Quoted: Tressie McMillan Cottom On Emory U.’s President Invoking The Three-Fifths Compromise

Emory University president James Wagner. Image via Emory University Facebook page.

When Emory University president, James Wagner, made a plea for  restraint in contentious debates about the future of higher education he appealed to history. The history he chose to appeal to is shocking. Building on the U.S.’s “three-fifths” compromise, which famously enshrined blacks as 3/5 of a person into the legal and cultural coda of a nation built on an ideal of individual liberty, Wagner puts forth his vision for academic guidance during turbulent times for higher education. In it he says that the compromise between the North and South over the political value of a slave is an example of “pragmatic half-victories” that keeps in its sights a “higher aspiration”. It’s a tasteless allusion at an institution built with profits from slave labor at any time but particularly during black history month. Still, it is an allusion that reveals a lot about similar debates being had about the future of higher education. If we can, for a moment, suspend distaste to extend Wagner’s exemplar for compromise to its logical end we can ask: who, in the ideological debates over higher education, are the slaves?

That is to ask, what is this debate Wagner characterizes with such incendiary historical references a debate about really? There are the tried and true positions on who is being oppressed in academe. Education disruptors argue that recalcitrant, inefficient university models are holding hostage innovation, progress, and economic growth.  Others would argue that low wage contingent labor – adjuncts and contract teaching labor – are fueling the lower classes in the academic prestige hierarchy. It’s been said more than once that adjuncts are often working for “slave wages.” Students are profit centers with their lucrative tuition payments and keep the university machine humming along.

Innovation, adjuncts, students: all possibilities but none feel quite right. The problem lies with Wagner’s construction of a contentious debate. For a debate to be had, there must exist two opposing ideologies. There was but one guiding ideological principle at work as the North and South battled over the measure of a black body. That ideology was a commitment to maintaining cultural, political and economic hegemony for whites at the expense of black humanity and lives. The regional elites of the North and South merely quibbled about their share of the hegemonic pie, not that the pie was rotten with strange fruit.  That is not a debate. It is competition.

From her blog, February 17