University Leaders Hear Student Frustrations in Community Forum

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In an emotional, 90-minute public conversation in a packed Page Auditorium on Friday, Duke President Richard Brodhead, Provost Sally Kornbluth and Trinity College Dean Valerie Ashby listened as students expressed frustrations that people of color and other marginalized groups feel as if they don’t belong on campus and face institutionalized racism.

Held following a series of campus episodes including defacement of a #BlackLivesMatter poster and a homophobic death threat, and amidst a growing national discussion about race on college campuses, the event was designed to have faculty, students and staff express their aspirations as a community.

In his opening remarks, Brodhead acknowledged the pain of the students. He said the entire community had a role in addressing bigotry on campus, but that the administration had a particular responsibility to use “the leverage in our power.”

“Intolerance and bigotry has no place in a university community,” Brodhead said. “It will receive no welcome. We have most talented people of every race country together in a place where they can challenge each other and inspire each other. That is our mission, but for that mission to work every person has to have the same rights and freedoms.”

The session wasn’t meant to devise solutions, although Brodhead did cite several actions taken in recent months, including changes to student orientation to deepen discussions of multicultural issues, a new faculty diversity report and creation of a task force on sexual misconduct. He said the latter task force, which reviewed university practices, rules and sanctions on sexual misconduct, would be a model for a new task force focused on bias and hate crimes on campus.

But for most of the session the three leaders listened as students listed their fears and experiences that they said belied Duke’s promise of being an inclusive community.

Henry Washington

Henry Washington Jr., president of the Duke Black Student Alliance, asks a question of President Brodhead during the forum. Photo by Megan Mendenhall/Duke Photography

Before Brodhead spoke, the session began with more than 60 students taking the stage shouting “Whose University? Our University!” and reading a statement from a coalition of student groups. The statement acknowledged the event “represented a step forward,” but criticized leaders for holding it at noon on Friday when many students had classes. The group then marched out of Page and gathered outside the Bryan Center. 

Earlier in the morning, the phrase “BlackLivesMatter” was painted on the James B. Duke statue outside of Page Auditorium. The paint was removed just before the forum began.

In the conversation that followed, African-American, Asian and LGBTQ students spoke of how on a regular basis they felt under attack, whether from derogatory comments from faculty members, editorials and op-eds in the Chronicle, or anonymous threats on Yik Yak and social media. Several cited the defacement of the #BlackLivesMatter poster and the incident this past spring when a noose was hung on the Bryan Center quad.

Several students challenged the resolution of the noose incident, which they said left wounds that have yet to heal, and they challenged why the student wasn’t expelled.

The sight of the noose on a Southern university campus raises a terrifying historical legacy that demanded a vigorous community response, Brodhead said. But he noted the incident led to multiple investigations by law enforcement agencies without charge. The university sanction came after a fair process that found that the student was not aware of its symbolic meaning.

“We have students here from all over the world,” he said, noting that federal law prevents full disclosure of all aspects of the case. “We made a charge, and the student received serious disciplinary sanction, but the student was not expelled. The process involved students and faculty sitting on the facts of the case, and they were not persuaded that the student didn’t know what he was doing. You can disagree with that, but the process was the right one. If you are ever charged, you want the people to judge you on the facts of the case and not on the passions of the community.”

Ashby, who arrived at Duke this past May from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, told the students she understood that some had lost faith in the university leadership, but said she wasn’t asking them “to trust us.”

“Watch the actions we do from here on,” Ashby said. “I’ve been looking at this since May 12 [her arrival date]. I will show you I am never going to tell you we’re going to do something that we’re not going to do.”

Students said they didn’t want to suppress speech on campus, but pushed for solutions such as better training to mitigate bias in comments inside and outside the classroom and ways they can vigorously counter the ways targeted speech marginalizes them. “I don’t want any Orwellian reeducation,” said a Ph.D. student, “but we need a response when faculty target students.”

Ashby said she has gone to each Trinity department to set expectations.

“I’ve made it clear you can’t just be a great scholar to be at Duke. If you aren’t contributing to the community, you have to go. The issue you raise – it’s killing me. It’s problematic; I’m doing the best I can.”

The full video of the forum is below.