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Monday, February 18, 2013

Emory president uses 'three-fifths' agreement to teach lesson about compromise

Emory University Administration Building
  • Daniel Mayer/Wikimedia Commons
  • Emory University Administration Building
If you didn't check the Internet this weekend, first, congratulations. You are most likely rested and relaxed.

If you did, you probably noticed that Emory University President James Wagner made national news for using the so-called Three-Fifths Compromise - the agreement between Northern and Southern states to count three-fifths of the slave population for representative purposes - as an example of two sides coming together for the greater good.

Wagner made the comparison in his column for the winter edition of Emory Magazine. In the piece, which was published online, he riffed on the idea of dysfunction in politics and the ongoing discussion between university officials and students and faculty over the closure of several liberal arts programs. In the long piece, he noted:

One instance of constitutional compromise was the agreement to count three-fifths of the slave population for purposes of state representation in Congress. Southern delegates wanted to count the whole slave population, which would have given the South greater influence over national policy. Northern delegates argued that slaves should not be counted at all, because they had no vote. 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. Pragmatic half-victories kept in view the higher aspiration of drawing the country more closely together.

Writing is hard. Writing about vague issues such as "compromise" can be really hard. But good God, man, there are better examples.

The column made national news. One day later, the alumni magazine posted a follow-up by Wagner. He apologized and asked for forgiveness from those who were "hurt or confused by my clumsiness and insensitivity." "The point was not that this particular compromise was a good thing in itself," he wrote. "It was a repugnant compromise. Of course it is not good to count one human being as three fifths of another or, more egregiously, as not human at all, but property." (Salon notes, however, that Wagner's original piece didn't paint the compromise as "repugnant." You can read the full column and his apology here.)

Tyrone Forman, director of Emory's James Weldon Johnson Institute, an on-campus organization aimed at improving race relations, expressed disappointment.

"The president's comments were unfortunate," he told CL in an email. "They reflect a poor understanding of our nation's history and the stain of slavery. The 3/5th compromise represents a tragic moment in our past where our nation's highest ideals were compromised for political expediency."

In addition, someone's started a tumblr collecting reactions to the president's comments. More reactions can be found on the Facebook page of Emory Cuts, the student group protesting Wagner's decision to cut the liberal arts program.

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