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Emory President in trouble over column on Three-fifths Compromise

Published: February 28, 2013
Section: News

The President of Emory University, James Wagner, has recently been criticized for his column about the Three-fifths Compromise of the Constitution that counted slaves in the South as three-fifths of a person in determining how much Congressional power each state was apportioned.

“Some might suggest that the constitutional compromise reached for the lowest common denominator—for the barest minimum value on which both sides would agree. I rather think something different happened. Both sides found a way to temper ideology and continue working toward the highest aspirations they both shared—the aspiration to form a more perfect union. They set their sights higher, not lower, in order to identify their common goal and keep moving toward it,” President Wagner wrote in the Emory magazine article.

He compared the aims and success of the compromise with lack of compromise regarding Congress’ present difficulty in such a polarized Congress.

Professor Maura Jane Farrelly (AMST), an Emory alum, believed that there are many other more pertinent and appropriate political compromises in America’s history that would have illustrated his point.

“It was historically inaccurate for him to insist that the Three-fifths Compromise allowed for the creation of a “more perfect union,’” and that “The country was hardly unified during the first 90 years of its existence, and the reason it wasn’t unified is that race-based slavery had been to continue in a nation that was founded upon the principle of individual liberty,” Farrelly wrote in an email.

Professor Chad Williams (AAAS) agreed.

“From a strictly historical perspective, what the Emory president said made little sense. The Three-fifths Compromise was a failed compromise,” Williams wrote in an email. “If anything, it ensured that the issue of slavery would remain a sectionally divisive issue. The Civil War represents the ultimate example of why this compromise failed. If he wanted to make a point about compromise in American history, there are much better examples he could have used.”

Emory University is a highly-ranked university that competes with Brandeis in the UAA and in admissions for students. What has given this incident more notoriety, are the recent slew of incidents of insensitivity in the Emory community. These matters include sweeping cuts that happened this past September, which many think unfairly target programs that are popular with minority students. Problems have also arisen over the school intentionally reporting false data to the Department of Education and U.S. News and World Report; the debate of whether or not to allow Chick-fil-A, a large donor and voice against same-sex marriage to operate on campus; and a fraternity’s choice to sport a Confederate flag.

Questions have arisen over Wagner’s understanding of the Three-fifths Compromise among academics and professors. This has all taken place in the Atlanta Metropolitan Area where 32 percent of the population is African-American, and in the city of Atlanta where 54 percent of residents are African-American. It is estimated that 31 percent of Emory students are members of a minority group. An article was published in Emory’s newspaper discussing the editing process of the President’s statements.

Professor Farrelly wrote that “A number of people did read the column before it went to print. An administrator there said that the problem … was that all of the people who read the column beforehand had been white. I must say, I found that explanation to be inadequate and somewhat offensive. It implies that white people like me, don’t see—and can’t see—how stupid the column was because we are white; That you need to be a member of a marginalized racial group … to recognize that the Three-fifths Compromise was a tragedy.”

President Wagner has since apologized for his statements.

“Certainly, I do not consider slavery anything but heinous, repulsive, repugnant and inhuman. I should have stated that fact clearly in my essay,” he posted in an online statement.
“I am sorry for the hurt caused by not communicating more clearly my own beliefs. To those hurt or confused by my clumsiness and insensitivity, please forgive me.”

The president of the Black Student Alliance at Emory has said that she forgives the president for his statements but is not surprised that incidents such as this occur. The magazine incident happened soon before a reception was held at Emory to honor the work of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference after the assassination of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

The faculty of the College of Arts and Sciences decided to delay a decision on sanctioning the president, but have voted to censure him.