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Brodhead: Duke and the Legacy of Race

Brodhead: Duke and the Legacy of Race

In faculty address, Duke president discusses successes and continuing challenges facing the university

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Editor's Note: Richard H. Brodhead is president of Duke University. The following address was delivered at the Annual Meeting of the University Faculty, March 22.  

RHB talk
President Richard H. Brodhead addresses the history of diversity at Duke and the continuing challenges facing the university. Photo by Les Todd/Duke University Photography.

Durham, NC - Through the years I've used this address to take a step back from the particulars of this council's business and reflect on some larger challenge confronting the university. In recent years I have spoken on the affordability of higher education; the financial downturn and our need to keep innovating even when resources are stretched; and the rationale for Duke's growing activities abroad. While I was considering possible topics for this spring's talk, a series of events kept returning my attention to a common theme. Within the space of a few weeks, this campus experienced controversy over a piece of unpublished faculty research that appeared to disparage the choice of majors by African-American undergraduates.  Shortly after, I attended the inaugural meeting of the steering committee planning the 50th anniversary commemoration of the enrollment of the first African-American undergraduates at Duke. A few days after that, I joined the university-wide celebration named in honor of Samuel Dubois Cook, Duke's first black professor and the first African American to hold regular rank appointment in any predominantly white college or university in the American South.  That same day, we learned that the Supreme Court had decided to hear a new case regarding affirmative action in admissions, an issue last joined in the Gratz and Grutter cases in 2003.

Today I'd like to address the issue these episodes all converge on. I want to speak to the issue of race and inclusion in Duke's history, our recent progress, and the nature of the work that lies ahead.

To any present member of this community, it's almost inconceivable that Duke ever could have maintained a policy of racial exclusion. The school we see around us is so manifestly and exuberantly diverse, and the interaction of talent from all backgrounds is so clearly the precondition for the stimulation we experience here every day, that it's hard to fathom that Duke ever could have been otherwise, let alone that it could have been wished otherwise. But racial discrimination was once the official practice of this school, as it was of the surrounding region and, de facto, much of this land.

Segregation insisted that African Americans be restricted to a system of unequal opportunity that barred them from social privilege and cast them as inferior. Within this system, the most prosaic daily needs were tools for manufacturing invidious difference. Whites could ride in the front of the bus, blacks were sent to the back. Whites could use the Whites Only restroom, blacks were consigned to the one marked Colored. Whites could stay in the best hotels when they traveled, but blacks had to hope to find a facility that would accept them or plan complex itineraries around welcoming stops. Whites could try on clothes in Southern department stores, but blacks had to buy clothes and hope they fit.

In one sense, school was just one more site in this endless drama of discrimination, but in another, it was the key to the whole system. By consigning black children to separate-but-equal schools that were virtually never the equal in facilities or resources, the world of official segregation strove to make African Americans inferior in reality by giving them inferior access to knowledge and the power knowledge brings. It never totally worked. But even where outstanding personal achievement triumphed despite separate-but-equal schooling, the system imposed the emotional burden of frustration, exclusion, and consciousness of imputed inferiority.

My first acquaintance with North Carolina came from editing the journal that Charles Waddell Chesnutt, the premier African-American author of the postbellum generation, kept as a young man in Fayetteville. This journal gives the most comprehensive record we have of the educational resources that became available to African Americans in the wake of Emancipation. Chesnutt himself made extraordinary use of these resources: promoted to head the state-funded school for training black teachers when he was only twenty-two, he had already taught himself Latin, French and German in his spare time. But while Chesnutt's journal documents an unsurpassable love of learning, it also chronicles the pains of inequality. When Chesnutt eventually met someone who could listen to him read Latin verse aloud and confirm that he had got the pronunciation right, it was a moment of swelling pride for this self-taught prodigy but also of stinging hurt, another reminder of everything he had been denied. Chesnutt writes: "It was like discharging the matter from an old sore."

The founding family of Duke University was extraordinarily progressive for its time in the matter of race. Washington Duke assisted the black entrepreneur John Merrick in founding what became the largest black insurance company and one of the largest black-owned business enterprises in America, Durham's N. C. Mutual. Washington Duke's son Benjamin worked with James E. Shepard to provide support for the North Carolina College for Negroes, today's N.C. Central University. Duke family members gave funds and served on the board of the black hospital created in Durham, Lincoln Hospital. When James B. Duke wrote the indenture for the Duke Endowment, he made provisions for hospital care and higher education for both whites and blacks.

But measures like these mitigated the harms of segregation without undoing its conceptual core; and in its first decades, this university was surprisingly welcoming to blacks in certain ways yet closed to them in ways that count.  Whenever I walk by Perkins Library I remember that John Hope Franklin did research for his classic book From Slavery to Freedom in the stacks at Duke. In the 1940s he was free to research here, but of course he could not teach here. It's an astounding proof of the logic of segregation that after John Hope got his Ph.D. in History from Harvard, with support and recognition from some of the most prominent historians in America, the only jobs he could get in North Carolina were at black colleges: first St. Augustine's in Raleigh, then the North Carolina College for Negroes in Durham. Certainly not at Duke. Had he gone to a football game in Wallace Wade in the early sixties, he would still have faced the humiliating signs indicating a separate entrance and seating section marked Colored.

This history of racial exclusion is the history Duke set out to reverse with the admission of the first African-American undergraduates and with the hiring of the first black professor. These pioneers have testified to the friendship and support they found here, but they have also spoken of the vestiges of the residual culture of imagined racial superiority they encountered, and the burden of being "the first" and a "representative" of a whole people. Next year, when we celebrate the 50th anniversary of their arrival at Duke, we will celebrate the dignity and courage these individuals brought to an extraordinarily challenging experience -- and equally important, the new history they helped Duke begin to write.

From that day to this, this university has had a commitment to making Duke a place of access, opportunity and mutual respect for all. This commitment was confirmed in Duke's most recent strategic plan and I reconfirm the commitment today. In 50 years of struggling toward this goal, this university has made significant progress, which we should remember with pride. Where there's work still to do, we should acknowledge it frankly and keep at our task.

Let me say a brief word on things accomplished and things left to do.

In the years since the 1960s, Duke has come to embrace a far broader mission of inclusiveness than was first foreseen. But while it neither is nor should be our sole concern, given our location and the history of this region, Duke has a special and continuing interest in affording opportunity for African Americans.  The measures on this score are heartening. Between 9 and 11 percent of Duke's entering undergraduate classes in recent years have been African-American. In given years, the proportion of African-American students at Duke has been rivaled only by Stanford and Columbia among all our peers, and Duke has maintained the highest 10-year average among peer schools. The Duke Medical School continues to have one of the highest representations of blacks and underrepresented minorities among all the top medical schools. Brenda Armstrong, who was herself among the first African-American students at Duke, recently shared this data with the President's Council on Black Affairs.

Actively working to broaden the pool of candidates has brought comparable gains to our faculty. Regular rank faculty appointments of African Americans in all schools have risen from 44 in 1993 to 72 in 1998 to 97 in 2003 to 122 in 2008 and 140 in 2011. The Faculty Climate Survey compiled every two years gives us a way of measuring the qualitative experience of Duke faculty both in aggregate and broken down by race and gender. The results of recent years have suggested generally comparable degrees of satisfaction across racial categories. This information is followed closely by the Provost and Vice Provost for Faculty Diversity and is reported annually to the Academic Council.

Staff are critical to the strength of this community, and on this front too Duke has made significant advances. Education is not important to our students only. Ideally, every job at Duke should give the chance for a continuing education that allows employees to do their work better and groom themselves for advancement. Two programs that help employees build their own human capital are the tuition benefit and the Duke Leadership Academy. Duke used to give employees a tuition benefit to pay for Duke course offerings relevant to their careers. Early in my administration, we made a change so employees can use the benefit for relevant coursework anywhere within North Carolina. Since this change, the number of staff taking advantage of the program has risen from 320 to 742. Fully three quarters of these are women and 34 percent are African-American, compared with 8 percent in 2006. Under guidance from Vice President Kyle Cavanaugh, the Duke Leadership Academy gives leadership training to employees across the university identified as promising candidates for further levels of responsibility. In each of the three classes to date, roughly half the attendees have been women and a significant number African-American.

Duke can also take pride in the contribution we have made beyond our walls -- in Durham and around the world. The change in admissions policy made in the 1960s was motivated by the desire to end the manifest injustice of exclusion on grounds of race, but it has had a far broader impact. By helping talented students from every background get the education to live up to their potential, we help our society reap the full measure of their promise. I get to see Duke alumni in action across the country almost every week. Come with me and you will see Duke graduates of every background and from every school filling virtually every career with energy and intelligence. When the 2012 White House Fellows were announced last fall, an extraordinarily selective honor, two of the fifteen were Duke graduates and both were African-American: Reggie Chambers, Class of 1998, a lawyer with expertise in finance, and Kisha Green Davis, Class of 2000, a doctor with expertise in community health.

I've catalogued a range of achievements, and they are significant. But our work is not done; and even on fronts where progress has been made, commitment and persistent attention are needed to see the project through. Let me mention some areas of unfinished business and some steps we can take to advance.

First, it is vital that our academic and administrative units all maintain the culture of equity, opportunity, inclusiveness, and respect that the university aspires to as a whole. Going forward, I have asked Provost Lange, Chancellor Dzau and Executive Vice President Trask to request an annual report from each academic and administrative unit on efforts related to diversity, with plans set for the coming year. The reports will be further reviewed by the Vice President for Institutional Equity and the Vice Provost for Faculty Diversity and discussed by the entire senior leadership team. A summary of university-wide issues will be shared with ECAC and with the Human Resources Committee of the Board of Trustees each year, and a comprehensive report will be published for the Duke community every other year.

Second, regarding students. In a diverse community where people are still growing and discovering, every year will bring tensions and challenges. With respect to this January's controversy I would say the following. I hope all members of this community recognize that it is not the proper function of the university to block expression from its faculty or enforce a correct view. Universities live through free and open debate; when someone thinks someone else has come to an erroneous conclusion, the remedy is to criticize it and offer a better account. On the other hand, I can see why students took offense at what was reported of a professor's work. Generalizations about academic choices by racial category can renew the primal insult of the world we are trying to leave behind -- the implication that persons can be known through a group identity that associates them with inferior powers. A further insult was that the paper had been included in an amicus brief submitted by opponents of affirmative action urging the Supreme Court to hear the case I mentioned earlier regarding admissions policies at the University of Texas.

In this or any such situation, the university cannot guarantee that students or other community members won't be distressed or angered by the expression of divergent points of view. But we do owe it to those who are distressed to listen to their experience, to promote understanding across the divide, and to pay deep attention to root issues. If Duke students are unable to pursue the educational goals they come here to attain, that's an institutional issue that deserves an institutional response.  The everyday experience of students in the classroom is always a legitimate concern for the university, and I'm grateful for the work Laurie Patton, Steve Nowicki and Lee Baker are doing in listening and working to ensure a supportive intellectual community for our undergraduates.

Let me speak to Duke's philosophy of admissions.  When we offer admission to a student, we do so in confidence that the student will succeed and thrive. We pay attention to test scores for what they are worth but we know they are an imperfect measure: at the end of the day, Duke's goal is not to reward high test scores, but to recruit and train the level of talent that will make the highest degree of contribution to the university community and our future society.  This potential needs to be assessed by many measures, including measures of character, drive and good use of prior opportunity. We will continue to draw talent thus broadly assessed from every background.  This policy is well within the bounds of current law.  Duke will be joining with other universities in filing an amicus brief in support of holistic assessment of talent for admissions purposes.  Strikingly, in the Grutter case, the most trenchant defense of a qualitative selection policy came from a group of 29 high-ranking retired officers and civilian leaders of the United States military, including former Chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and former Secretaries of Defense, who pointed out that for the military to function effectively, it is critical to have leadership that represents America's diversity. 

In this vein, the single front where I myself feel the greatest frustration regards senior leadership positions at Duke. Since I arrived as president, I have appointed eight of my 10 direct reports, and the provost and I have together appointed every sitting dean. My leadership recruits include two African Americans (Ben Reese and Phail Wynn), one Asian American (Victor Dzau), and one woman (Pam Bernard), but the number of women on my team -- another key component of diversity -- is fewer than I would wish. Excellent academic leaders appointed in recent years happen to be women, including the deans of Duke's two largest schools, Medicine and Arts and Sciences, but Duke has still not had a black dean of any school.

This is a matter that can only right itself by appointment choices made case by case, each of which must be mindful of the full range of criteria in question. But I am aware that including African Americans in the top academic leadership of this university is a piece of unfinished business; and I pledge that I will give the issue continuing attention. Senior leadership searches are charged to look broadly for talent, and the extent to which they have done so is assessed before a short list is approved. We will report on leadership searches every year to ECAC and the HR Committee of the Board of Trustees.

I conclude with this. The values of diversity, inclusiveness and respect are core values of Duke University. We embrace them first because they are the bases of any decent, healthy community, and second because they are key to what we do. Work teams are more productive when they embrace a variety of viewpoints and make each player feel included. Classes and daily interactions are more instructive when we engage with minds coming from many different places. That's also crucial preparation for the world our students will be living their lives in. So for the deep work of the university to get done, and indeed to fulfill the mission and the meaning of the university, it's imperative that we make these glowing words a living reality.

We're never totally there; living up to these ideals will always be a work in progress; and the nature of the challenges continues to evolve with larger changes in our society. But 50 years ago, Duke made a commitment, and in the whole history of the twentieth century, the change we are about to celebrate is rivaled by only two others for its impact on what Duke has become. Without the move to Durham from Randolph County in 1892, this school would have been nowhere and would probably have failed. Without the transformational gift from James B. Duke in 1924, we would still be a distinguished regional liberal arts college, not a world-renowned university. Without the repeal of racial exclusion policies, this would not be the place where the brightest minds come from every origin to deepen and expand our knowledge of our world. We are exactly that, thanks to the history I have been describing. Let's be proud of Duke's remarkable progress, and let's be resolved to speed this progress on. 

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