'Compromise' Controversy Distracts from the Need to Compromise

Over the past few weeks, I have grown increasingly dismayed as I watched the Emory community squander the important teachable moment sparked by President Wagner’s essay on compromise. Instead of being challenged by Wagner’s words, various valued members of our community have seized on them to advance predefined narratives concerning everything from identity to the preservation of certain academic departments.

Although such concerns are valid to those who hold them, the controversy over President Wagner’s example of a historic political compromise misdirects us from the conversation our community ought to be having―the conversation he wanted to continue―namely how we can balance the current interests of all while also advancing Emory’s strengths in the world.

As President Wagner wrote, this is the challenge of compromise, and one at which our community is currently failing. Instead of engaging in a productive discussion on our university’s future, too many of us have focused our uncompromising idealism on a superficial reading of an essay citing a historical fact.

Taking an uncompromising stance on an issue is often warranted. Consider a contemporary example from politics. Believing in your heart that civil marriage equality is the only way to force the government to recognize the equal validity of opposite-sex and same-sex relationships is a credible position. But there are some―many, in fact―who feel differently and have great interests in preserving the status quo. Therefore, legalizing civil unions, while imperfect, is yet another intermediate step toward the ultimate goal of justice for all.

Just as the gay-rights activists who advocate for civil unions today are not betraying their ideals, neither did those abolitionists among the Framers betray theirs by supporting a compromise that began to chip away at the unjust legal precedent that only some people had rights. Given the nature of the ongoing controversy among us, it bears writing I do not seek to imply equivalence of these issues, only to demonstrate the point of political compromise with a current example.

Compromise is necessary because we live in a world of many competing interests, not all of which are morally equivalent. Differing parties must very often trade what they value less for what they value more. While we should never compromise our ideals inside the classroom, the ability to compromise in society is vital because we each face real limitations on what we might do and what resources we might bring to bear in our effort to do it.

Emory has tremendous resources, intellectual and otherwise. In the weeks ahead, I hope we can leverage these to engage in a more thoughtful discussion about the plan laid out for our university by President Wagner. I also hope we can learn something about ourselves and how conversations of compromise can never begin well without a fair presumption of good will.

Richard Lorenc 06C is the incoming Director of Programs & Alumni Relations at the Foundation for Economic Education, based in Atlanta. He is also the Chicago cochair of the Emory Alumni Interviewing Program.