Wagner praises Three-Fifths Compromise

Adding to a growing pile of public embarrassments for Emory, President Wagner’s column in the latest Emory Magazine (the glossy publication received by 114,000 alumni) holds up the 1787 Three-Fifths Compromise as an admirable precedent for the university. You see,

Southern delegates wanted to count the whole slave population, which would have given the South greater influence over national policy. 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.

That’s right: one of the most egregious exercises in state dehumanization is a model of bipartisanship, an instance of two opposing sides “set[ting] their sights higher, not lower, in order to identify their common goal.” If there is an analogy to the university to be found, it may be in the twisted logic, and the imbalance of power, that frame the question of who or what ‘counts’ as a full participant in an institution.

Wagner’s gaffe has already received widespread coverage and critique. Salon executive editor David Daley quipped that Wagner has “held some awfully important positions for a man of such strange historical views.”

Additionally, Emory student Ross Gordon has written an insightful short essay about the misuse of compromise in relation to the department cuts and the inquiry into subcontracted labor, printed below.

Ross writes:

Emory president James Wagner recently published an article in Emory Magazine defending the virtues of compromise in political contestation. In particular, President Wagner cites the historical three-fifths compromise as a model negotiation and suggests that the same principles should be applied to decisionmaking at Emory. While President Wagner is correct to cite compromise as a vital principle in a democratic society, there are several serious problems with his articulation of this concept as well his reliability in implementing it as Emory’s president.

First, in any situation where compromise may take place, it is important to consider who is doing the compromising. Truly democratic compromise takes place only when everyone who is affected by a decision is involved in the decisionmaking process. In the case of the three-fifths compromise, the same individuals who were the object of political contestation – the black slave population – were not involved in the final compromise. Similarly, at Emory, President Wagner has shown little interest in involving relevant stakeholders in important decisionmaking processes. Two years after protesters were arrested on Emory’s quad in an attempt to change campus labor policies, a committee tasked with evaluating their claims concluded that Emory “cannot claim that it knows the status of the contracted workers’ experience.” This year, when Emory announced substantial cuts to several liberal arts departments, students and affected departments had neither awareness of nor input into the process leading to this decision. There was, perhaps, compromise among the few members of the committee that ultimately decided upon the cuts; but for the community as a whole, no such compromise was available.

Second, it is important to recognize the comparative advantages held by powerful actors in dictating the terms of compromise. When an institution has the power to propose the very policy that is to be compromised on, and also holds the power to enforce the final decision about that compromise, the result is – at best – a minor modification to the more powerful actor’s desired outcome. For instance, there is a possible “compromise” in which Emory’s Economics Ph.D. program is saved, but the ILA, journalism department, education department, and Russian department are eliminated as originally planned. Had the cuts been initiated in a democratic manner, the administration may have had to fight (and compromise) to eliminate even one of these departments; but as the administration possesses both the first move and the final decision, the deck is already stacked in their favor.

Third, it is dangerous to frame compromise as an end in itself. Of course, compromise is ultimately inevitable; its only alternative is the arbitrary exercise of power (which, ironically, is the very model that Emory has employed in both labor disputes and cuts to the liberal arts). As such, it should be recognized that compromise will be the outcome of any political contestation. This does not mean, however, that it should be the nexus around which all contestation revolves. Without a strong and passionate vision for an end to be achieved, and without the will to forcefully and persuasively argue for such a position, no compromise takes place, for there is nothing to be compromised on.

It is unclear, then, what form of contestation President Wagner wishes to encourage on Emory’s campus. Compromise is achieved not by regulating the way in which claims are framed – as ideological or pragmatic – but by nurturing the institutions that allow all claims to be heard and taken seriously. When individuals of different viewpoints and interests, vested with equal power, are tasked with agreeing upon a common solution, compromise is not an aspiration; rather, it is the only possible outcome. If President Wagner is disappointed with the scarcity of compromise on our campus, perhaps it is because he has made it impossible.

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