James Wagner's "highest aspiration"

It’s interesting that we are upset when the president of Emory University talks about the 3/5ths compromise—one of the marks of this country’s white supremacist origins, the place where racial slavery is literally written into the constitution—as a model for exemplary political behavior. When he uses that historical example to argue for the necessity of continuing cuts to the liberal arts, we are upset, unsettled, enraged, astonished. Should we be?

As he wrote: "One instance of constitutional compromise was the agreement to count three-fifths of the slave population for purposes of state representation in Congress...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. Some might suggest that the constitutional compromise reached for the lowest common denominator—for the barest minimum value on which both sides could agree. I rather think something different happened. Both sides found a way to temper ideology and continue working toward the highest aspiration 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."

Of course, it is a very stupid thing for James Wagner to write, full stop, and not simply because of the deep and profound level of historical ignorance it demonstrates. After all, the reference doesn’t even work on its own terms: the 3/5ths compromise, like the compromise of 1850, utterly failed at solving the conflict over slavery, whose bloody resolution it only delayed, intensified, and made all the more inevitable. If the purpose of such compromise was to preserve the union by tabling the question of slavery, after all, the civil war which broke out over the question of slavery demonstrates how profoundly “compromise” failed on those terms. There was no permanent compromise between slavery and anti-slavery; there was only resolution through conflict, and to think otherwise was always delusional.

It’s also a bizarrely inflammatory choice on his part, a truly catastrophic message failure. Why would he make the rather banal point that people should just suck it up and compromise by referencing one of the most deeply shameful episodes in our political history? It would be almost exactly like urging that we should use negotiation and dialog to prevent war and international conflict, just like Neville Chamberlain and Adolf Hitler did in Munich. It’s hard to think of a way to more completely sabotage your argument than to point at the American consensus on the acceptability of racial slavery as your example of constructive compromise.

Ignorance is the most obvious explanation, and we cannot solve a problem like Wagner without presuming a great deal of it. You have to be pretty stupid to write that article, one way or another: either he was too ignorant of the history to understand what he was saying or he was too ignorant of his constituency to understand how what he was saying would be received. The purpose of a “From the President” message in an alumni magazine is to be pleasantly forgotten. Waxing rhapsodically about the good old days when white men made political bargains over the bodies of disenfranchised black slaves is just not a good decision on his part, especially as president of a university whose historical legacy is as specifically implicated with slavery as Emory’s is. The college was literally built by slaves, and its scholarship helped bolster the peculiar institution’s intellectual legitimacy.

Two years ago, the university declared its “regret” for its “entwinement with the institution of slavery throughout the College's early history,” regretting “both this undeniable wrong and the University's decades of delay in acknowledging slavery's harmful legacy.” So, you know, no harm done. Look forward, not back!

But why would we expect him not to be obtuse, out of touch, and stupid? I am not being cynical, here, or playing more-disillusioned-than-thou; I was so upset yesterday, when I read the piece, that my rage-tweet had three typos in it. I expected the president of Emory University to be something other than offensively stupid, and I guess I still do: no one who can write that essay should be the president of a university. But what I’m really saying, when I say that, is that I expect a university to be a place where authority is derived from knowledge and engagement, where intellectual rigor is part of the air one breathes, the atmosphere of the place, in the water. And maybe that expectation shows that I’m the one who’s out of touch.

The job of a university president, today, is not to be an intellectual leader but to be a manager and a fundraiser, the CEO of a corporation which just happens to be a university. And because the job is to ensure the continuity of the institution, no matter what, it makes a certain kind of sense that the 3/5ths compromise would appeal to him as an idea. Politics trumps principle. Especially in the era of fiscal crisis—which has been going on in higher education for decades now—the purpose of a university president is to manage that crisis, both to ensure the survival of the university and to use that crisis to make whatever structural changes he can to ensure its future survival. A crisis is therefore a terrible thing to waste, as (blessedly outgoing) UC president Mark Yudof likes to say (here for example, and here). And a “good” university manager is someone who knows how to use the crisis of the moment to restructure the university so that its indefinite continuity is more likely.

What is it that survives, though? When you value continuity above all, you glide silently over the fact that “the university” is radically transformed when its primary function is simply to exist. When the president of a university is fighting to get rid of programs that don’t pay for themselves, because they don’t pay for themselves, it doesn’t really matter what they are; the substance of the university’s intellectual work is not what matters, just its bottom line. The result is that managers and academics are in inevitable conflict. Universities are divided between administrators—whose concern for institutional health is expressed in fiscal projections and budgets—and academics who would look at a President spouting historical ignorance in an alumni magazine as a bleeding sore on the academic body.

For this argument at more length, see Benjamin Ginsberg on the fall of the faculty.

There is, however, no better example of the mentality that prioritizes institutional continuity over intellectual principles than the 3/5ths compromise. The apparent arbitrary nature of the number is what makes it stick in our minds as a historical scandal, in some ways more than it should; after all, at a time when the vast majority of American adults could not vote—when the franchise rested almost exclusively with white male property-owners—the scandal was not that slaves “only” counted as 3/5ths of a person, it was that they were slaves in the first place. But what the number’s arbitrariness demonstrates is how both sides were simply compromising in order to compromise, prioritizing the continuance of the Union over everything else. “3/5ths” didn’t mean anything, and no one pretended it did. The only important thing was that the power elite came to a consensus, and 3/5ths was where the horse-trading stopped. If that consensus required that millions of dark skinned people be enslaved and brutalized, well, that was a small price to pay for the glorious union. Continuity is what matters, after all.

James Wagner’s casual and apathetic ignorance about slavery is one thing, and his assault on the liberal arts is another. I want to be clear about that: I am not equating them with each other, even if there is a certain overlap (as Tressie McMillan Cottom argues). But the kind of thinking that allows a person to value “compromise,” as such, is the kind of mind that doesn’t care very much about what is being compromised. The kind of mind that can cut a university’s education studies division, physical education department, visual arts department, and journalism program—sacrificing core functions of the university in order to save money so the university can “continue”—is also the kind of mind that could see slavery as the unfortunate broken eggs that were needed to make the national omelette. There is nothing surprising about this, in other words. This is what we should expect when a university president is essentially a CEO. And the easiest response is simply to shrug our shoulders. Can we expect better? Should we be surprised?

It's a small point, but I think it's actually important to be upset about stupid stuff like Wagner's dumb alumni letter. The man should lose his job for this, and in a world where a university actually was all the things it’s supposed to be, he would lose his job: in a world where a university president was something other than a CEO, that message from the president would have been his resignation letter. We don't live in that world. But acting like we do is a way of demanding it. In other words, I want to distinguish understanding why he is the kind of mind he is—why his mentality would make that kind of stupidity plausible, if not inevitable—from an acceptance of that reality. To be so cynical that we would shrug our shoulders at people like Wagner and Yudof is to resign ourselves to their sense of what is “realistic,” and to give up. To stop caring what he says is to let him say anything. And to be enraged, however impotently, is to refuse to be realistic.