As 2015 winds down, The Chronicle takes a look at its top 10 news stories from 2015, beginning with an honorable mention. Check back each day to see which story will be revealed next as 2016 draws one day closer.
1. Students react to incidents of racism and homophobia
On the morning of April 1, a noose was discovered hanging from a tree on the Bryan Center Plaza. Students immediately responded to what was perceived to be a racially motivated hate crime, organizing a march through West Campus and joining forums and protests throughout the day, many of which were also attended by University administrators.
Shortly after, the Black Student Alliance created a list of action items, supported by Duke Student Government, to combat racism and inequality—including increased transparency of incident reports, additional orientation programs and the establishment of a Social Justice Fellowship.
The student who hung the noose was later identified and removed from campus, but returned the following semester after investigations at the local, state and federal level did not result in a criminal charge. The student wrote an anonymous letter to the Duke community May 1 explaining that the noose was hung as a joke, not as a racial insult.
The noose was just one of a number of incidents in 2015 that caused frustration and unease among students. Former James B. Duke professor Jerry Hough made a racially insensitive comment on a New York Times editorial in May; in October, a sign promoting a Black Lives Matter event was found defaced with a racial slur; less than two weeks after that, a homophobic death threat was found written on a wall in an East Campus dormitory.
In addition, students reported hearing racial slurs shouted by other students on at least two occasions, and the popular social media app Yik Yak was criticized for allowing people to anonymously post offensive messages.
Like many other colleges across the U.S., Duke experienced a rise in student activism and dialogue centered on the issues of inclusion and equality during the past several months. At a November forum held by President Richard Brodhead, Provost Sally Kornbluth and Valerie Ashby, dean of the Trinity College of Arts and Sciences, several students expressed concern over the perceived slowness and inefficacy of administrative actions, as well as the role of Yik Yak, Counseling and Psychological Services and The Chronicle.
A group of students then staged a second forum in response to complaints that the first forum was held at an inconvenient time, this time presenting the three administrators with a list of demands—among the demands were increased faculty diversity, a more defined protocol for dealing with hate crimes, more emphasis on students’ mental health and greater recognition of black University figures such as architect Julian Abele.
The list, though supported publicly by more than 20 faculty members, was not fully endorsed by the administration. However, a number of proposals were made: a new Task Force on Bias and Hate Issues, a new vice provost position dedicated to advancing faculty diversity and a new committee to assess ways of honoring Abele.
2. Paul Modrich becomes Duke's second Nobel laureate
Paul Modrich became the second standing member of Duke’s faculty to win a Nobel Prize, after Dr. Robert Lefkowitz won the prize in 2012. Modrich won the prize in Chemistry with Aziz Sancar of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Tomas Lindahl of the Francis Crick Institute in the U.K. for their work on DNA repair mechanisms. In December, Modrich traveled to Stockholm along with other Nobel laureates to receive the prize from King Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden.
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3. Duke reverses decision to broadcast Muslim call-to-prayer from Chapel bell tower
Controversy erupted both on campus and across the nation in January after the Duke Chapel agreed to have a Muslim call-to-prayer, or adhan, regularly broadcasted from the Chapel bell tower by the Muslim Students Association. While many on campus were supportive of the arrangement, the decision sparked nationwide dialogue and some political commentators strongly denounced the move.
This led to angry reactions from across the country directed at Duke, causing "serious and credible safety concerns" for members of the University community. In response, administrators moved the broadcast to the Chapel steps, disappointing many Duke community members. While some speculated that political or financial considerations played a part in moving the call to prayer, administrators and others involved in the decision denied that this was the case.
4. On-campus attacks raise security concerns
After going more than a year without an armed robbery on campus following increased security investments, the University had an armed robbery on Central Campus in February, one of many on-campus attacks in 2015. The February robbery occurred when a student reported being stopped by a man with a handgun, who demanded the student’s purse.
The second on-campus armed robbery of 2015 occurred in July when a victim unaffiliated with Duke reported that two men with a handgun demanded money near the 301 Swift Ave. apartments.
Less than a month after the July robbery, a female student was sexually assaulted in a taxi on West Campus after leaving Shooters II. A man was arrested and charged with second-degree sexual assault following the incident. In early September, Duke University Police Department doubled security on Central Campus after suspects with a handgun robbed a female student, compounding students’ housing concerns.
In addition to the on-campus robberies, dormitory burglaries spiked during move-in and two Central Campus residents reported spotting an unknown male in their apartment and two missing laptops in October.
Questions were raised in late September about the University’s handling of an attack on a hospital employee after “inconsistent information” was passed on after the incident. The attack added to controversy surrounding Duke’s health system following the settlement of the lawsuit involving cancer patients linked to Anil Potti and the introduction of a lawsuit filed by a professor who alleges that Duke and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill maintained a no-hire agreement that violated antitrust laws.
5. Campus facelift continues
Progress continued in 2015 on the West Union renovation, which began in 2013 and will end with the building’s full opening next Fall. The vendors that will occupy the new building were also announced—including Geer Street Garden, Sitar Indian Palace and Enzo’s Pizza.
But the West Union was just one of several construction projects occurring during the year, which kicked off with the opening of The Edge, a unique collaborative study space located on the first floor of Bostock Library. In May, Duke completed its construction of the water reclamation pond, becoming the first university in the country to open a major storm water reuse facility.
Students returning in the Fall witnessed the reopening of Page Auditorium after a year of renovations; the reopening of the Rubenstein Library and the main entrance to Perkins Library; a new glass entrance to the Bryan Center; and a revamped Edens Quadrangle with new areas for exercising, studying and gaming. The Fall semester also saw the start of construction of a new Arts Building on Campus Drive. On East Campus, Marketplace received its first major renovation in 20 years, an $8 million project that modernized the space and created new classrooms.
The centerpiece of the campus-wide renovation was the University’s iconic Chapel, which has been covered in blue scaffolding as it undergoes its first major restoration since its completion in 1932. The Chapel was not the only campus icon to be renovated this year—construction began at both Cameron Indoor Stadium, expanding for the first time in its history, and Wallace Wade Stadium, the closure of which caused commencement to be held at Durham Bulls Athletic Park in May.
6. Duke freshman makes national headlines by not reading 'Fun Home'
Freshman Brian Grasso became part of a national dialogue about censorship when he posted in the Class of 2019 Facebook group about his decision not to read “Fun Home,” Duke’s recommended summer reading book. Grasso said reading the graphic memoir by Alison Bechdel, which addresses the author's sexuality and that of her closeted father, would compromise his “personal Christian moral beliefs.”
In a column published by The Washington Post, Grasso explained that he specifically objected to the visual representations of sexuality, noting that the book included cartoon drawings of a woman masturbating and women having oral sex. His complaint, and his request that professors warn him about material he considers "immoral," fit into a larger dialogue about oversensitivity and trigger warnings on college campuses nationwide.
Many students responded to Grasso’s post, with several agreeing that the novel’s images conflicted with their beliefs. Others defended the book's literary value and said it could broaden students’ viewpoints. When Bechdel came to Durham, she spoke to a full house of students at the Durham Performing Arts Center and received a standing ovation.
7. A new scholarship program and another record-setting year of donations
As Duke has maintained its position as a top-10 national university—the University was ranked No. 8 by US News & World Report this year for the second year in a row—its financial aid offerings have fallen under increased scrutiny. During a year in which Duke brought in its most diverse freshman class ever, the administration announced the creation of a new scholarship program for first-generation students, the Washington Duke Scholars program.
The creation of the scholarship program came after the University’s endowment grew to a record-high $7.3 billion at the end of the last fiscal year and Duke set a record for private donations—$478.3 million—for the third consecutive year. Although the endowment is still a limiting factor in the University’s need-based aid offerings, DukeForward—Duke’s capital campaign that seeks to raise $3.25 billion by June 2017— had reached approximately $2.9 billion as of November.
2015 also featured another massive donation from David Rubenstein, chair of the Board of Trustees, who donated $25 million to fund construction of the new 71,000 square-foot Arts Center at the corner of Anderson Street and Campus Drive.
8. New faces in the administration
2015 marked a year of continued administrative turnover. Dr. A. Eugene Washington was appointed chancellor for health affairs and president and CEO of Duke University Health System; Valerie Ashby arrived from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to replace Laurie Patton as dean of the Trinity College of Arts and Sciences; and Denis Simon was selected as executive vice chancellor of Duke Kunshan University prior to the start of its second year. Meanwhile, George Truskey is serving as interim dean of the Pratt School of Engineering as a search committee looks to fill the shoes of former dean Tom Katsouleas, now provost at the University of Virginia.
The turnover has occurred at a pivotal time for Duke, as faculty are in the midst of a three-year curriculum review initiated by Patton, updating a curriculum that has not been modified since 2004. In addition, Duke is currently in the process of developing a new strategic plan for the first time since 2006. Nevertheless, administrators said that the University has worked to ensure a stable transition to the new leadership.
9. Student backlash to HDRL selective living group housing policy
Duke’s Housing, Dining and Residence Life office was met with strong student resistance when it announced in Spring 2015 that it would begin enforcing the mandate that 30 percent of residents in selective living groups and Greek housing be upperclassmen. The policy, which was announced in January 2012 but had not been enforced, states that 10 percent of upperclassmen resident must be seniors and that a possible consequence of non-adherence is that housing sections will be revoked. Dean for Residential Life Joe Gonzalez said he hoped upperclassmen living in section would provide leadership, noting that they “bring a level of maturity to the houses.”
Student reactions were generally negative—as was articulated in a widely circulated column by senior Caleb Ellis, who noted that enforcing the policy might limit the number of sophomores who could live on campus, change junior’s plans to study abroad and force seniors planning to live off campus back to a section they don’t want to be in. The policy was revised this fall, when the 30/10 guideline was replaced with a “20/Exec Standard” that states if juniors and seniors occupy 20 percent of the house and three of six HDRL-designated executive members live in section, the group can avoid a warning, probation and eventual loss of the house.
10. A sexual assault claim and reformed policies
A female freshman’s allegation that she was drugged and raped at an Alpha Delta Phi party off campus gained national attention in January. Phone records obtained by the Durham Police Department showed that the student likely left the party with a senior member of the fraternity and was taken to his apartment at approximately 3:30 a.m., before he returned her to her dorm—where she said she woke up the next afternoon with little memory of the night before.
Durham District Attorney Roger Echols announced in July that after “extensive and thorough investigation,” his office decided not to seek an indictment charging any subject of the investigation with a criminal offense. Echols noted that because the nature of the conduct investigated and the alleged offenses are "personal and sensitive," more details of the investigation would not be made public.
During the summer, the University revised its sexual misconduct policy to make it clearer and easier for students to use. Duke’s Interfraternity Council also created a student-led task force in June to investigate the role Greek life plays in sexual assault on campus and make recommendations to prevent and address the issue of sexual assault. In a 2014 survey by the student organization Duke Inquiries in Social Relations, 46 percent of respondents who reported being sexually assaulted reported that their assailant was Greek-affiliated.
Sexual misconduct will likely be a top story again in 2016, as the trial for Lewis McLeod—who was found guilty of sexual misconduct and is suing the University for his diploma—is set to begin next February.
Honorable mention: Paul Farmer’s commencement speech
One of the biggest stories of 2015 was the Class of 2015’s dissatisfaction with commencement speaker Paul Farmer, Trinity '82 and a member of the University’s Board of Trustees. The co-founder of international nonprofit Partners in Health, Farmer spoke for approximately 40 minutes at the Durham Bulls Athletic Park May 10. In addition to addressing the crowd about his experience bringing health care to the poorest parts of the world, Farmer made several jokes that upset many graduates.
On Oct. 29, President Richard Brodhead announced that Farmer will be followed by Duke men’s basketball head coach Mike Krzyzewski, a five-time national champion who is “an emblem of Duke itself,” Brodhead said. Krzyzewski will address the University’s next graduating class May 15, 2016.