An open letter to President Brodhead

A response to this column can be found here

Dear President Brodhead,

With this letter, we—a group of Duke University’s student leaders—come together in forming the Duke Open Campus Coalition. We seek to invigorate the Duke community’s commitment to supporting an open intellectual climate on campus. During our time here at Duke, we have encountered a community that values identity politics over reasoned discussion and debate when confronting real—and at times misperceived—instances of injustice. Actions taken that emphasize identity politics create a climate of fear on campus whereby people who publicly dissent from the policies being proposed are afraid of being personally attacked and slandered. In this climate, fewer students feel able to speak their mind, and we are concerned that this undermines Duke’s integrity as an institution of open exchange and learning. Many of the challenges we face are not unique to Duke, and we are inspired by the Princeton Open Campus Coalition, which blazed a path for students around the nation committed to preserving academic freedom at our universities.

While we recognize that this climate of fear is part of a broader trend across the country at American universities, we also note that it has a particular character on Duke’s campus. Today, some students consider it morally acceptable to remove copies of The Chronicle from campus when they disagree with its content. Select members of Duke Student Government’s Executive Board have taken to intimidating first-year student government representatives to affirm “politically correct” views regardless of whether they agree with them. The student body has also disrespected you, President Brodhead. Those who disagree with the methods protesters use or the policies they push are afraid to publicly announce their position for fear of being ostracized. We believe that our concerns resonate with a large portion of Duke’s student body and faculty. With grave concern about the tactics of some protestors and the substantive demands they are making, we call for an open and inclusive campus—a campus where all members of the Duke community can communicate openly as Blue Devils without fear that they will be censored if their views differ from, or even offend, other people.

First, while we are disturbed by acts of racism, homophobia and bigotry on this campus, and agree that more can be done to combat intolerance, we do not believe that acts of bigotry committed by individuals implicate Duke as an institution. We applaud the quick and passionate response of Duke students to acts of bigotry on campus. We share the goals of increasing tolerance and punishing individual students who engage in behavior that harms other people, but we do not think these goals are best served by the policies some protesters have prescribed to advance them. Good intentions do not necessarily translate into good policy.

Second, we oppose the methods many protesters have used to advance their agenda. Students from across the political spectrum were unsettled that protesters would vandalize Duke property, refuse to allow Duke administrators to ask questions during a community conversation and seek to remove students on the Chronicle staff with whom they disagree politically. These tactics deface property without consequence and allow dialogue only among people who already agree with those leading the conversation. This is not how universities foster intellectual growth; it creates an echo chamber that leads to groupthink and unfairly privileges certain positions in the marketplace of ideas.

Third, and in particular, we oppose demands to redefine hate speech as “speech that offends or insults” and to create an institutional apparatus to monitor students’ and professors’ speech for offensive ideas. Recognizing that people can disagree with one another even on contentious topics, particularly on contentious topics, is a critical part of thriving in an intellectual environment. President Brodhead, as you noted at the Nov. 13 community forum, “The day we make it easy to shut down speech, all kinds of speech are going to be shut down, including protests.” Furthermore, if the university defines hate speech as students have demanded, it will embark on a slippery slope towards censorship. Who decides which speech is offensive? Reasonable people are bound to answer this question in different ways, and nobody should be punished for having crossed a line that is open to manipulation.

We also oppose demands to enforce “mandatory learning on institutional racism and anti-oppression practices for both students and faculty,” and the administration’s recent announcements suggesting that Implicit Bias Training and a required diversity course may soon be institutionalized. We are concerned that this curriculum requirement, even if adjoined to a new Writing 101 course, will amount to mandatory reeducation classes. It asks faculty members to not only impose orthodox thinking, but also orthodox feelings, from a position of power. After all, these professors would be grading students’ responses on issues where reasonable and conscientious members of the Duke community, including faculty members, often disagree. On a campus where many already fear voicing a dissenting opinion, institutionalizing re-education or sensitivity classes will fail to provide space for dissenting voices, institutionalize an echo chamber and foster groupthink.

Finally, we oppose demands to match the faculty’s demographic makeup with the student population’s demographic makeup. Instituting a quota system on staff members based on a student population that changes every year is not only unfeasible, but is wrong. We cannot expect that the quality of the faculty would remain identical if quotas for different groups are imposed. Moreover, mandating minimum or maximum thresholds on employment or student enrollment on the basis of skin color or gender reduces people to immutable characteristics of their identity. While we embrace diversity, especially diversity of opinion, we strongly denounce the idea that our interactions with one another should be defined by demographic traits like race and gender.

We hold that the protestors’ methods, as well as many of the policies they advocate, perpetuate a troubling campus climate. All people should feel “safe” when expressing their opinions on campus in an academic environment. The administration should not institutionalize a space where any member of this community, student or faculty, is protected from having even their most core values challenged and scrutinized.

We commend the university for the creation of the Task Force on Bias and Hate Issues. Designating specialists and representatives from faculty and the student body to methodically study bias and hate issues on campus is a step forward. Creating an administrative channel to scrutinize policy proposals and streamline deliverables will help ensure all parties have a stake in ensuring we can combat bigotry.

We respectfully request the opportunity to meet with the administration to reaffirm the Duke community’s commitment to preserving ideals of reason, debate and intellectualism at Duke.


The Duke Open Campus Coalition

Signed: Tyler Fredricks ‘16, Pi Praveen ‘16, Breanna Atkinson ‘16, Ian Chang ‘19, Zach Heater ‘17, Brian Hopkins ‘16, Brendan McCartney ‘16, Gerardo Parraga ‘18, Sabriyya Pate ‘19, Lopa Rahman ‘16, Victoria Treboschi ‘15, and Caroline Wang ‘19.

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