Political Animal


February 18, 2013 12:11 PM Three-Fifths of a Truth Is A Whole Insult

By Ed Kilgore

My alma mater, Emory University, has been in the news in a not-so-good way, in connection with a column for the institution’s magazine by the institution’s president, James Wagner.

Quoting a recent campus panelist who talked about those who hold to the U.S. Constitution as a document presenting universal and absolute truths, Wagner noted that the Constitution itself was obviously the product of multiple compromises. So far, so good: it is useful to combat the pernicious idea that the U.S. Constitution came down from Mount Sinai on stone tablets and must be worshiped as a form of divine revelation.

But Wagner went on specifically to tout a particular product of compromise as showing the flawed but ultimately productive nature of the process:

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.

I don’t know who among the relatively small number of people who actually read Emory Magazine drew attention to the column, but it’s sure blown up on Wagner big-time, and he’s now issued a defensive clarification/apology for citing the three-fifths provision as an example of noble compromise in the national interest.

Not being from the Deep South, Wagner may have failed to fully grasp that you do not make casual remarks about slavery in the region where “old times there are not forgotten.” But believe it or not, it actually gets a little worse: if you read the entire column, Wagner seems to be alluding as well to the necessity of unequal treatment for liberal arts education in the modern university:

At Emory of late we have had many discussions about the ideal—and the reality—of the liberal arts within a research university. All of us who love Emory share a determination that the university will continue trailblazing the best way for research universities to contribute to human well-being and stewardship of the earth in the twenty-first century. This is a high and worthy aspiration. It is tempered by the hard reality that the resources to achieve this aspiration are not boundless; our university cannot do everything we might wish to do, or everything that other universities do. Different visions of what we should be doing inevitably will compete. But in the end, we must set our sights on that higher goal—the flourishing liberal arts research university in service to our twenty-first-century society.
I am grateful that we have at our disposal the rich tools of compromise that can help us achieve our most noble goals.

Now he didn’t come right out and say that those involved in the liberal arts at Emory may need to be happy with 60% of the resources showered on more readily fundable activities. But as liberal arts major (in an interdisciplinary Humanities program we called the “pre-unemployment curriculum”) who spent a good part of my four years at the school back in the day attending classes in World War II-era quonset huts while (as we joked at the time) the medical school deployed gold-plated bedpans, I would imagine those words still stung.

So Wagner—or perhaps some serf who writes his Emory Magazine columns for him—really managed to pull off a complex insult to a lot of different people. I only hope the school isn’t spending too much of its not-so-boundless resources paying some consultant for advice on damage control.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • Gretchen on February 18, 2013 12:23 PM:

    I'd thought the 3/5 remark was a thoughtless, off-the-cuff remark at some panel discussion. I'm much more horrified that he wrote it out, reread it beore sending it in, and the editor read it before deciding this was perfect for publication.

  • c u n d gulag on February 18, 2013 1:16 PM:

    I'm with Gretchen on this one.

    There are many examples in our relatively short history which could also demonstrate how compromise worked.

    Using as an example, the compromising that took place over the most compromised people in our nations history, slaves, or descendents of slaves, brought from Africa, isn't just thoughtless and tasteless, it's cruel.

    Oh, and the beauty of a "Liberal Arts" education, is that it broadens a students horizons, and isn't just the initial training for a specific career.

    A graduate with a Liberal Arts BA can look forward to a variety of career opportunities - including proceeding into fields which are much more specifically goal-oriented.

    Pursuing a minor in something that a person can fall back on, is what many practical Liberal Arts students choose to do, while they try to get the broadest possible experience in college.
    That minor can also be a step towards a Masters, or a 2nd major, later, in whatever career an individual decides he/she wants.

  • tsts on February 18, 2013 1:18 PM:

    So where exactly does it talk about unequal treatment for the liberal arts? I have read the paragraph twice, and I don't see it anywhere.

    Sure, the stuff about compromise and the 3/5 is boneheaded nonsense. But I don't think he is trying to allude to the 3/5 in the context of that paragraph - to compromise in general, yes, but not to this particular and misguided example of compromise.

  • R on February 18, 2013 1:58 PM:

    Way to celebrate Black History Month!

  • FlipYrWhig on February 18, 2013 2:17 PM:

    @ tsts, It sounds to me like the whole column is set up to say that a few things are roughly equivalent: in crafting the Constitution, making a compromise on slavery to forge a political union; in recent days in Washington, making a compromise on the proper balance between revenue and spending, to determine what are the best uses of public money; and... something something liberal arts because we can't do everything we aspire to do.

    If the first 80% of the column has any relevance to anything, it seems to be that Emory University needs to find a compromise about the place of the liberal arts, presumably (from the second part) how to decide what to fund and what to cut, because a successful compromise (from the first part) is always the best way forward.

  • exlibra on February 18, 2013 3:59 PM:

    I did not know the background story of the three-fifth value -- that it was a compromise between the North and the South (my highschool history classes concentrated more on the Glorious Soviet Revolution than on your capitalist problems). But the reasons for it -- we want them all counted (for power) versus no, they shouldn't be counted at all because they cannot vote -- strikes a modern chord. Perhaps we should apply the same 3/5th (or, even, half, to be totally fair) principle to prison population? As things stand now, they're counted fully, but they cannot vote...

  • MR Bill on February 18, 2013 4:05 PM:

    As another Emory Humanities alum, I can tell you that those pesky liberal arts courses have been a thorn in the side of Emory administrators. They've been threatening to remove exactly those things optional to Western Civilization (art, journalism, the Humanities) for quite a while.
    In the early '80's the day I received a letter from Emory sayin' they were turning my student loan over to collections (when I was due loan credit for teaching with underpriviledge and Appalachian children) and an Emory Alumni Magazine with a cover that was a paen to Ronald Reagan and "a new era of business" (said the then new Business school economists and experts...), I told a fund raiser for the Alumni Association "they had better watch out because they are loosing their soul and becoming a white collar trade school". I got a letter from Alumni Dean Boisfeuillet Jones (!) saying I shouldn't say such things. I wrote a letter in reply, laying out my feelings (they were threatening the programs I liked, had gotten enormous amounts of Woodruff/CocaCola money, and being bad neighbors in Druid Hills, GA, and it's overrun with little bastards with a chip on their shoulder for not getting into Princeton or Cornell), and he banned me from being mentioned in the Alumni Magazine...Which might have helped a bit when my art career was happening. Mostly, "the Harvard of Dekalb Co.", "that Methodist school for Jews" seems, like Georgia, to have become quite Republican and determinedly Philistine.

  • boatboy_srq on February 18, 2013 4:10 PM:

    @exlibra: it strikes me that you're near another mark as well. Much of the problem with modern voting issues - especially the Reichwing's fascination with "voter fraud" - is that all those suddenly-5/5-of-a-vote-eligible Other people wouldn't necessarily vote the way Massa wants like they did before. You'll note that nowhere in the Constitution prior to 1865 is there any mention whatsoever that slaves could exercise their 3/5 vote directly: owners could cast votes on behalf of their slave populations by proxy. Yet this was responsible exercise of the franchise, not the Scary Voter Fraud now so feared by the Conservatists. Just like they're terrified of "takers" stealing their hard-won tax dollars to live the lucky-duckie high life, so all those formerly-represented-by-their-owners voters are stealing their bought-and-paid-for voice in the elections - simply by obtaining the right to vote for themselves and have it count as a whole vote and not a fraction.

    Emory of all places should be more sensitive to this.

  • Rich on February 18, 2013 4:38 PM:

    Whatever it was in the past, Emory has been a pretty lackluster, scandal ridden place lately. The gun guy who made up his data. The neuroscience people on the take from drug companies. The business oabout cooking numbers to look good for the US News & World Report ratings. People I know who've taught at Emory have had little good to say about how the place works--they see little of the overhead that their research grants bring to the institution. A friend of mine interviewed for an endowed chair only to be eventually told it wasn't entirely endowed and then after he turned them down, they had the nerve to recruit him again. As soon as I saw that this dim bulb was the President of Emory, I wasn't surprised.

  • dekadaye on February 18, 2013 6:21 PM:

    i was recently accepted to emory for a graduate program.
    this story and the comments have made me wary of going!

  • Anonymous on February 18, 2013 6:27 PM:

    The real problem is simply rhetorical. There are very good reasons for compromise, both political and academic , but if one wants to speak to the importance of compromise, it's probably best to avoid citing the most controversial race compromise of the U.S. Constitution, one that ultimately resulted in the Civil War. That compromise would lead one to conclude that there are many things we DON'T want to compromise about.

  • FlipYrWhig on February 18, 2013 6:55 PM:

    But that's the thing, Anonymous. I don't think it's a gaffe. I feel like he's almost explicitly saying that whatever they do with the humanities at Emory is going to be as hated as the three-fifths compromise, but it will be likewise necessary to moving "forward."

  • pjcamp on February 18, 2013 10:48 PM:



    I thought you were a Dawg?

  • EmoryGradStudent on February 19, 2013 1:22 AM:

    Actually, there were cuts to liberal arts programs at Emory announced back in September, to the shock of students and faculty - even those in the cut departments! Emory admin unilaterally and without due process cut 7 programs/departments at Emory - and have been censured by the American Association of University Professors in the process. Students, faculty, and staff even occupied the administration building in December to protest the cuts - google "Emory cuts" to find out more.

    So yes, the allusion to liberal arts cutbacks was not accidental - and makes Wagner's choice of analogy all the more disturbing.

  • Robert on February 19, 2013 6:15 AM:

    I think that what we are mostly told these days is influenced by corporations which have vested interests, so therefore we never see the entire truth, only what they want us to know. Its the same in Paris

  • Joe on February 19, 2013 7:52 AM:

    Aside from his unfortunate analogy, Wagner's column reflects a common misconception. Liberal arts, which are taught at relatively low expense, make money for universities (from tuition), while research that attracts external funding almost never pays for itlself. The "overhead" seldom if ever covers the campus's expenses.