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​Cracking open the Open Campus Coalition

Last Wednesday, the Duke Open Campus Coalition published an open letter to President Brodhead in The Chronicle, requesting a meeting with the administration to “reaffirm the Duke community’s commitment to preserving ideals of reason, debate and intellectualism at Duke.” Though we appreciate and value intellectual debate and the need to have open dialogue and conversation, we find a number of fatal flaws in their arguments and reasoning.

The first point that the coalition makes is that Duke is not implicated as an institution by the acts of bigotry on campus. The argument that Duke student activists have made is that Duke has a long history of being a violent place for marginalized students, and that same history shapes what Duke looks like today. In fact, one of the sentences written in the statement is that “Good intentions do not necessarily translate into good policy.” Though intended to reference student activists, this statement simultaneously reinforces the fact that though administrators often have great intentions, that does not preclude broader racism, sexism and homophobia from presenting in our community.

The second point we disagree with. We have noted in the past that protestors often resort to drastic tactics as a result of prior failings. One of Duke’s most notable historical moments, the Allen Building takeover in 1968, was in fact a disruptive act of student defiance demanding more from the institution. Though we by no means approve of some of the protesters' actions we have seen this year, we recognize the range of approaches to change.

Regarding the definition of hate speech, we wrote in November of the need to better address hate crimes on campus and agree that great caution is required when dealing with speech.

The fourth point on education about bias, power and privilege, in particular, we take issue with. We have pushed for programs like this many times in the past. The University is a place of education and knowledge; the reason that students choose to come to universities is to be challenged. In the same way that curricular requirements develop competencies important enough to be literally required of your time here, Duke’s community needs discussion of these complicated topics. The coalition fears mandatory “reeducation” classes, ignoring that we are constantly being educated and reeducated by the media, our classes and our peers. There is a long history of academic research indicating systems of oppression are real and have powerful effects, and it is no exaggeration that many students enter Duke never having had serious conversations with people who are vastly different from them. We firmly believe that part of being a thoughtful, critical member of society is engaging in dialogue related to these issues of power structures.

Parts of the open letter are ultimately undermined by something revealed in its final point. Though we acknowledge that quotas and requirements disguised as quotas are out of the question in policies, the argument advanced is either a straw man or making a troubling assumption that hiring a diverse faculty necessarily trades off with quality. There are qualified candidates of all races, genders and more and bringing diversity to departments and classrooms is part of being qualified when we are talking about faculty positions at our diverse institution.

Our analysis of the coalition’s arguments aside, we urge members of the Duke community to continue having challenging conversations on race, gender, sexual orientation and other forms of identity. We have in the past noted the trend to hide away from challenging discussions surrounding race and privilege through the usage of the idea of free speech but affirm the letter’s original commitment to an “open intellectual climate on campus.”

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