stood before stakeholders to engage and explain; squandering these opportunities with emotion and vitriol accomplishes nothing.

    1. Avatar
      What's Wrong with this Picture? 6 years ago

      Let’s be clear about something. You write: “Accusation by students, staff & faculty who haven’t taken the time to fully engage and analyze the reasons for departmental changes are not particularly helpful to any discussion.” SRC members who asked questions at the meetings have not only been diligent attendees at all the town halls, information sessions, and faculty meetings given by Forman, Tedesco, and Wagner about the cuts – they have also had access to and read all the publicly available GovCom and General Faculty meetings for the past four years. The questions they raised are based on that knowledge – they are not uninformed, and the more they and the Emory community have learned about these cuts, the more their questions have grown – and The Wheel has documented them. However “game” Drs. Wagner and Forman have been, they have not been candid, and their answers have varied with time and been immensely contradictory. Listening to them “engage and explain” is all well and good – but their explanations have simply not been adequate. Listening to them “engage and explain” does not preclude asking hard questions that deserve to be asked – nor still does it mean we have to accept their explanations or acquiesce to decisions that they have already made and are only attempting to justify retroactively. Dialogue is not a passive endeavor, the simple reception and acceptance of information from the top-down – but the administration seems to think it should be, that we should cherish and not “squander” our precious “opportunities” to bask in their wisdom by asking questions or disagreeing. But that’s not how it works, and the fact that Emory has scrubbed the Q&A from its own video of the event seems to indicate that it doesn’t feel its can stand by its own efforts to redefine dialogue, either.

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      Sarah Stein 6 years ago

      Dear “Emory Alum and Current Emory Faculty,”

      I agree that opportunities for engagement and explanation should not be squandered. However, I think that your understanding of the role of emotion in all of this–namely that there shouldn’t be one–is misguided. Emotion is probably one of the most important elements in moments of conflict: it can change the direction of a conversation and engage people in important and meaningful ways. It can also obscure and deceive. What is unfortunate about your position is that by claiming that emotion must be eliminated from the discussion–that such emotions as anger, fear, anxiety, or indignation are distractions rather than legitimate moments for important engagement–you won’t be able to acknowledge that eventually emotions will guide us to trust or not to trust our leaders and they will guide faculty in their decisions to stay or leave Emory. Listening for emotion, acknowledging it as valid, and engaging publicly on a regular basis–and not just translating it as pure vitriol–would probably be a good first step in deescalating the tension. That takes courage. I don’t think your anonymous claims about uninformed, emotional, vitriolic constituents acknowledges the complexity of the debate, and it definitely undercuts the validity of the point of view that you oppose.

      Sarah Stein

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      Monk 6 years ago

      This is an astounding post. President Wagner’s behavior at the State of the University address was cynical and dissembling. He squandered his opportunity to treat faculty and student questions and comments with respect and forthrightness. He came across as a man desperately looking for opportunities for digression, cheap shots, and irrelevancies. There was nothing “game” about it. And as for electing new representatives, we do that every 3 years. But Emory has no real tradition of faculty governance, these representatives are not provided with the authority to represent, their role is always defined as “advisory,” and the arrogance of the administration as well as their contempt for faculty is legendary among the faculty. Yes, Emory cannot do everything, but if you take a look at the way other institutions faced with similar problems have handled them, the situation at Emory becomes clear as day–we are being shafted by arrogant and unethical careerists.

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    Matthew Payne 6 years ago

    Um, “Emory Alum and Current Emory Faculty” (whoever you are), there are great concerns that the process was, in fact, not “republican”, as is clear from the very measured AUUP statement on the matter. And why speak in metaphors? A bunch of people are/will be fired and students will see their chosen fields of study phased out. These are not “metaphorical” loses but rather real ones. To speak of the current dialogue by the critics of these cuts as emotional or vitrolic is hardly justified and, as Ms. Stein notes in her response above, the acts of disrespect seem to be emanating from the President, not the students or faculty critics of the administration. I wonder if you mean by “engage and explain” to “submit and accept”? That would truly, I think, be a dialogue of the deaf. And by the way, I have always been troubled by anonymity, for myself, when my words might be seen as a criticism of others. I’m Matt Payne and I teach Russian History in the History Department. To put it mildly, I am quite conversant with regimes that claim democratic (or republican) legitimacy and act in a rather different manner in practice. So, I’ll withhold judgment on the mere verbal claim of inclusive governance.

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    huey f. 6 years ago

    words without action won’t change a thing. it doesn’t matter how critical or even ‘combative’ those words are – in fact, the ‘stronger’ these words said without action are, the better it is for the administration, as they can then point to the existence of this ‘strong speech’ and proclaim proudly that ‘dissent’ is an integral element of the fabric that comprises their tolerant and inclusive university.

    maybe people will *do* something… but, probably not.

    (and if you ask, do what?, use your research skills. look up campus struggles, ranging from berkeley ’64, ’68, 2010, paris ’68, NYU ’09, and others you can find on your own)

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      fake republic 6 years ago

      Well said huey f.

      The post by “Emory Alum & Current Emory Faculty” is completely off base. For starters, the anger that is being directed at the Emory administration is not occurring because people are inherently against making cuts to strengthen the university. The reason why people are calling BS on Emory is because the university refuses to explain how exactly the cuts work towards achieving the administration’s stated goal. If Emory was willing to be transparent about the reasons why the departments that got cut were specifically chosen, and explain in detail how the money freed up from those departments will have a tangible effect on overall “eminence”, then you would see people coming to Emory’s defense right now.

      But the university refuses to reveal anything about the decision making process and will only talk about its future growth in the vaguest of terms. And because the administration is unwilling to present a valid defense of their actions, instead all they can do is go out and mischaracterize the rationale of the administration’s opposition. The fact that the Emory’s only argument in response to criticism is “the people that are accusing us of mishandling this are uninformed and just acting on emotion” is proof that the university has no legitimate grounds to defend itself on. It’s also an outright insulting way to respond to the community that you are supposed to serve.

  9. Pingback: Emory President’s 2012 State of the University Address « gonepublic: philosophy, politics, & public life

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    Those interested in hearing what was said during the Q&A can find an audio recording here: http://gonepublic.files.wordpress.com/2012/11/wagner-10-30-12.mp3

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      Preach It 6 years ago

      Bravo. Spread this around, people.

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