Wagner and the rhetoric of “truth”

Tomorrow (Wednesday, March 27), faculty members are invited to a “special” meeting concerning the appropriate response to President Wagner’s conduct–including, likely, a vote of no confidence. With that in mind, we’re reprinting SRC member Pat Blanchfield’s op-ed from the online edition of today’s Wheel:

On Truth, Courageous Inquiry and James Wagner
by Patrick Blanchfield

Nearly a century ago, the great American author and social critic Upton Sinclair wrote a withering portrait of the College President of his day. Sinclair’s College President is a manipulative, cynical figure, a smooth operator who effortlessly shuttles between the stuffy lecture halls of academe and the smoky backrooms of the business world, ultimately and solely serving the interests of the latter while modestly taking “the salary of a plutocrat” for his efforts. When faced with faculty opposition, Sinclair’s College President always gets his way, whether by cultivating alliances through flattery and handouts or by mobilizing a “kitchen cabinet” of administrators to discredit opponents, play campus interest groups against each other, and fabricate reasons to eliminate troublesome individuals and programs outright (“Perhaps they find that they have too many men in that department; or they decide to combine the departments of literature and obstetrics.”).

But while Sinclair’s College President possesses a “thousand different devices” to achieve his goals, he always invokes a single value to justify them: a selfless love of truth. Writes Sinclair: “Always they tell the professor — with their right hands upon the Bible they swear it to the public and to the newspapers — that it is purely ‘an administrative matter,’ there is no question of academic freedom involved, and everyone in their institution lives, moves, and has in his being the single-minded love of truth.”

Emory’s current President appears particularly fond of the rhetoric of truth. If you visit the main Emory webpage, you will be greeted by a “Welcome from President James Wagner,” who writes that “As a destination for path-breaking researchers, renowned teachers, superb students, and dedicated, competent staff, Emory University strives to help its community members fulfill their highest aspirations. Our vision is to discover truth, share it, and ignite in others a passion for its pursuit.” In his controversial recent essay in Emory Magazine, which incidentally also includes a rather different invocation of “highest aspirations,” we encounter yet another appeal to the value of “truth,” this time as a guiding principle for how Wagner argues university discourse should be conceived: “Part of the messy inefficiency of university life arises from the intention to include as many points of view as possible, and to be open to the expectation that new ideas will emerge. The important thing to keep in view is that this process works so long as every new idea points the way toward a higher shared ideal, namely truth.” Emory is a place, President Wagner appears to assure us, where difficult questions are bravely asked and serious answers honestly given, and this process of dialogic inquiry exists in the service of truth, a value which we all share.

At the last faculty meeting, President Wagner was given an opportunity to answer serious questions posed in good faith by faculty who displayed considerable bravery by asking them. As the Wheel reports: “One faculty member asked Wagner about what connection he was trying to make in his column and whether he was calling on the liberal arts faculty to compromise in light of the department changes. Wagner responded that the column was first meant to demonstrate the importance of compromise in reference to the state of politics in the country. The column’s connection to liberal arts was only that Emory ‘has a responsibility to prepare people for that ability,’ Wagner said.”

As a test case of the imperative to honor “truth” in response to “courageous inquiry,” this response is simply astounding. In his article, Wagner did indeed gesture to contemporary legislative gridlock in Washington concerning the fiscal cliff – but only briefly, and as a pivot to address something nearer to home: “Whatever the outcome of this fiscal debate over the next months or years, the polarization of our day and the lessons of our forebears point to a truth closer to our university.” And what was this “truth closer to our university”? Precisely the raging controversy over the program cuts announced in September: “At Emory of late we have had many discussions about the ideal—and the reality—of the liberal arts within a research university,” Wagner wrote. “All of us who love Emory share a determination that the university will continue trailblazing the best way for research universities to contribute to human well-being and stewardship of the earth in the twenty-first century. This is a high and worthy aspiration. It is tempered by the hard reality that the resources to achieve this aspiration are not boundless; our university cannot do everything we might wish to do, or everything that other universities do.” President Wagner’s article was about the program cuts to the liberal arts at Emory, and for him to claim otherwise inaccurately represents his own words.

What Wagner wrote in December is a matter of public record, remaining online on Emory’s own website and readable in the 110,000 hard copies sent out to alumni. Wagner’s response to the question put to him by that faculty member also unfolded in the public record, this time in front of a reporter from the Wheel and before the entire assembled college faculty. There are words that could aptly describe this response. A selfless pursuit of truth, high aspirations, and a respect for courageous inquiry do not figure among them.

Whatever you may think about the program cuts announced in September (and which are now being euphemized as “department changes”), President Wagner’s baldfaced attempt to deny his public, written statement on the matter should outrage you. This is not a matter of personally “vilifying” our President, but of simply stating the facts, of quoting James Wagner in the full context of his own words. Since the Three-Fifths controversy hit the headlines, President Wagner has repeatedly expressed a stance of selfless gratitude that the “attacks” of national criticism have been “personally directed” at him, and not at Emory more broadly. But the truth of the matter is that it is precisely his personal and self-interested decision to stay in office that has intensified this criticism, and that will continue to damage the Emory brand as long as he remains its representative to the world.

Some ninety years ago, Upton Sinclair saw in the College President a figure who deployed the high-minded rhetoric of truth as a personal shield against criticism and as a warrant for the craven exercise of administrative power, cynical ambition, and shameless careerism. Whatever his high-minded rhetoric of courageous inquiry, ethical dialogue, and love of truth, James Wagner’s brazen response to his faculty and to a now-national audience in fact reveals the profound arrogance of power towards truth, the fact that, as Sinclair wrote, “Such is the advantage of being an autocrat; criticism does not affect you, and whether you are right or whether you are wrong is the same thing.”

To shamelessly invoke the value of truth can cheapen its worth to be sure, and our President has been profligate with that coin indeed. But by this point even the most jaded among us must admit that Emory University, we the Emory community, and, yes, even truth itself all deserve a better advocate and representative than James Wagner.

Patrick Blanchfield is a sixth-year Ph.D. candidate and Woodruff Scholar in the Department of Comparative Literature.

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