(Re) Writing the History of Race at Emory

By Harris, Leslie M. | Academe, July/August 2006 | Go to article overview

(Re) Writing the History of Race at Emory


Harris, Leslie M., Academe


Born out of controversy, the Transforming Community Project draws staff, students, and faculty into discussing the history of race on campus.

In spring 2005, forty people from all sectors of Emory University gathered for a weekend retreat to devise an ambitious roadmap for a five-year project on race and racism. The Transforming Community Project will engage Emory's faculty and staff members, students, and alumni in conversations about the meaning of race and racism on campus and in the United States. It will also lead to the development of a community-based public history of race relations at Emory.

The project's creation followed a difficult year of racial strife and suspicion at Emory that was unprecedented in its recent history. The turmoil began at a fall 2003 departmental celebration in which a white professor used a racist epithet to describe conditions during the department's early days. An African American professor who had attended the event subsequently filed a complaint with the university's Office of Equal Opportunity Programs.

After that, several worrisome incidents occurred in succession. Two non-Emory students attended a campus Halloween party dressed in blackface. When Mary Robinson, the former United Nations high commissioner for human rights, was invited to speak at Emory's 2004 commencement ceremonies, campus unrest ensued based on remarks Robinson had made at the 2001 United Nations International Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia, and Related Intolerance. Some people accused Robinson of anti-Semitism. Tensions rose again when conservative activist David Horowitx was invited to campus to speak about the Robinson incident and to comment on race and political correctness.

The strain generated by these events erupted into a host of fiery debates across the campus, revealing deep divisions regarding the responsibility of the university to address such incidents. A multiracial coalition of undergraduate and graduate students demanded that the university initiate diversity training for the campus community. Several faculty members, however, spoke out vociferously against any kind of diversity training for faculty members. When the professor who used the racist phrase was reprimanded based on Emory's discriminatory harassment policy, a faculty group presented a motion at a faculty meeting to remove regulations in the policy against discriminatory speech, because they said the regulations limited academic freedom. The motion didn't pass, but, as one faculty member noted at the meeting, more than an up-or-down vote on such issues was sorely needed.

Toward a Resolution

Over ensuing months, the university attempted to ease the tension through different tactics. It sponsored five public dialogues on "race, diversity, and community" that involved more than two hundred faculty and staff members. Emory's general counsel, in consultation with faculty members holding diverse views about the university's discriminatory harassment policy, revised the policy to bring it into better alignment with national law, to clarify its relationship to academic freedom, and to improve the process by which the university community addresses problems of discriminatory harassment.

Concurrently, Emory's president, James Wagner, who had been on the job for only about two months when the professor used the racial epithet at the departmental function, led the development of the university's first vision statement, which includes a clear declaration about Emory's commitment to diversity. Many who commented on the vision statement during its development expressed great pride in their sense of Emory as a diverse community and argued persuasively to feature diversity prominently in the statement. Also at the administrative level. Earl Lewis, who was appointed provost in July 2004, approved the creation of a new position at the rank of vice provost dedicated exclusively to promoting and ensuring diversity on campus. …

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