We call for the resignation of Graduate and Professional Student Council (GPSC) President, Abigail Labella, following confirmation of her repeated misrepresentation of statements made by university and student leadership. At the Duke Tomorrow Discussion this past Friday, students learned that she misrepresented the statements of President Brodhead in order to block action on issues of interest to our community.
Colleen McClean, a former GPSC Executive member, stated the following at the forum:
“The Graduate and Professional Student Community has been working on issues of diversity and harassment this year in response to some concerns that came up within our community, particularly last semester. Some students formed a committee on diversity and made the recommendation that all incoming graduate and professional students would benefit from training in appropriate interaction with colleagues of difference, particularly as many students come from communities without much diversity or from international locations without an understanding of the situated relevance of race particularly for Duke and Durham. This mirrors requests that have come from the Duke Student Government. The current GPSC President, Abigail Labella, has told the diversity committee that she spoke with you about this recommendation and that the comment was that you were uninterested in developing a training program for incoming graduate and professional students.”
President Brodhead immediately repudiated this statement from the stage. Ms. McClean continued by asking, “I’m wondering if you can comment on if or why you feel that way and why this wouldn’t be seen as an important form of education that is part of the academic mission of the university?”
President Brodhead responded swiftly saying that “I can tell you that I do not feel that way and that if Abbe is in this room, I think that she will acknowledge that in fact I never said such a thing”. There were several calls at that time for Ms. Labella to identify herself; however she did not come forward and President Brodhead continued stating that undergraduate orientation had been improved and that “a similar orientation program for graduate and professional students is at least as important” and that we would “not find resistance to that from any of the Deans in any of the schools.”
We thank President Brodhead for his support and will communicate his true sentiments to the Diversity Committee and the broader graduate student community. We also thank Provost Kornbluth, who after the meeting expressed her agreement regarding the importance of training and offered to help facilitate communication with other campus leadership in order to explore integrating training into already mandatory Responsible Conduct of Research requirements across programs.
Ms. Labella, however, has repeatedly stated in meetings of the GPSC Diversity Committee, in Executive Committee meetings and in open assembly of the Council that President Brodhead does not support developing or implementing training in diversity and inclusion for graduate and professional students at Duke and that he has stated this would be difficult to implement across schools. These statements were used to prevent student leaders from working toward this easy solution. However, President Brodhead has denied all aspects of Ms. Labella’s statements.
Ms. Labella made further misrepresentation to diversity and executive committee members stating that Seth Pearson, President of the Black Graduate and Professional Student Association, had also asked President Brodhead about training for graduate and professional students and was met with the same response. Mr. Pearson denies having asked President Brodhead this question specifically and denies receiving this response.
These misrepresentations by Ms. Labella echo misrepresentations she made during statements on the Duke Chapel steps as President-elect following the April noose incident when she claimed to have met with minority affiliate groups and administrators with whom she had not met. These issues, among others, were addressed in a GPSC community forum held on April 7th, 2015, at which time students asked that Ms. Labella resign, and a two-thirds majority of general assembly representatives present expressed support of an amendment allowing recall of the elections by which Ms. Labella had won her seat. This amendment was however not allowed to reach the floor during the term.
Ms. Labella must retract her recent statements or she is openly accusing President Brodhead of lying to the university community. She has woefully misrepresented, either willfully through deceit or actively through incompetence, the statements and sentiments of top administration and placed an unnecessary and harmful barrier in the way of motivated graduate and professional student work to improve education at Duke. Her actions are counter to the mission of GPSC, place a fabricated wedge between students and administration and incite unproductive resentment and loss of dialogue.
We cannot speculate as to why Ms. Labella would wish to create divisions between students and administration nor why she would consistently misrepresent conversations addressing problems of diversity and civil conduct within our community. We can, however, ask in the strongest possible way that Ms. Labella stop these actions and stop claiming in word or by virtue of office to represent the graduate and professional student community.
At worst, Ms. Labella has flagrantly lied to her constituents. At best, she has been an incompetent communicator between university and student leadership, establishing her incapacity to carry out her principle responsibility as President and damaging both the standing and ability to take action of the graduate and professional student community. It is unlikely that university leadership will be willing to expose themselves to the potential for misrepresentation that dialogue with Ms. Labella represents. Similarly, it is unlikely that students will be willing to risk misrepresentation of their speech to administrators or other leadership by allowing Ms. Labella to speak on their behalf. Under these circumstances, our community can have no confidence in Ms. Labella’s ability to act as its leader.
Under any explanation, Ms. Labella has demonstrated herself unfit to serve as President of the Graduate and Professional Student Council. For these reasons, we ask that Ms. Labella resign from her position as President of GPSC immediately and issue a formal apology to the community for disruption of its positive action. We further ask that Ms. Labella return any honoraria monies she has already been paid and that these funds, allocated as $3000 annually from student activity fees, be returned to the council and used to initiate action towards the goals of the Diversity Committee.
Ms. Labella, please put the needs and concerns of your community first and resign your position as GPSC President. The graduate and professional student community can no longer have confidence in your words or actions on our behalf. In the absence of your resignation, we ask concerned university citizens to attend the Dec. 1, 2015, meeting of GPSC at 6:30 pm in TSCHE Learning Hall 2050 where we have asked for time to address these concerns.
Colleen McClean, Roketa Sloan and Jose Vargas-Muniz are graduate students writing on behalf of the Graduate and Professional Students for Truth and Transparency, a coalition of current and former Executive leaders from GPSC, other graduate student governments and graduate student organizations. Colleen McClean is also a member of The Chronicle’s Independent Editorial Board.
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