DukeOpen victory suggests new model for activism
On Jan. 30, 2013, I held the first meeting for DukeOpen, a student group advocating endowment transparency and investment responsibility. Only one other person showed up. Nine months later, the University acceded to almost all our requests and announced the broadest reforms to our endowment in the past decade. How did we make it happen, and what does this mean for student activism at Duke?
Shortly after launch, our group grew to its core size: four people. Much like a startup, we moved fast and worked hard. We launched a professional website with a heavily researched policy proposal, received multiple news articles in The Chronicle and the Herald Sun, multiple endorsements—from the Editorial Board, Duke Student G and other student groups—and, more recently, national press coverage in The Nation.
Operationally, we secured pitch meetings with high-profile groups and administrators, including University Secretary Richard Riddell, two successive Chairs of the Academic Council, two University-level committees, President Richard Brodhead and Neil Triplett, the president of our investment management group, DUMAC.
Our proposal asked Duke to actually implement guidelines on responsible investment the Board of Trustees originally passed in 2004. We suggested University-wide disclosure, improved oversight and a social choice fund for alumni to direct contributions to pre-screened investments.
We made significant progress in achieving a social choice fund, improvements to the Advisory Committee on Investment Responsibility’s accountability and meeting frequency and increased disclosure to the ACIR. We did not get University-wide disclosure.
Of particular note is an impressive concession from DUMAC President Neil Triplett. In a Sept. 20, 2013 meeting also attended by two DSG officers, Triplett admitted that University-wide disclosure of direct investments did not pose a financial risk. Citing research from peer institutions that found zero impact after five years of direct disclosure, he added: “Do I think they could reverse engineer what we’re doing? Probably not. If you do that in a controlled environment, the chances are pretty low.” Asked directly for his opinion, Triplett replied, “I’m not adamantly opposed to it.”
We were relentlessly thorough in navigating University bureaucracy. Before launching our campaign, we conducted a full review of the University’s administrative structure, yielding a 20-page internal strategy guide. This work helped us anticipate the administration’s various counter-tactics—to delay, deny and misrepresent—and continue to pursue unorthodox channels of support including faculty committees, thereby forcing the administration to cover a larger area of attack.
Our careful attention to image made us hard to dismiss. From the beginning, we pursued a model of reasonable student advocacy, with a well-researched policy proposal and proactive attempts to collaborate with administrators. We escalated our actions only in proportion to the administration’s obstructionism, wrapping Duke’s statues and symbolically blocking the Allen building in the week leading up to the October Board of Trustees vote.
When the administration refused to come back to the negotiating table on University-wide disclosure despite DUMAC’s research, we hit the streets and gathered over 2,000 petition signatures in under a week. More likely than not, this demonstration of broad student support was behind the administration’s decision to put disclosure back on the table one year from now, pending review by the revamped ACIR. This promise, however, is conspicuously absent from the recent ACIR press release.
This administration is painfully unsure of how to navigate public scrutiny, with rumors of 20 Durham police put on high-alert in response to our plans to knock on the door at the October board meeting. The next day, they invited us to lunch with two trustees.
The move to closed board meetings, part of the 1990’s increased corporatization of the University, is facing serious challenges. Rights to press and student participation, formerly fought for and won by The Chronicle and Duke Student Government, are seeing renewed student interest.
Finally, the administration is off-balance due to highly visible setbacks with the online course provider debacle and the Kunshan controversy. Having to select a new Provost by July to fill Peter Lange’s considerable shoes only makes things harder. While the new Provost is installed, the current bureaucracy is fragmented and unable to present a unified front to student efforts. Now is a golden opportunity for movements to generate considerable headway.
For student activists interested in social justice, a plethora of campaigns await. Divest Duke has already started, with calls for divestment from fossil fuels. Other ideas include: substantive action on the Palestinian occupation that moves beyond platitudes, re-opening board meetings to independent press coverage and meaningful student participation, increasing faculty diversity and tackling Duke’s higher than average gender violence against women and, of course, getting full disclosure of direct holdings to the Duke community—something allegedly mailed to all alumni in the past.
DukeOpen’s massive victory demonstrates that structural change begins with students. An effective activist model must include strong research, a mastery of bureaucracy and a willingness to employ traditional grassroots escalation as needed, rather than as a first-resort. With a proven model in hand, activists have a powerful tool to generate credibility and bring change to our University.
Bobo Bose-Kolanu is a graduate student and the founder of DukeOpen.