A Community Outraged
On the September 14, 2012 the entire current student and faculty body received an email from one of the deans of Emory. Presumably, many overlooked the email, or were expected to; as well as being a Friday afternoon, it was the beginning of the Jewish High Holidays. Buried at the end of a two-page attachment – which celebrated Emory’s budgetary growth and new financial successes – was the announcement of an “exciting new chapter” in Emory’s history, the Emory College Plan. This “new chapter” was to begin with the outright closure of five departments or programs – the Institute of Liberal Arts (ILA), the Division of Educational Studies (DES), Visual Arts, Journalism, and Physical Education – and the indefinite “suspension” of two graduate programs – Spanish and Portuguese and Economics – along with the loss of Farsi and Hindi instructors in the Department of Russian and East Asian Languages and Cultures (REALC). Forman offered no details on the reasoning behind the cuts, nor clear elaboration on what those “suspensions” entailed. His letter did, however, stress that the reorganization was not the result of financial pressures – and to drive the point home celebrated renewed investment in other programs (particularly the neurosciences) and the creation of new programs (“China Studies”).
Students, faculty, staff, and even the heads of most of the affected departments felt utterly blindsided. The cuts came as news to everyone who was not affiliated with the College Financial Advisory Committee (CFAC), the chair of which later admitted he spent years “lying” about CFAC’s goals and investigations. The programs under the knife had been doing well (some were ranked in the top 10 nationwide), and they were longstanding, valued, and integral parts of Emory. Suddenly, the Emory community was torn apart: previously congenial departments were pitted against one another, interdisciplinarity and diversity were being pillaged in the name of those very values, and Dean Forman’s unilateral decision struck a blow against democratic governance.
The Community Responds
On the Monday following Forman’s announcement, approximately 500 students, faculty, and staff rallied outside the administration building. Administrators put the building on lock-down and refused to address the crowd.
Outrage continued to build. There was another rally that Friday, a gathering that administrators again chose to lock out and ignore. Emory’s public relations team published a photo from the event online, which was drastically cropped to diminish the apparent size of the crowd and to hide too-direct signage. Following Friday’s action, a group of protestors met to discuss how they could maintain the momentum of the opposition and build a more organized resistance effort. It was primarily comprised of graduate and undergraduate students, but faculty and staff were involved from the beginning. Group members chose the name Student Re-visioning Committee (SRC) in response to Dean Forman’s promise of a “College Re-visioning Committee” in 2010 and to the aggressive (and often empty) metaphor of “vision” underlying the cuts.
The SRC Organizes
Part of a continuum of broad-based, community opposition to the cuts at Emory, the SRC represents a democratic alternative to authoritarian, opaque, and heavy-handed values embodied in the Emory College Plan and Dean Forman’s “vision.” Emory-driven, Emory-focused, and Emory-led, the SRC has emerged over the past four months as the leading body organizing student resistance to the College Plan. Through weekly plenary meetings and frequent sub-committee sessions – now having occurred on over thirty occasions – the SRC has articulated a clear set of demands. These demands are:
The SRC Mobilizes
From the start, students (affiliated and un-affiliated with the SRC) have been using social networking to spread the message about Forman’s decision and what it would mean for students and faculty at Emory University. The upsurge in online activity – much gathered under the hashtag #emorycuts – took Twitter, Facebook, and the blogosphere by storm. A journalism senior started a video series on YouTube called “My Emory Cuts Story” for students and faculty to voice their dissent. Petitions from individual departments received thousands of signatures, and emails flooded Dean Forman and President Wagner’s inboxes. Students anonymously put up fliers informing peers of ways to reach administration members, and viral #emorycuts art abounded. The defiant slogan “Reject the Cuts” appeared overnight on a banner displayed proudly in the middle of campus. The editorial section of the student newspaper the Wheel was overrun with discussion about the issue.
On Thursday, September 27, the SRC hosted another rally that ended with a call to march on the Business School, where Dean Lisa Tedesco of the Laney School of Graduate Studies was presiding over a gathering of alumni and university leaders (including former president and donor James T. Laney). Over fifty people walked into the meeting, silently holding the “Reject the Cuts” sign. Dean Tedesco responded after the meeting by saying that the cuts were final.
Resistance continued to proliferate, though, with the Visual Arts department and the Visual Studies Initiative (an initiative of ILA grad students) coming up with several creative protests, including multiple mock funerals for the dead departments. On Halloween, protestors dressed as zombies stumbled around the Emory Quad, presenting prospective students on campus tours with the spectacle of their own chosen majors being cancelled, and broadcasting the plight of the undead departments to the world.
Holding Emory’s Leadership Accountable
On October 30, President Wagner delivered his annual State of the University address. He was met with more “Reject the Cuts” signs and aggressive questioning during the Q&A period. (The University videotaped the whole affair, but did not release the Q&A; guerilla audio is available here. ILA chair Kevin Corrigan and Wagner were caught in an epic standoff regarding whether the administration had abandoned the liberal arts. Wagner repeated that the cuts were final and that we all had to look forward (to what?) rather than backward, and answered a student’s poignant question with a tone-deaf comparison of Dean Forman’s leadership to the work of the Civil Rights movement.
The same day, the Emory University chapter of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) published a letter in the Wheel condemning the cuts. Pressure from both the local chapter of the AAUP and the national body has steadily risen since, although the University’s tactic has remained to downplay their criticisms and misleadingly reframe their substantive questions.
On Monday, November 5, the SRC sent a letter delegation to both President Wagner and Dean Forman with our three demands and a list of questions that had not been adequately answered at the State of the University Address. These questions, which had been previously published by the SRC in the Wheel, addressed issues of race and gender diversity at Emory, pointing out the large numbers of minority and women professors and awarded PhDs in the affected departments. Those questions also addressed the DES’s rich history in the Civil Rights movement and its ongoing efforts to improve Atlanta public schools – legacies and engagements that the cuts threw into question. Wagner and Forman were given a deadline of November 16 to respond, which they did in form but not in substance. Brazenly, they claimed the university’s diversity figures from 2009 would not change, even though nearly a quarter of Emory’s faculty members of color and women faculty were on the brink of losing their programs.
The administration continually discounted dissent from within the community on the grounds that neither the outside media nor Emory’s peer institutions had taken notice. But the SRC’s attempts to bring critical outside media attention soon paid off, and the administration was caught flat-footed. The morning of November 16, Atlanta’s Channel 2 Action News (WABE) reported on the situation at Emory, interviewing SRC representatives and Educational Studies professor Vanessa Siddle Walker. No one from the administration would talk to the press.
Walk Out and Occupation
As the semester neared an end, the SRC ramped up pressure with an energetic rally on December 4th, and provided pie and cider for the 200-plus people who showed up. Various media were present. After an hour of speakers, the crowd’s fervor reached an apogee – and the SRC announced that we would be going to President Wagner to let him know what we thought about the cuts. Almost 120 people filed into the administration building. At first the administration tried to keep us out by locking down the fourth floor, but they could not circumvent the SRC’s advance planning.
The occupation last six and half hours, and was covered on numerous local and national media outlets. We sang and chatted in the hallway as we waited for a response from the administration. Emory Vice President Gary Hauk announced that President Wagner had agreed to meet with protestors, but would not meet with all of us at once and demanded instead to choose five delegates to meet with him privately. We were not guaranteed much time under the presumption that Emory’s president would not have more than ten minutes to spare. We discussed whether it would be better to pick delegates to represent us or to continue demanding that Wagner speak with all of us. It was decided through a democratic vote that a delegation would be the best way forward. Two undergraduates, three graduate students, and a faculty member (the chair of Visual Arts) entered a closed-door meeting with Hauk and Wagner. The meeting last three hours and led to the promise of formal negotiations later in the week, this time with Forman present (since Wagner refused to challenge the authority of his dean), and a promise to hold an open public forum with the Emory community in the Spring (a promise on which the administration has since reneged). In the hallways outside, protesters ordered pizza and worked on papers and problem sets. Emory security was put on alert, and police attempted to bar the media from entering the administration building, but reporters from Georgia Public Broadcasting and Channel 2 Action News managed to report from inside anyway.
After extracting concessions and the promise of future negotiations with Wagner, a majority of protesters voted to end the sit-in at 7PM, and left peacefully but firmly chanting “We Are Emory.” The walkout received coverage from NPR, Fox 5 Atlanta, Associated Press, WSB-TV, CBS Atlanta, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, GPB, Washington Monthly, and 106.7 FM in addition to the Emory Wheel.
Negotiating in Good Faith
Per our meeting with Wagner on the 4th, the SRC moved forward toward negotiations on Friday, December 7th in full good faith, although news of an extensive campus lockdown and the deployment of armed police left many wondering whether the administration was doing likewise. That evening, a delegation of SRC student representatives and faculty observers entered a shorter meeting with Wagner, Hauk, and Forman to negotiate the plan moving forward, moving through numerous security checkpoints on the way and entering a conference room with an armed security officer standing outside the door. Inside the room, negotiations broke down quickly: the administrators responded negatively, belittling the students, sidestepping their questions and concerns, and refusing to alter their stance on the cuts. You can read the SRC’s detailed notes of the negotiations here.
Although the SRC negotiation team left their meeting with Wagner, Forman, and Hauk disappointed, we are not bowed. SRC actions remain the best hope for keeping pressure on the administration in high gear, and for ultimately bringing about the repeal of the cuts and a transformation of the culture of administrative opacity and authoritarian governance that currently prevails at Emory.
There is a lot on the horizon – and we need your attention and help to move forward. If allowed to go through, the proposed cuts to liberal arts programs will devastate both academic and demographic diversity at Emory, and the prospects for student engagement and responsible faculty and student governance will be bleak. The administration does have a vision for this university – but it is not the vision of most students or faculty members. Ethical engagement is more than just a brand, and in a time of uncertainty, the future of Emory – and American higher education as a whole – needs ethical and democratic re-visioning more than ever.