ATLANTA (AP) — In recent years, Emory University made a point to acknowledge how the school was once led by slave owners, but an essay by the school president has renewed debate about racial sensitivity on campus.
Emory President James Wagner recently wrote about the three-fifths compromise on slavery in 1787 to talk about the value of finding common ground in politics. In the compromise, northern and southern states agreed that three-fifths of the slave population would count toward representation in Congress, giving southerners more power in the House of Representatives.
A faculty group voted to censure Wagner and students planned a protest next week.
In the essay, published in the winter edition of Emory Magazine, Wagner said leaders from the northern and southern states were able to agree on the compromise as a means of working toward their highest aspirations.
“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,” Wagner wrote.
Wagner later wrote an apology, saying he was “sorry for the hurt caused by not communicating more clearly my own beliefs.” He said he considered slavery to be heinous and inhuman and he should have stated that clearly in his essay.
Leslie Harris, an associate history professor at Emory, said the article raised questions about how compromises were reached, and who decided the terms.
Though Wagner used the three-fifths compromise as an example of moving the nation forward, Harris said that it actually divided the nation.
“It appears to be the flaw that split the nation apart and led to the Civil War,” she said.
“I think many of us, while we may appreciate the apology, are looking to see what this means in terms of leadership going forward,” she said.
Emory is a private university in Atlanta that has about 14,000 students. According to the school’s 2011-2012 profile on its website, about 46 percent were white, 10 percent were black, 16 percent were Asian and 4 percent were Hispanic.
Katherine Bryant, a graduate student studying neuroscience at Emory, said students were using Wagner’s essay to talk about the general social climate on campus.
“It’s bringing to light something they’ve been dealing with in smaller, more personal ways at Emory. They have a lot of issues with how inclusivity works at Emory,” Bryant said. “They’re saying there’s not really spaces for minority voices on campus.”
Wagner has been meeting with faculty groups, Emory spokeswoman Elaine Justice said Friday. He was not available for an interview, she said.
Just two years ago, Emory hosted a national conference entitled “Slavery and the University: Histories and Legacies.”
In helping announce it, Gary Hauk, Emory’s vice president and deputy to the president, wrote that the college would pay slave owners so it could “rent” slaves to work on the campus in the mid-1800s. During the school’s early years, most of its faculty members, many of its presidents and some of its most generous benefactors owned slaves, Hauk wrote.
There have other missteps on campus, too.
In December, the cast of an Emory student-run TV program apologized for a segment that included jokes about the possibility of the Supreme Court ending affirmative action. In the segment, a cast member said a proven method to find students who do not belong at Emory include lynching and cross burning.
The cast said the segment saying was distasteful, poorly written and not meant to hurt or personally attack anyone.
In September, the school drew criticism when it announced it would eliminate programs such as its Division of Educational Studies. Opponents said those programs had strong track records of educating minority students.
Addressing the complaints, Wagner wrote to Emory’s student newspaper that the school’s recruitment and graduation of minority students continued “to be among the strongest in the nation” and said this commitment “has never depended on one department or division, nor should it.”
On Wednesday, the essay was still a central part of the regular meeting of about 200 faculty members in Emory’s College of Arts and Sciences. They voted to censure him.
The censure amounts to “an expression of displeasure by the faculty over the event,” said Stefan Lutz, an associate chemistry professor involved in the group.
Gray Crouse, chair of the University Faculty Council, agreed the president made a major mistake.
“That mistake is not indicative of the person he is. It’s not like, ‘Oh, he made a mistake and that reveals what he’s like’ — that’s not the case at all,” he said. “This is not indicative of Emory and I think he is profoundly upset that he’s called attention to Emory in a negative way because he cares deeply about Emory.”