Marcus Benning, Trinity '14 and a second-year student at the School of Law, was elected president of the Graduate and Professional Student Council last week. Benning is the former president of the Black Student Alliance and member of the Duke Student Publishing Company board of directors. The Chronicle's Rachel Chason spoke with Benning about issues on campus and his goals for his term, which officially begins at the end of this academic year. 

The Chronicle: As the recently-elected president of GPSC, what are your goals for your term?

Marcus Benning: I campaigned on promoting transparency within the organization, which is going to include having internal improvements and doing internal restructuring to make sure we’re the most efficient we can be. I plan to make sure everyone is aware of my meetings and to encourage General Assembly members to attend the meetings along with me, and even to encourage them to initiate meetings with administrators on their own. 

I also want to promote collaboration between the schools and between groups by incentivizing collaboration. 

The third issue I ran on was advocacy. There are a few really important issues that impact grad school students and professional students.  Namely, there is a continuation fee that graduate students have to pay after their fifth year if they don’t finish within five years. This is, in my view, an education tax that is being levied upon students for not finishing quickly enough. None of our degree programs take less than six years to complete on average, yet our Graduate School promotes the programs as fully funded when in reality because of the continuation fee, they’re only partially funded. That’s an issue I’m going to work on—to try to hopefully find partners to help eliminate this fee.

TC: How do you think your past experiences—as the former president of BSA, DSG senate president pro-tempore and current president of the Black Law Students Association—have informed your perspective?

MB: One experience that will be beneficial is having been the senate president pro-tempore for Duke Student Government when I was an undergraduate. This position exposed me to the broad institutional dealings of the University that I’m aware of now. It’s how I began to make a relationship with President [Richard] Brodhead and other senior-level administrators. It also gave me a deep understanding of how internal student government works, and how we can reform the internal body of a student government program to better serve students.

BLSA and BSA both provided me with a cultural lens that I will use to examine what we do in GPSC. I will make sure our initiatives and programs are inclusive of people with a variety of perspectives and backgrounds.

TC: What do you see as the role of GPSC on campus, and do you envision that changing at all during your tenure?

MB: I do see the role of GPSC changing. I think currently people have a transactional relationship with GPSC. I want GPSC to partner with University departments to drive home the message of ‘Forever Duke’ within our grad school students. We need to be equipped with all the resources to be successful while we’re here. We also need to organize diverse social programming that captures a wide array of students and that helps them have fun and enjoy themselves while they’re at studying at Duke.

TC: What do you see as some of the largest issues on campus today?

MB: I think one issue that we don’t know the full gravity of right now is uncertainty regarding health insurance. There are potential changes in the works, but because we’re not sure about the details, it’s difficult to anticipate what will happen. Another issue that is less concrete but very important is how to create an academic and social culture where everyone feels empowered to express themselves. A lot of minority students on the undergraduate and graduate level experience microaggressions in the classroom, and might not feel included in the social culture of the school. They really want their student government to create a social culture that makes them feel good about themselves while they’re here.

TC: Do you plan to make GPSC more active in dealing with issues on campus such as everyday discrimination?

MB: There are some consistencies between the undergraduate and graduate school experiences where students may face microaggressions from peers and occasionally professors. We need to be proactive in addressing these issues. In the Law School, for example, we created an electronic comment box where if you experienced a negative interaction in the classroom with a professor or student, you could write that up without waiting until the end of the year to complete a course survey.

TC: Are there any changes you hope to make following the request from the Graduate and Professional Students for Truth and Transparency for the resignation of current president Abbe LaBella?

MB: The most important message that I want to send to the graduate and professional students is that I hear them loud and clearly in terms of the criticisms they had of the former GPSC administration. I want to make a series of internal improvements and restructurings to ensure we are more efficient with their time and have a constant feedback loop between me and the council. I’ll also have an open-door meeting policy, which means that all of my meetings with administrators will be posted on a calendar, and any general assembly members will be able to view that calendar and attend. I want to create an environment where people can ask anything about what I’m doing and get a clear response.

TC: Is there anything else you would like to add?

MB: I really want to emphasize that this is a new year. The theme of ‘Forever Duke’ is very important to me as an alum, and we don’t always emphasize the importance of this theme as much for graduate and professional students. Graduate students are unique because we come to Duke with our own undergraduate experiences, but there are plenty of opportunities to create long-lasting, meaningful relationships with the University. I want to do everything I can as GPSC President to create a healthy, long-lasting relationship between students and the University.