The incident was simple and easily handled for any college president with a modicum of common sense, respect for free speech, and a comprehension of the needs of basic higher education. Unfortunately for Emory college, its students and stake-holders, James Wagner is not such a college president. He is, instead, a craven incompetent. Harsh? You decide.
At Emory, someone wrote the frightening words “Trump 2016” with chalk on a stair railing. Given that this is an election year and Donald Trump is running for President, such a scribble should be regarded as unremarkable. Oh, if it happened on a campus where I was enrolled, I might think, “Gee, apparently they accept idiots into this institution, and my degree may not be worth spit,” but that would be the extent of my dismay.
Ah, but it’s 2016, and thanks to the pusillanimous campus leadership at the University of Missouri, Duke, Occidental, Princeton, Yale and so many other places, college students nationwide have gotten it into their delicate heads that there is a basic human right to be shielded from any writing, words, slogans, pictures, historical references or sidelong glances that might upset their preconceived views of life in any way. Thus a group of Emory students who gasped with horror at “Trump 2016,” which is not only political speech but, unfortunately, mainstream political speech, went to Wagner and demanded action.
What Wagner should have said, following in the footsteps of the few college presidents who have shown themselves worthy of their jobs, is some version of what Oklahoma Wesleyan University, Dr. Everett Piper, wrote on his school’s website in response to similar student complaints on his campus:
Our culture has actually taught our kids to be this self-absorbed and narcissistic! Any time their feelings are hurt, they are the victims! Anyone who dares challenge them and, thus, makes them “feel bad” about themselves, is a “hater,” a “bigot,” an “oppressor,” and a “victimizer.”
I have a message for this young man and all others who care to listen…
…If you’re more interested in playing the “hater” card than you are in confessing your own hate; if you want to arrogantly lecture, rather than humbly learn…if you want to be enabled rather than confronted, there are many universities across the land (in Missouri and elsewhere) that will give you exactly what you want, but Oklahoma Wesleyan isn’t one of them…We don’t believe that you have been victimized every time you feel guilty and we don’t issue “trigger warnings” ….Oklahoma Wesleyan is not a “safe place”, but rather, a place to learn: to learn that life isn’t about you, but about others…This is a place where you will quickly learn that you need to grow up…This is not a day care. This is a university!
Not James Wagner, though. In a pathetic message to the Emory community, he wrote…
“After meeting with our students, I cannot dismiss their expression of feelings and concern as motivated only by political preference or over-sensitivity. Instead, the students with whom I spoke heard a message, not about political process or candidate choice, but instead about values regarding diversity and respect that clash with Emory’s own.”
Ugh. Speech is not defined by what someone “hears.” A speaker, or a writer, is not to be condemned because he or she unknowingly stepped on some highly sensitive topic trip-wire, nor should speech be constrained because such traps exist. Moreover, a responsible and competent school cannot stifle opinions about its policies, including “diversity,” whatever that means.
“As an academic community, we must value and encourage the expression of ideas, vigorous debate, speech, dissent, and protest. At the same time, our commitment to respect, civility, and inclusion calls us to provide a safe environment that inspires and supports courageous inquiry. It is important that we recognize, listen to, and honor the concerns of these students, as well as faculty and staff who may feel similarly.”
Yes, again we have “authentic frontier gibberish,” or perhaps authentic academic political correctness gibberish. It is not courageous to insist that one must be “safe” from dissent or unpleasant opinions. Wagner kept digging…
On the heels of work begun by students last fall and advanced last month through the Racial Justice Retreat and subsequent working groups, Emory is taking a number of significant steps:
• Immediate refinements to certain policy and procedural deficiencies (for example, our bias incident reporting and response process);
• Regular and structured opportunities for difficult dialogues (like the Transforming Community Project of several years ago);
• A formal process to institutionalize identification, review, and addressing of social justice opportunities and issues; and
• Commitment to an annual retreat to renew our efforts.
Concludes Reason: “Reminding students that they can sic the campus grievance bureaucracy on people who offend them further weakens Emory’s stated commitment to free speech.”
I don’t blame the students: they are supposed to be young, foolish, and full of bad ideas and naive views of the world. They are paying large amounts of money, however, to be disabused of these notions and prepared to be competent at real life, and Emory, among other institutions, is abdicating its duty to educate them. Where are the board members, alumni, donors and parents?
Wagner is incompetent, and his message should constitute a one-way ticket to the Failed College Presidents Home.