Hate to admit it, but I’ve never been much of a Duke basketball fan. I started hating the Blue Devils around the time they met my Arkansas Razorbacks in the 1994 men’s championship game (and—ahem, Scotty Thurman—lost). Matriculating at Duke meant I had to lose the hate, and I did, but being a sports fan is serious business to me. I like to see the team do well, but can’t artificially manufacture that diehard love I have for the Hogs.
My Duke pride comes from something different. I am happiest to call myself a Duke student when the leaders of our institution show courage and deep morality in the public sphere. That may not be as exciting or universal as a J. J. Redick three, but it is a very real pride to me. And given the frequency with which the administration has done right in the past few years, my pride is getting to be a darn near permanent condition.
Duke Stores is a great place to start. Last March, Director Jim Wilkerson severed Duke’s relationship with Lands’ End due to the company’s alleged blacklisting of union workers in El Salvador. Partly due to the pressure exerted by Duke and other activist universities, Lands’ End agreed to fix its problems in a lightning-quick 36 days after Wilkerson’s announcement and subsequently renewed its contract with Duke.
The University has successfully taken this step before, most recently against the New Era Cap Company in 2001. Wilkerson and his Allen Building counterparts are hardly impetuous, but when a company that services the University is falling short, they are generally good at taking a firm line and getting results.
For this reason, I am inclined to trust President Richard Brodhead and Senior Vice President for Public Relations and Government Affairs John Burness in their handling of alleged worker mistreatment by Angelica Corp., another of Duke’s corporate partners. On the face of it, local activist organizations seem to make valid points about Angelica’s failure to provide workers with a “living wage.” Durham County agreed, severing its contract with the company. But there’s a lot that a bunch of scruffy protesters might not know about the situation. On something as complex as labor practices, the best we can do is put our most righteous people in positions of power and trust them to act well.
Burness and Brodhead (and before him, Nan Keohane) have, in fact, established a tremendous track record on a wide variety of social issues. Duke’s underreported decision to raise its minimum wage to a de facto living wage of $10 per hour was a triumph for its low-end workers. I’m proud of that decision.
Our University is perhaps most misunderstood when it comes to our relationship with the city of Durham. For years, a vocal minority of intransigent anti-Duke zealots have capitalized on the latent uneasiness many Durhamites have with our institution and have made our students’ and administrators’ lives difficult. Duke offers its police force to patrol off East Campus? Count on these people to object. Duke begins plans for a Central Campus renovation that will bring retail traffic into the city? They cry foul. No matter how often Burness assures this coterie of enraged citizens that Duke does not intend to crush unsuspecting Ninth Street mom-and-pop operations, they continue to make the Central renovation as miserable as possible.
Thank goodness our administrators are patient and have a plan that promises to strengthen Ninth Street by putting a pedestrian thoroughfare from West through Central to Ninth and then to East. Thank goodness the Duke-Durham Neighborhood Partnership Initiative continues to strengthen local civic projects. Imagine if Duke were actually antagonistic toward Durham!
The list of noble and good projects goes on. From genuine devotion to academic freedom to the Women’s Initiative, our administration has been more courageous than most of us realize. I am also proud of the men’s basketball program—not because of the number of Ws, but because it is the cleanest program in a dirty sport.
Some people will never be satisfied by Duke’s social conscience. I’m glad we have those long-hairs around to make sure we are not getting lulled into a false sense of security, but I am not among their number. Good people are running the show. Go Duke.
Andrew Collins is a Trinity senior and former University editor of The Chronicle. His column appears Tuesdays.
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