In the Fall of 1963, the first five black undergraduates enrolled at Duke. This year, Duke has been commemorating the 50th anniversary of desegregation with a series of performances, lectures and celebrations. Last Friday, North Carolina state senator Daniel Blue, Law '73 and Duke’s first African American trustee, used his Founder’s Day speech to remind us of Duke’s past progress and future challenges.
"The moral arc of the universe does indeed bend toward justice, but it doesn't always bend on its own," Blue said at Founder's Day convocation Friday, referencing a speech by Martin Luther King, Jr.
Indeed, higher education has taken enormous strides in equity and diversity. For example, there are 3.5 times as many black students enrolled in college as were enrolled 50 years ago, according to The Chronicle of Higher Education. Yet persistent gaps remain. African Americans overwhelmingly enroll in for-profit and two-year colleges, and the degrees earned at these schools lead to higher debt and lower earnings than students who receive bachelor degrees from four-year colleges.
Even at Duke, a prestigious research university, the work is still incomplete. Problems with our social culture—such as incidents of students dressing in blackface—continue to create tension. Although there has been a growing percentage of black faculty members since 1999, there is room for growth. For example, at both the Nicholas School of the Environment and Fuqua School of Business, black faculty members constitute less than one percent of the faculty.
Admittedly, these are not just Duke-specific problems. Racial disparities at Duke reflect racial inequalities in American society. The racial composition of Duke’s administrators differs starkly from that of Duke’s service staff, for example, hinting at the power of complex histories, socioeconomic trends and politics that play out in the rest of the country.
Duke should continue to engage with these issues. We commend organizations like the Center for Multicultural Affairs and Common Ground that attempt to create understanding and cooperation among ethnic and cultural groups that do not often interact. After all, how are we to reap the benefits of a diverse student body if that diversity is not nurtured, explored and re-conceptualized?
To address broader social trends, Duke should marshal its academic resources to discuss race in new intellectual spaces. Bass Connections provides a promising opportunity for this kind of scholarship. We can imagine innovative conversations about race led by historians, economists, sociologists and researchers in other fields. Our hope is that these conversations are more productive and less hostile than similar conversations that take place after eruptions of racial tension.
Although academic research has not always produced neutral analyses of race issues—indeed, Duke contributed money to eugenics studies—we believe that these questions, when placed in careful and responsible hands, will produce new insights and valuable knowledge.Duke has come a long way since its early days of desegregation. Marches, sit-ins, protests and even an occupation of the Allen Building have made the University more diverse, inclusive and fair. As Sen. Blue reminds us, however, we have a long way to go.
"The moral arc of the universe does indeed bend toward justice—but it doesn't always bend on its own. That's our job as members of the Duke family," Blue said. We urge Duke to do the bending that will make us an even stronger university 50 years from now.