The first time I heard that 52 percent of Duke students pay less than the sticker price of over $65,000 to attend this university, all I could think is that somehow 48 percent of the student population is paying full price.
Even when you attempt to control for those students on the fringe between receiving financial aid and not, the reality is that a significant portion of the student population—or, more precisely, their families—are able to afford education that annually is over $10,000 greater than the median income of Durham, N.C.
Over the past couple weeks, as administrators have been forced to grapple with the realities of bias, homophobia and racism that exist in the fabric of the institution and the Duke community, little has been made of the connection between those issue and the policies that have entrenched wealth and more specifically socio-economic inequality at Duke.
A few years ago, the administration and Board of Trustees endeavored to create a new model for housing at Duke, instituting a house model that afforded sections of housing to Greek and selective organizations while forming a swathe of randomized independent houses. The premise was simple. Now, everyone would have a community all four years on campus. The reality was far different. Like the great city models of the 1960s, we created the equivalent of gentrification in our housing policy, codifying the inherent inequalities structured into the Greek and selective system by separating selective and independent students.
The dues for entry into Greek organizations are in the hundreds to thousands of dollars, and even when financial aid is offered, it is typically not enough or adequate to the needs of students seeking to join these groups. What is more salient, however, than the clear economic cost to entry is the simple fact that, in order to “fit in” with a group of majority white, wealthy students, you as a student must be socialized culturally to exist in the space and be able to participate in a community built around wealth and privilege. Most of the world cannot afford Duke, yet a large portion of our student body can find refuge in the creation of communities, specifically Greek communities, that further socio-economic, LGBTQ and racial divisions.
As a university, we endow selective groups space on campus, the license to have unofficial houses off campus and more importantly allow them to perpetuate cycles of privilege as these social groups translate into professional and social networks that advantage certain students over others long after their four years on campus concludes.
Duke willfully or, more likely, without recognition, builds and reinforces the institutions we inhabit every day.
Greek life is just one of a multitude of examples of ways in which Duke as an institution is failing to address the fundamental inequalities and biases that shape our society. But I use it today to draw out a key contrast, namely that there are two primary models for social change for these issues. Conversations, bystander interventions and curbing individual biases change the individual actors in systems. Policies and processes that create institutions change the structures themselves and over time the individuals that operate within them.
The university’s leadership is right to note that as a collective community we each have a role to play in creating a safer, more equitable campus. But that frame of change lacks the broader systemic and structural foundations that only administrators themselves have the responsibility to maintain and the ability to change. We only begin to create lasting change in a community with little institutional memory and a four-year turnover when the policies that create and shape that community better reflect the values we seek to espouse.
Our ability to build and reconstitute has never been equal. Those with privilege whether that be due to their race, sexual orientation, religion or gender identity among other identity-related factors have a greater degree of influence. Those with greater wealth have an even higher degree of power to mold and create institutions that serve their purposes and better match their objectives especially in the age of money as an equivalent for political speech.
If we fail to make institutional changes, we become that which we incentivize, a training ground for the future elite and a space in which inequality is affirmed and further reinforced socially, politically and socio-economically.
If we decided that financial need should not be in any way a barrier to entry nor a barrier to thriving at Duke, we would create more programs like the new first generation scholars program and replace merit scholarships that are vestiges of a bygone era with more generous financial aid packages.
If we created an undergraduate housing system that was not based on any form of social affiliation, perhaps there would be fewer structural barriers that currently allow rich, elite, white students to congregate and perpetuate cycles of bias and privilege.
If we decided to criticize the students who willfully exist in spaces of wealth and privilege as much as we criticize Black Student Alliance (BSA), the People of Color Caucus and student activists as a whole for standing up for what is fundamentally right, maybe we’d finally start to see some shifts in the campus discourse to shine a light on the overt ways in which socio-economic inequality and bias in all of its forms on campus continue to perpetuate cycles of power and privilege.
I don’t presuppose to have solutions to the problems we face as a society because the precondition of a solution is the existence of some end ideal state. What we have are interventions that can push us forward to more equitable and just realities, but we have to opt-in to those changes despite the pushback in order to reach those futures we imagine. I pray we have the courage and the common sense to do so.
Jay Sullivan is a Trinity senior. His column runs on alternate Mondays.
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