PC No Longer: The President's Commissions Are Being Replaced, But Will They Be Missed?
by Mary J. Loftus
I first heard about the presidents’ commissions when I was newly hired in 2000, as associate editor of Emory Magazine. I was spouting off about some workplace injustice—single parents being berated for using all their sick days, I believe—and a colleague told me, “It sounds like you should join the President’s Commission on the Status of Women (PCSW).”
Really, that’s just what I didn’t need, I thought silently. A bureaucratic roundtable of privileged elitist scholars opining over job shares and nannies, or planning the next women’s studies conference on French feminism.
But I grudgingly accepted her offer to nominate me to the next commission and, lo and behold, I found a cross-section of women from across the university discussing real, true things—administrative assistants who had been overlooked for that internal promotion again; new mothers having no private, clean space to pump their milk; women who were literally making a third less than male colleagues in exactly the same jobs. And these people had the university president’s ear.
The chairs of all three commissions (women, race and ethnicity, and sexuality) met with then-President Bill Chace regularly to discuss not only contentious issues but also possible solutions. I saw many of those solutions—from flex-time to nursing rooms to improved housing for the Center for Women—come to fruition during the next several years and was proud of my small part.
When I had the chance, 10 years later, to join the President’s Commission on Race and Ethnicity (PCORE), I jumped at it. My colleague Paige Parvin, editor of Emory Magazine, had served on the President’s Commission on Sexuality, Gender Diversity, and Queer Equality (PCSGDQE) and had just left a successful term as chair of that group in 2006–2007, and I was eager to get reinvolved with the commissions. I just didn’t know if PCORE would have me.
I am a white woman and not a member of any minority group. I didn’t major in diversity studies and haven’t engaged in grassroots activism. At best, I have tried to use my career in newspaper and magazine journalism as a tool to combat social injustice and racism, with varying degrees of success.
So, I nominated myself for the commission and waited to hear. The day I got the letter that I had been accepted, I was genuinely excited, as if I had won something valuable. As it ends up, I had.
From my first meeting, PCORE members new and old accepted me with open arms, and I have never been so impressed with the work of any group of volunteers as I was during the end-of-year recap of PCORE’s accomplishments: from surveying the number of portraits, statues, and building names honoring minorities on Emory’s campus (embarrassingly few) to encouraging the statement of regret over the university’s historic involvement with slavery, PCORE had been shaping and shifting Emory’s culture, making sure it bent toward justice.
Giving testament to the power of these informal meetings, a prospective Emory mom who had steered her wheelchair into the meeting by mistake stayed for the whole time and then gave an impromptu talk about how this group proves that Emory is the kind of place she wants her daughter to experience.
And, as it ended up, I wasn’t the only white member, or the only member who felt like maybe she didn’t deserve to take up the sacred drum of civil rights. I would like to think it is my fight, too, and with PCORE—which has been around since 1979—I did. With the highly successful Transforming Communities Project ending, we tried to brainstorm ways to keep the conversation going on campus: an open forum, student performances, art and essay contests, a slave memorial?
Members of the PCSW (established in 1976) and the PCSGDQE (1995) were continuing to have an impact as well, including meetings with President Jim Wagner, who even agreed to make an It Gets Better video to articulate Emory’s values regarding sexual orientation.
PCSW was compiling an oral history project, creating opportunities for professional development, and establishing the Women of Emory network, while PCSGDQE was initiating the first policies regarding transgender people on campus, ensuring health care equity and benefits for LGBTQ individuals, and beginning a visibility campaign (“I am Emory”).
The commissions are being replaced by an Advisory Council on Community and Diversity, intended to increase accountability and support for this important work of inclusion, and to define diversity more broadly, bringing in issues of class, disability, and so forth. The council is made up of an Executive Committee, a Steering Committee, and Division Committees on Community and Diversity.
Before the change, Emory’s Senior Vice Provost for Community and Diversity Ozzie Harris (lead photo above) made sure to hear comments and dissenting opinions from all factions, even hosting a vocal retreat at the Center for Ethics in the spring for all current commission members and interested parties. He incorporated many of our suggestions into the new plan.
My hope is that the stratified council will honor the grassroots spirit of the commissions and carry on in the same “take no prisoners” vein of courage and community, while avoiding the kind of bureaucratic lethargy and detachment I had feared when first volunteering.
The Center for Women, the Office of LGBT Life, and the Office of Community and Diversity—all established with the help of the commissions—also no doubt will continue their work.
But I can’t help feeling a bit of residual sadness. The change is like the difference between listening to speakers at a rally in the park and signing an online petition—I hope we are progressing, but I can’t help being a bit nostalgic for what we are losing in the process.
Mary J. Loftus has been associate editor of Emory Magazine since 2000, covering stories that include the return of a lost pharaoh to Cairo; MARBL’s acquisition of Salman Rushdie’s digital archive; and intensely loyal alumni who donate their bodies to Emory’s medical school. Previously, she was part of the inaugural class of Knight Journalism fellows at the CDC and a reporter for the New York Times’ Feature Production Center.