Finding Duke's Front Door

Before Duke rose in national reputation, it had to diversify

Part of the Diversity and Excellence Series

A reception for new graduate students in 1987.  In the 1980s, Duke's low numbers of black students and faculty led to a three-track effort to improve those numbers.  Faculty and administrators say that effort was essential to Duke's rise in national reputation.

In 1991, Karla Holloway joined the Duke faculty through the back door.

"I was living in Raleigh and teaching at N.C. State," said Holloway, James B. Duke Professor Professor of English. "Skip Gates had just left for Harvard, and Duke suddenly needed someone to teach a night course that had already been scheduled for Gates. They brought me in, but the only door in the Allen Building that wasn't locked at night was the back door facing the parking lot. So every night I would enter in that way to teach the class."

Almost 20 years later, Holloway laughs at the metaphor, but it recalls a time when one of the most discussed questions on campus was how to get more black faculty, graduate students and undergrads through the front doors of the university. In the late 1980s, Duke University was behind its peers with all three groups.

Today, Duke is a different campus. Duke faculty and administrators say the real story of minority recruitment isn't best told through numbers but through Duke's increasing stature in higher education. The beginning of Duke's efforts to recruit minority students and faculty coincides with the rise both statistically and by reputation of the quality of its faculty and student body.

"If Duke had not made diversification of its faculty and student body a priority, the university would not be the vibrant and intellectually stimulating and challenging institution that it is today," said Paula McClain, professor of political science who was elected in 2007 as the first African-American faculty member to chair the Academic Council. "Diversification of the faculty brought with it new lines of inquiry and areas of research and teaching that were not present before. Moreover, in some instances Duke was able to establish itself as a premier place of study in several areas that did not exist before the push to recruit a more diverse faculty."

When Holloway arrived at Duke, public discussions about minority recruitment focused on whether Duke would have to trade high-priority hires for minorities. In practice, it turned out there was no conflict between the goals of excellence and diversity.

Kara Holloway

"I always thought that the conversations about diversity are intimately tied to conversations about excellence."

Karla Holloway

"In public, the conversation was always about numbers," Holloway said. "I always thought that the conversations about diversity are intimately tied to conversations about excellence. Instead of being what a friend calls a "Counting Negros" phenomena, it ends up enriching the community and curriculum. It doesn't surprise me that Duke's reputation grew during that period. It was an effort to see what Duke might do to make itself a better institution."

There are still disagreements on campus about the lessons learned and assessments of how successful two decades of targeted recruitment of faculty, graduate students and undergrads have been. But anyone who was on campus in the mid-1980s will attest the Duke campus looked very different then than it did at the start of the 2009 academic year. What's less obvious is how much work it took to bring about this change -- and how little of it was inevitable:

* In 1985, the Graduate School matriculated a total of five new black students in the entire Ph.D. program. That same year, approximately one-third of all African-American male undergraduates were members of the Duke football team.

* In 1988, black faculty accounted for 31 of the 1,399 total faculty members at the university, or just over 2 percent. Most were concentrated in the School of Medicine and a few arts and sciences departments.

* In 1991, two high-profile black faculty members, Henry Louis Gates and K. Anthony Appiah, left the campus two years after being recruited to Duke. The controversy that surrounded their departure brought national attention; Gates left Duke referring to it as "a plantation."

* Two years later, "60 Minutes" came to Duke and reported that the campus had re-segregated with black undergraduates purposefully isolating themselves in their own activities apart from the larger campus.


You don't need statistics to understand Duke has changed in subsequent years; a walk around campus provides abundant visual evidence. But the most recent numbers do tell a story:

* In 2008-09, 122 black faculty members taught in university departments; 77 of them were tenured or tenure track, comprising 4.5 percent of the university's faculty, a rate twice that of 1988.

* Between 1988 and 2008, the number of African-American students in Duke's Ph.D. programs increased from 146 to 419. The percentage of black graduate students among the total student body has more than doubled over that period.

* In 2008-09, African-Americans comprised 10 percent of the Duke undergraduate body, nearly three times the rate of 1988.

The effort that changed the campus proceeded on three separate but related tracks.

The most public was the Black Faculty Initiative (BFI), passed by the Academic Council in April 1988. It committed Duke to hiring one black faculty member in each hiring unit over the next five years. It failed to meet that goal, but the more successful Black Faculty Strategic Initiative succeeded the BFI in 1993.

At the same time, less formal but sometimes more successful initiatives looked to increase black student enrollment at both the undergraduate and graduate and professional school levels.

Twenty years later, those early efforts in the 1980s continue to have an influence today, faculty and administrators say.

The Black Faculty Strategic Initiative was itself succeeded in 2003 by the Faculty Diversity Initiative. Implicit in the latest plan, Provost Peter Lange said, was a desire to apply the strategies and tactics that served Duke well in recruiting black faculty and students to recruitment of all underrepresented groups.

In addition, Duke has applied lessons learned from its recruitment of African Americans to all faculty and students at Duke. Mentoring initiatives and family-friendly policies that came out of the Women's Initiative in 2003 and in the Graduate School all have some origin in those earlier efforts to recruit and retain black faculty and students.

Nancy Allen

Vice Provost Nancy Allen

"All of these efforts [to recruit minorities and to develop family-friendly policies] are intertwined," said Dr. Nancy Allen, vice provost for faculty diversity and development. "Both are meant to bring good people here and support them. Recruiting a particular faculty member means very often you're helping to bring a family here and that creates other needs.

"Part of our diversity recruitment involved helping career couples and helping new faculty understand we have a parental leave and tenure clock policy [which allows faculty members to build some flexibility into the tenure process for family issues]. That's something we want for all faculty."

Two decades after Holloway entered the Allen Building's back door, one new faculty member close to her will come to Duke in another way. In January, her daughter Ayana Holloway Arce, a high-energy physicist at the University of California-Berkeley, will join the Duke physics faculty. Arce's father is Russell Holloway, Pratt School associate dean for corporate and industry relations.

Discuss "Diversity & Excellence" Online

Vice Provost Nancy Allen and Professor Paula McClain will discuss diversity at Duke during the weekly online "Office Hours" at noon (EST) Friday, Dec. 11.

Allen and McClain will take questions from the public on Duke's Ustream channel.

Viewers can submit questions in advance or during the session by email to, on the Duke University Live Ustream page on Facebook or via Twitter with the tag #dukelive.

"As a faculty member and as a dean I played a role in recruiting a lot of people here, but Ayana came here on her own," Holloway said. "But it's interesting to me that when I came to Duke, she was in high school. It seems like the recruiting has come full circle."

In the following week, four Duke Today stories will look at minority recruitment at Duke, focusing on the mid to late 1980s and how those first efforts still influence the university.

Tuesday: Undergraduate Students. Joby Branion found a job at Duke after he got cut from the Washington Redskins. What he thought was going to be a short-term position in undergraduate admissions turned into a mission.

Wednesday: Graduate Students. When Graduate Dean Malcolm Gillis saw how few African-Americans were enrolling in the graduate program, he hired Jacqueline Looney to change things around.

Thursday: Faculty. The Black Faculty Initiative started with a controversial tie vote and brought national attention. But some of the lessons learned from the initiative were about things to avoid.

Friday: The Future of Diversity Recruitment. As Duke looked to become a premier international university, diversity among faculty and students became even more important. A look at the new language of diversity recruitment.