Emory University: President's "Three-Fifths Compromise" Comment Sparks Outrage Throughout Community

In wake of cuts to various departments and programs, Emory University President James W. Wagner took to alumni publication, Emory magazine to emphasize the importance of compromise, stating, “A university by its inclusiveness insists on holding opposing views in nonviolent dialogue long enough for common aspirations to be identified and for compromise to be engaged – compromise not understood as a defeat, but as a tool for more noble achievement.” 

This statement in itself seems pretty innocuous, right? Well, Wagner decided that his defense of compromise required an example, and in his mind, and in the mind of his editors, there was no better example to use than the three-fifths compromise.

Specifically, President Wagner lauds the three-fifths compromise and says that during the negotiations, “[b]oth sides found a way to temper ideology and continue working toward the highest aspiration they both shared … They set their sights higher not lower, in order to identify their common goal…”  

Students, faculty, and alumni have all expressed outrage as President Wagner rushed to issue an apologetic response, in which he assured readers that he does not condone or support slavery, chalking his poorly worded remarks up to "clumsiness and insensitivity."  

It is very curious that this particular compromise was used to illustrate his point given the number of compromises made in U.S. history. In my confused state, I wanted to figure out how one could think this example would be a great idea. I concocted a story of an Emory president struggling to come up with an example, so he heads to Google, like most people would. Upon typing in “US great compromise” or “U.S. major compromise” and the three-fifths compromise is the first page listed and he is relieved to finally be able to finish his alumni column. In an effort to confirm this imagined scenario, I decided to do a search myself and both searches led me to the Great Compromise of 1787. So maybe he used different search terms.

Whether he used Google or an encyclopedia or just his own brain to come up with this example, red flags should have gone up. The issue is not just that he thought the three-fifths compromise was a great example to use as a framework for recent cuts, but rather that not one thing about the historical context of that compromise gave him enough pause to revaluate.

This example gave no one involved in the editing process pause. And just when you thought it couldn’t get any worse, in an Emory Wheel article, Vice President Gary Hauk provided what he thought was a perfectly good reason for what happened, stating, “I’ll be frank – one of the issues is that all of the eyes on the piece before it was published were white people.” 

He goes on to say that they will work to make sure that going forward “ there are other eyes, other perspective that we may or may not be thinking about.” What this means is that someone will be recruited to make sure to keep privilege and racial insensitivity in check.  

President Wagner’s example was insensitive, but how Hauk excused those actions was downright offensive. Underlying this statement is the idea that white people are not responsible for realizing that racially insensitive statements are offensive and may also be incapable of that realization all together. The issuance of an apology indicates a shift from 1850s but unfortunately this is wholly insufficient and the explanation only makes things worse.

The impact of these words cannot be undone by calling it mistake and apologizing. These actions point to a larger problem that cannot be solved by having a token minority read the administration’s speeches and essays so they don’t appear insensitive.

I don’t know what can solve this problem, close the wounds, and move the Emory community forward. Some call for dialogue, but this is larger than the use of a poor example, larger than the lack of transparency, and larger than anger at the university restructuring. The inability to understand the power of these statements is indicative of a disconnection between administration and the community of the university and reveals an administration disconnected from the real world.  

The disappointment and surprise experienced by Wagner and Hauk upon their realization of the “mistake” indicates how far we still have to travel. It is absolutely unacceptable for highly educated persons working at a university that prides itself of diversity and inclusion to be unable to recognize racial insensitivity. This stems from inability or unwillingness to recognize the impact of privilege and power, and that cannot be solved by hiring a minority editor.

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Tye Tavaras

A native of Atlanta, Georgia with a B.A. from Emory University in International Studies. A graduate of The American University in Cairo with an M.A. in International Human Rights Law. Recently graduated with a Juris Master Degree from Emory Law School focused on International Law and currently works in the field of international education.

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