The independent news organization of Duke University

Leave the demands in 1969

in reply to recent demands made by black and latino students

When a group of students protested in the Allen Building on February 13, 1969, they released 10 requests titled “The Black Demands.” The list of demands was developed by this early generation of activists and it yielded some good results. Duke now has a fully accredited African and African-American Studies Department, for example.

This medium for public discourse is making a resurgence on college campuses across the country. Lists of student demands have been published at more than 70 colleges and universities from Yale to UC Berkeley. At Duke, we’ve seen two noteworthy lists: “The Demands of Black Voices” released Nov. 20, 2015, and the list of demands published by Mi Gente in The Chronicle Jan. 25, 2016.

As members of the Duke Open Campus Coalition, we have great reservations about lists of demands as a productive medium for public discourse today.

A “demand” is a request made when an individual or group feels that something owed them—a thing, or a right—is denied. Demands are justified, perhaps necessary, when an established right is being violated. For example, The Black Demands of 1969 demanded equal police protection for black students, a right which was guaranteed but not upheld by Duke administration.

Today, the situation is completely different. The Demands of Black Students and Mi Gente are not requests that Duke uphold the basic rights of students of color. A fully staffed Latinx cultural center may be a benefit, but it is not a right.

It seems to us that both the Demands of Black Voices and Mi Gente request items not guaranteed to students as a right, even though they may be beneficial. For instance, both demand new hiring practices to ensure the ethnic diversity of Duke faculty and staff. Mi Gente called for “increasing Latinx faculty members in every academic and student affairs department,” while the Demands of Black Voices also requested that the university “attain representation of women and professors of color in regular ranked and tenured faculty positions equal to their representation in the student population by 2020.”

These do not tweak existing policy. They propose a new core objective in hiring faculty: ethnic diversity. Currently, the Mission Statement for Duke University requires that we choose “individuals of outstanding character, ability, and vision to serve as its officers, trustees and faculty.” We all agree that faculty and administration must be of sound character and among the most qualified in their field.

We too agree that Duke benefits from a more diverse student body and faculty. There is no need to debate the merits of diversity in the academy.

Students do not yet agree that a diverse faculty is a right. Students do not know whether the University can construct diversity in a way that is manageable and beneficial. We all have many basic questions: Why is there a lack of diversity in the faculty? How can we hire more faculty of color and be sure that we hire the best in the field? How could we coordinate this effort across Duke’s twelve schools and institutes and nearly 3,500 faculty members? How quickly could this be done?

The fact is that not all students are empowered to ask these questions of those making the demands. Skepticism from any side is characterized as ignorance. Honest questions from students are met with condescension and judgment. Students of color who have doubts about these demands are afraid to voice their opinions lest they seem unsupportive. We feel, quite simply, that this undermines our university’s commitment to “free and open inquiry.”

In the end, the issue today is not that the administration ignores student demands. The issue is that students are making demands rather than making their case. Demands will continue to be met with a lukewarm response—by both administrators and students—until those making the demands can engage with the questions and critiques of the larger student body. Students should make proposals backed by thorough research, offer specific recommendations that can be put into practice and subject their ideas to campus-wide debate.

As members of the Duke Open Campus Coalition, we applaud Mi Gente’s effort to make the student body aware of one particularly unjust expectation that Mi Gente fund the Latino Student Recruitment Weekend. Previously unaware of this, we enthusiastically support their efforts to rectify it.

We do not support their issuing of ten far-reaching demands because we do not believe that lists of demands have a place in the conversation today. Demands do not answer people’s questions because they suggest that the answers are already clear. Worse, demands guarantee further tension and mistrust between students and the administration. Even when the demands are impractical, students can blast the administration for being negligent when the demands remain unmet.

A list of demands assumes that all other channels of communication have been exhausted. This is not the case. The Task Force on Bias and Hate Issues commissioned in 2015 is scheduled to make its initial report to President Brodhead in April. The administration is opening new channels such as this task force to address inequities on campus. It is counterproductive to dismiss it as “another committee designed for the sole purpose of discarding student demands” before we know what changes, if any, it brings.

In the meantime, we look forward to hearing from students with experiences and opinions different than ours. We know Duke can be a more equitable place, and we hope to discuss any substantive proposal to this end. Until students are willing to engage in open conversation with their classmates, we kindly ask that they leave the list of demands in 1969.

Breanna Atkinson is a Trinity senior, and Zach Heater is a Trinity junior.

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