Emory column leads to criticism, apology

By Nancy Seideman | Emory Report | Feb. 19, 2013

UPDATE (Feb. 22): During a faculty meeting of the Emory College of Arts and Sciences, attending faculty voted to censure President Jim Wagner for a recent magazine column in which he references the “3/5ths compromise” in the U.S. Constitution. Wagner is anticipated to discuss this issue, among others, at his regularly scheduled annual meeting with the college faculty in March.

Wagner has publicly stated that the reference was a mistake and he has apologized for using the example. He continues to meet with members of the university community to discuss the issue, and says that the response to the column has served to “renew my dedication to working collaboratively with the entire community on important issues of social justice, and on continuing a public dialogue on race and intersecting dimensions of human difference.”

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An essay by President Jim Wagner published this month in Emory Magazine has resulted in questions and criticism due to his reference to the so-called "3/5ths compromise" in the U.S. Constitution while advocating a search for common ground during politically polarized times.

As social media and digital media sites picked up the essay, generating critical comments calling the example inappropriate or offensive, Wagner posted an apology to the Emory Magazine website.   

"It was a mistake to cite the 3/5ths compromise as an example," says Wagner. "My deepest regret is that my comments have distracted the wider public from the remarkable work that the Emory community has been doing in areas of justice around race, gender, sexuality, and other differences that often divide us."

"I do not consider slavery anything but heinous, repulsive, repugnant, and inhuman," he says. "I take responsibility for not communicating better and am very sorry for the hurt caused by not stating more clearly my own beliefs. I have asked forgiveness from those hurt by my clumsiness and insensitivity."

In his column, Wagner referred to the difficult budgetary decisions facing Congress. Wagner suggested that one way of thinking about necessary compromise is to reach for higher aspirations rather than a lowest common denominator. As an example, he referred to the compromises necessary for ratification of the U.S. Constitution in 1787.

One of those compromises was the "3/5ths compromise," a paragraph that counted only 3/5ths of the slave population for purposes of state representation in Congress and taxes paid by the states.

 "It is not news that we live in a very complex, dynamic environment where history, economics, social status, class, education, and many other factors complicate how we communicate about difficult matters," Wagner says "Emory is trying to lead in this environment, whether it is through the thorough, two-year examination of the role of social and work status on campus through the Committee on Class and Labor, or through Senior Vice President and Dean of Campus Life Ajay Nair helping students to lead forums on how we can better live up to our aspirations of what it means to live in the Emory community."

Other recent steps to build on Emory’s community strengths around issues of race and difference have included the establishment of the James Weldon Johnson Institute for the Study of Race & Difference, the six-year-long Transforming Community Project and, last fall, the decision by the university to create a documentary film about a period of anti-Semitism in the Emory dental school 60 years ago, a period for which Wagner apologized on behalf of the university. Emory also issued a statement of regret in 2011 for entwinement with the institution of slavery during the early years of the college, and hosted the first national symposium on slavery and universities that same year.  

Wagner emphasized that this important conversation and work will continue at Emory and that this response to his column has served to "renew my dedication to working collaboratively with the entire community to achieve Emory's full potential for leadership among the nation's premier universities for research, teaching, and public dialogue on race and intersecting dimensions of human difference."