Elizabeth Hennig was one of two undergraduate students present at the “negotiation” meeting with President Wagner, Dean Forman and VP Gary Hauk. Last week, she submitted an op-ed to the Emory Wheel recounting what she described as harassment during the meeting. Her article was included in Friday’s print edition, but removed from the Wheel web page the day of publication.
Here it is.
(published as “Wagner’s Unacceptable Violation”)
Looking back over the past year, December 4th stands out as an exciting moment in Emory’s history. On that day, students, faculty, and staff from across departments stood in solidarity against the program cuts announced by Dean Forman in September and the corporatization of our university. Hundreds of Emory community members participated in a walk out, which evolved into a sit-in that opened the door for a three-hour meeting with President James Wagner and Vice President Gary Hauk. I was among the six delegates who participated in that meeting, and I left Wagner’s office with less faith in the administration than I came in with. My disappointment stemmed from more than just the administrator’s patronizing tone and the contents of our negotiations – it came from something much more personal, and much more disturbing…
Wagner slapped my arm during the meeting.
I don’t think anyone else in the room noticed. It happened during the last twenty minutes, when Forman was on speakerphone, and everyone was focused on Wagner’s cell phone. Wagner and I were sitting next to each other at a rectangular table, and my friend David Mullins was trying to explain something to Forman at the edge to my left. I leaned forward to clarify a point, and Wagner slapped me away. I sat back, stunned, and didn’t say anything. I looked at Wagner, and he shrugged back, acting as if this were something normal.
I didn’t think to make an issue of it at first, but the more I thought about it, the more it bothered me. I was the only person in the room he could have gotten away with disrespecting in that way. I am a woman, and I was also the youngest person there, facts Wagner already knew from our previous encounters. Throughout the meeting, I felt like he was belittling us – and then he treated me as if I were his little girl acting out in public.
Higher education is supposed to be a space for exploring progressive ideas, for equalizing those historically oppressed due to gender, color, social class, or sexual orientation. Our leaders, however, have consistently displayed values of cowardly violence and moral suppression rather than courageous inquiry and ethical engagement. My experience at Emory is not unique. When seven students were arrested in April 2011 for sitting on the Quad in protest against Sodexo’s labor practices, Wagner mixed up the two women of color in the group and laughed over his mistake. All this from a man fond of comparing himself and his underlings to the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement.
How can we progress as an institution when our leaders refuse to move forward? The answer is simple: we push them forward. Universities are not led by administrators, but by the students and faculty who empower them. In the Berkeley Free Speech Movement, in the Civil Rights Movement, and now with the Student Re-visioning Committee at Emory, the bottom tier of the university decides where it will go. We are Emory. Without us, no member of the administration can stand.
What happened last month now matters more than ever, both in terms of the administration’s lamentable behavior and, crucially, in terms of what the #emorycuts movement has been struggling to achieve. What we are fighting for transcends individual departments – we want control of our university. The administration exists to serve Emory, not the other way around. When we finally have knowledge of the inner workings of our administration, we will have the power to push it in the right direction.
The editors explain to readers, Wagner in particular, that they rushed the piece to print without submitting it to proper editorial oversight.
Yes, the Wheel was right (belatedly) not to run the article without seeking a response from Wagner’s office and/or other people who were at the meeting. However, calling Elizabeth’s account “unsupported” is demeaning to her and to other young women who have uncomfortable stories to tell. Experiences are subjective and can be disputed, but that does not mean they should not be treated as evidence. That objection aside, I do believe all the people involved acted in good faith. Which is more than anyone can say about the December 7, 2012 meeting itself.