Joby Branion knew Duke was making progress in promoting undergraduate diversity when in 1991 he met an African-American student who didn't know a particular black classmate.
"When I graduated at Duke in 1985, I knew every other African-American student at Duke," said Branion, a former Duke admissions officer who now is a prominent sports agent. "In my entering class, there were only 60 black students, and I'm not sure all of them showed up. One-third of the black males in the class were with me on the football team.
"So when I was talking with a black undergraduate in 1991, and he said he didn't know this other student I mentioned, it meant we had accomplished something. That year, we had more black students as AB Dukes and BN Duke scholars than football players, and that meant something very important."
In the late 1980s, at the same time Duke's Black Faculty Initiative (BFI) targeted the recruitment of black faculty, university officials were also working in a lower-profile way to increase minority numbers in the undergraduate body. They did so without a formal initiative such as the BFI, assembling a less-visible effort of faculty, administrators and undergraduate students, accompanied by a strong commitment of resources.
When the student initiative started, Duke had little to brag about. The apogee came in 1993 when "60 Minutes" came to Duke to look at race relations. Its story focused on "The Black Bench," where many black students congregated on West Campus. The show's theme was that segregation was returning to Duke and other universities, self-imposed this time by minority students.
The show touched off a firestorm at Duke about black student enrollment. Many black students -- including then-student government president Hardy Vieux (a current trustee and president-elect of the Duke Alumni Association) -- were furious that the blame for segregation was being placed on their shoulders. In response, they pointed to their small numbers in the student population.
H. Keith H. Brodie, then Duke's president, said minority student recruitment had actually improved by the time of the "60 Minutes" broadcast, but he added that Duke still had a long way to go then.
"When I became president, we had been bringing in classes between 2.5 and 3 percent African-American," Brodie said. "This was in a county where blacks are 30-40 percent of the population. Our peers were in the 5 - to -10 percent range, so we knew we could do better."
Hiring Branion in admissions in 1985 was one of the key moments. After Branion graduated that year, he tried out for the Washington Redskins but was cut and soon was looking for a job. By serendipity he fell into the position of director of minority recruitment for undergraduate admissions at his alma mater.
Duke had already started a Black Student Weekend, and the position of minority recruitment director predated Branion, but Brodie said Branion brought an energy the initiative desperately needed.
"We needed someone who woke up with enthusiasm, with fire in his belly," Brodie said. "We told Joby that he would have a budget. We got involved in financial aid, started funding Reggie Howard scholarships [which target five first-year student-leaders of African heritage]. We thought if we did this right, we could get black enrollment up to a level where there would be a critical mass that would be self-sustaining."
There were three parts to the effort. First, Duke started expanding the number of schools at which it recruited minorities, to increase the pool of minority applicants. Brodie said Duke had always recruited blacks at traditional prep schools such as Andover and Exeter, but missed opportunities in cities such as Atlanta, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., that have large minority populations.
In the late 1980s, Joby Branion was part of a team that sought -- and often succeeded -- in attracting top black students to Duke.
Photo: Les Todd
"One of the things I thought was important was I was able to work with the other admissions officers. When they went into their territories, they were looking out for good minority candidates," Branion said. "We started getting applicants from places that we hadn't been getting them before."
Second, Branion worked on increasing the "yield" of minority students who had been offered admission.
"When I started, the black students we wanted but weren't getting were going to places like Stanford and the Ivies," Branion said. "By the time I left admissions, we were going neck and neck with those same schools for black students.
"Part of the problem was that students then didn't know much about Duke other than it had gone to the Final Four. When I came to Duke, growing up in Massachusetts, people were saying ‘Duke, where's that?' It was perceived as the South, and there was a lot of negativity about that.
"When I came here as a student, however, I saw how many black people were here. Our mayor was black; I saw doctors who were black. There was a community here, a community that in some ways was more hospitable than what I left in New England. I was able to show that to black students."
Other tactics also helped improve the yield. The administration of Black Student Weekend was turned over to the Black Student Association. Increased student ownership of the program got more students involved in selling the university to potential minority candidates, Branion said.
Branion also worked with Jim Belvin, then director of financial aid, to improve financial aid packages for several students. The Reggie Howard Scholarships became better funded, and more black applicants were able to compete for AB Duke and BN Duke scholarships.
The third approach came down to the nitty-gritty of admissions decisions. Some black students got in largely because Branion fought for them. Early on as an admissions officer, Branion remembered two tough decisions that helped him later in his work.
"Those two students may have been the last two admitted that year, and they got in because I had a heart-to-heart with [admissions director Clark] Cahow," Branion said. "Both had low test scores, but both had been successful in their classroom and had been to good schools and had done extraordinary things."
Both students justified Branion's faith and Cahow's decision by succeeding at Duke and after they graduated. One went on to graduate school and has been a leader in his community; the other graduated and went on to earn a law degree.
"What I'm most proud of is that not only did we attract more black students, but we increased the quality of the student body at the same time," Branion said. "That was always our primary focus, not just getting numbers. So when I left in 1991, when black students were 10 percent of the student body, they got there on their own qualifications."
And the black bench? Few people talk about it anymore.
"I recognize that Duke is a different place than when I was an undergraduate," Branion said. "I remember the black bench fondly. It was a place of comfort. Our numbers were so small every black kid knew every other black kid, which was nice on one hand, but I also felt I didn't have any privacy because they all knew me.
"Even by 1991 that was changing. The black bench wasn't always the black bench. Black students were involved in so much more than the Black Student Association. They were in student government, they were Tri Delts; they were chemistry majors; they were nerds. So that day when the black student said he didn't know this other student, I was glad."