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