Emory University president James Wagner is fighting to save his career following widespread criticism over controversial remarks he made about slavery in a university publication.
In a column titled “As American as… Compromise,” in the winter issue of Emory magazine, Wagner praised the deal that counted slaves as three-fifths of a person. He used it as a shining example of pragmatism and political compromise.
In the essay he wrote, “One instance of constitutional compromise was the agreement to count three-fifths of the slave population for purposes of state representation in Congress.”
“Southern delegates wanted to count the whole slave population… Northern delegates argued that slaves should not be counted at all, because they had no vote.
“As the price for achieving the ultimate aim of the Constitution—“to form a more perfect union”—the two sides compromised on this immediate issue of how to count slaves in the new nation,” wrote Wagner.
During the negotiations, “both sides found a way to temper ideology and continue working toward the highest aspiration they both shared—the aspiration to form a more perfect union. They set their sights higher, not lower, in order to identify their common goal…”
The column, which was published over the weekend, sparked outrage not just from students, faculty and alumni but on social media websites.
In response Wagner rushed to issue an apology: “To those hurt or confused by my clumsiness and insensitivity, please forgive me.” He also stated he considered slavery “heinous, repulsive, repugnant, and inhuman. I should have stated that fact clearly in my essay.”
The university’s board of trustees appears, at least for now, to be standing behind its embattled president. “He has my 100 percent, undivided support,” Ben F. Johnson III, the chairman of the board of trustees, said in an interview on Tuesday.
Though, in the latest development, several Emory professors told Channel 2 Action News on Thursday that they not satisfied with Wagner’s apology.
“I do believe he is genuinely sorry that this happened, but I think the kind of leader we need is someone who would not have made such an egregious mistake in the first place,” said Emory Associate Professor Noelle McAfee.
“It was hurtful and unbelievably regrettable, and in many ways demonstrates a gulf between the administration and the faculty,” explained associate professor Yanna Yannakakis.
Nancy Seideman, a university spokesperson, provided a statement in response to the concerns by faculty members that said, “The intent of Emory president Jim Wagner’s recent magazine column was to encourage people to identify and move toward shared aspirations.
“Wagner recognized that there are competing visions about how Emory might flourish as a liberal arts research university. He has made it a priority to encourage university governance groups to bring those visions together, set clear priorities, invest in current areas of distinction, and to develop new strengths in emerging areas.”
This latest controversy comes in wake of cuts to various departments and programs at the university. Though the university denies it, critics say the recent cuts unfairly target minority faculty and students.
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