Two weeks ago I returned home to my dorm to find a death threat against me on my wall. It read: “Death to all fags @ Jack.” I am Jack. I am gay. I am the fag.
This past Thursday I was similarly assaulted in President Richard Brodhead’s office during a meeting in which he invited me, queer student leaders, and staff from the Center for Sexual and Gender Diversity to discuss what happened to me, other LGBTQIA+ and race issues on campus, and how they all might be addressed. I realized while being a guest in Brodhead’s office that the issue on this campus and others is that administrators stand apart from their oppressed students and not with them.
Many claim that to blame the administration for the acts of a few bigoted students is to scapegoat. However, it is also clear that the administration sets the tone for campus culture and student expectations. This is why it is not currently the student activist or the muckraking paper that needs to step up to the plate of social justice. Rather, it is the administration, starting with its president. After all, it was another president, Harry S. Truman, who once had a sign on his desk that read: “The buck stops here.”
Duke has a troubled queer history. Given Duke’s opposition to homosexuality for religious qualms, expulsion of gay men in the 1960s, and use of CAPS as LGBT conversion therapy, Duke has never been the paradigm of tolerance.
Currently, as a prelude to the passivity and indifference shown to the student body at Friday’s forum, I was witness to a similar display of administrative docility and unwillingness to engage in our president’s office the day prior.
Amongst campus incidents of racism and homophobia, I ironically found myself committing ageism as I held Brodhead to a low standard incongruent with his high position. Brodhead began the meeting by offensively and nonsensically saying how he identifies with the “he, him, his,” “she, her, hers,” and “they, them, theirs” gender pronouns. This misuse of these gender pronouns immediately distanced Brodhead from us and showed his lack of knowledge or even care for the LGBTQIA+ community: The very community he had invited into his office to supposedly support. With this disheartening opener, Brodhead continued to refuse to commit to any true course of action, to talk over our campus’s preeminent queer student leaders, and to ostensibly teach me queer history.
While Brodhead is an issue in this matter, administrations nationally fall into the same trap of ineffectual tenancy of what is meant to be an influential position. Far too frequently administrators like Duke’s worry only about their university’s reputations and try to silence voices of social justice rather than acknowledge and explore the issues running rampant on their campuses. Sadly, administrations allow themselves to participate in a show of puppetry as they do only as much as alumni donors allow them to. One of the most sacred of bonds, the one between students, faculty, and administration, has been overridden by a new alliance: the administration and its alumni donors.
In my experience, Duke prefers to intellectualize issues and systems of oppression so that it can distance itself from them. The administration prefers forums and emails rather than protests and detailed action plans. Instead of a handshake form the president, I would like for issues of my safety to be addressed. I would like tighter security in my dorm. I would like to challenge our country’s true bigots on their claims of “legitimate homophobia.” The recent outcry of student activists has not been born of futility or boredom. It has been a reclamation of the identity of the student activist, which is an identity intrinsically crucial to campus climates and top-down ideology in America, and a demand for critical reassessment of cultural and systemic oppression.
While Brodhead was right to say that “no single administrative thing…is the solution to the whole problem,” an authentic and purposeful administrative desire to actually support and respond to student plights needs to be the first step on both Duke’s and other campuses. Enemies against our fight for social justice are most often the cultural and social systems of oppression. These days, at Duke, Mizzou, Yale, and elsewhere, it’s the administrators, like Brodhead and the others in Allen Building, who have become the enemies of social justice. It seems that we just might have an enemy on campus.
I hope that my words can be perceived in the most constructive way possible. Clearly, furthering the gap between students and administrators is the antithesis to what I am advocating for. Systems of oppression frequently need brutal reassessment and restructuring. Systems of leadership are no different.
Jack Donahue is a Trinity freshman.
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