Many students have expressed frustration with the University’s response to the death threat including a homophobic slur written on a wall in East Residence Hall Thursday.
The threat against freshman Jack Donahue—written in black marker—was discovered at approximately 3 a.m. Thursday morning and was removed Thursday afternoon. The Office of Student Affairs released an email Friday night at approximately 11:30 p.m. to the student body stating that “Duke does not and will never condone intolerance” after a protest was held on the Chapel steps that afternoon.
Students said they were dissatisfied with the email’s wording and the relatively delayed response from Duke administration almost 48 hours after the threat was first discovered.
“We do appreciate [the email] but other universities are setting precedents much higher,” said senior Tyler Nelson, president of Blue Devils United. “[The administration] stepping up a little would do a lot to make this campus a more inclusive place.”
Nelson explained that he wished the administration had responded in a “right up front and personal” way, adding that the administration is responsible for setting precedents for students and future campus leaders.
Junior Rory Eggleston said she takes issue with how the email referred to the death threat against Donahue as “defamatory language.”
“It was not a defamation,” she said. “It was more than that, it was a threat.”
Eggleston added that she thought it was strange that the administration did not respond more immediately and waited to send the email until late at night the following day.
Sue Wasiolek, associate vice president for student affairs and dean of students, explained that there is not a set process for writing emails in response to campus incidents, but that the email sent Friday involved the collaboration of the entire leadership team of student affairs.
“It involved 13 different people,” she said. “That takes a little more time.”
After the defacement of a Black Lives Matter flyer with racial slurs Oct. 23, an email from Vice President for Student Affairs Larry Moneta was also not sent to students until the following evening.
In addition to the slow response, some noted the lack of administrative presence at the gathering on the Chapel steps, where approximately 250 students convened to show support for the LGBTQ community. Nelson, who gave a speech at the event urging Duke to assume a zero tolerance policy against similar acts of violence, noted that he did not see any administrators there.
Zoila Airall, assistant vice president of campus life for student affairs, wrote in an email that she “saw many of my colleagues from Student Affairs out in support and a few people from the Allen Building.”
Eggleston noted that she feels the administration has been evaluating incidents—including the threat against Donahue, defacement of the Black Lives Matter flyer and the discovery of a noose on the Bryan Center Plaza April 1—on a case-by-case basis. Instead, they should address the fact that these are systematic issues, she explained.
“Acts like this don’t exist in a vacuum,” she said. “There’s an underlying current of thought that it’s okay to say these things.”
Junior Morgan Schultz also noted that she was unhappy with the administration’s handling of recent events involving discrimination on campus.
“The administration seems to confine manifestations of systematic oppression to isolated incidents, when they’re not,” she said. “This goes for their response to racist, homophobic and other types of hateful behaviors.”
Although specific administrative responses to incidents have been documented, the question of how much power the administration has to influence campus climate still remains.
Lisa Bergene, associate dean for East Campus for Housing, Dining and Residence Life, explained that the administration does not have as much power as people might think and that change only will occur when students influence each other.
“[Administration] can threaten or even dole out punishment but that won’t force people to be more open to learning about or caring about the experience of others,” she wrote in an email. “Changing the way a person thinks is usually not accomplished by policy.”
Currently, the administration is responding to issues of racism and discrimination on campus by hosting training sessions, discussions and gatherings as well as supporting student groups who coordinate these events, she wrote.
Bergene also noted these initiatives are not as effective as members of the campus community changing their own behavior and expectations.
“The bigger impact will come when students choose to influence their peers and challenge their way of thinking,” she wrote.
Airall said the University needs to implement a multi-pronged approach that would include raising awareness of these issues during first-year orientation and providing cultural competency and social justice training as well as implicit bias training for all faculty and staff.
Nelson noted that a united effort between students and university figures would be beneficial, and that efforts to improve campus inclusivity from the administration and students may not have to be separate.
Another form of administrative response to recent campus events was revealed Tuesday when President Richard Brodhead announced in an email to students that there will be an open forum Friday at noon in Page Auditorium with Brodhead, Provost Sally Kornbluth and Valerie Ashby, dean of the Trinity College of Arts and Sciences.
“Collaboration between student leaders and the administration would really push the University forward,” Nelson said.
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