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Task Force on Bias and Hate Issues begins analysis

The Task Force on Bias and Hate Issues—conceived after the first community forum Nov. 13—held its first meeting Jan. 21.

The task force, co-chaired by Linda Burton, dean of social sciences and professor of sociology, and Kelly Brownell, dean of the Sanford School of Public Policy, consists of five undergraduate students, five graduate students and 17 faculty, administrators and alumni. During the course of three months, Burton said that the task force plans to make some headway on identifying critical bias and hate issues and to make recommendations about how to proceed in dealing with these issues. She believes that the task force is well-equipped to handle bias and hate issues on campus despite the time constraints.

“This is by far the most passionate, caring, well informed committee I have ever worked with at Duke,” Burton said. “However, we are not naïve enough to believe that in the three months that we work together that we are going to solve all of Duke’s problems.”

The task force selection committee received applications from 116 undergraduate and graduate students, which were narrowed down by Duke Student Government president Keizra Mecklai, a senior, Abbe LaBella, president of the Graduate and Professional Student Council, Brownell and Burton. Mecklai and Brownell were in charge of selecting the undergraduate students, and LaBella and Burton were in charge of selecting the graduate students.

The first round of applicants were selected after their written applications—which included answers to questions regarding what unique perspectives and experiences they could bring—were thoroughly read and scored. The scoring measured criteria including relevant experience, breadth and depth of campus involvement and understanding of a member’s role in the task force. The top applicants were then reviewed and discussed by the entire committee.

“We talked mainly about who would be a good fit,” Mecklai said. “We tried to put together a list of people who had good qualifications and made sure that we had a diverse variety of members socially, racially, gender-wise and experience-wise.”

Anne West, associate professor of neurobiology, noted in an email that she thinks the diversity of members in the task force will assist in addressing the cornerstone issues of freedom of speech, freedom of thought and freedom of inquiry.

“This is a big campus and issues often play out differently for different groups on campus,” West wrote. “Certainly having people from different parts of the campus represented on the task force will be very helpful for bringing ideas back out of those meetings to the many relevant communities University-wide.”

Burton said that during weekly meetings throughout the course of three months, the task force will mainly attempt to solve to central issues—identifying what hate and bias look like—specifically how they are experienced in everyday student life—and investigating the institutional and personal relationship factors that produce and reproduce hate and bias.

She noted that students, faculty and administrators alike have a responsibility to both identify and monitor hate and bias, and take ownership of these actions.

“This should be an ongoing process of vigilance in our community,” Burton said. “Students shouldn’t have to be in a situation where they need to demonstrate in order to get the administration’s attention to the fact that these things are happening in their lives on a daily basis.”

Burton also acknowledged the doubt voiced by many students on campus regarding the effectiveness of the task force, particularly evident when a coalition of students called DukeEnrage published an article titled, “To Hell with your Task Force!” after Brodhead’s announcement to assemble the committee. She discussed how these opinions are reflective of the idea of freedom of speech, a concept that will be integral to the committee’s work. Although Burton said she understands and respects students’ rights to voice their opinions, she said she hopes that the student body will keep an open mind.

“What I would ask of them is to look at us and see what we do over time and see how that fits in with their early assumption about what the task force would and would not be able to accomplish,” Burton said.

She further noted that the task force intends on being transparent and easily accessible to students. The committee is currently working on a website where individuals can find topics of previous committee discussion and can offer recommendations and ask questions about the task force’s direction.

LaBella expressed her optimism about this direction despite the complexity of the issue.

“This task force has an enormous amount of work ahead of them in a short amount of time,” LaBella said. “I believe we have selected a group of students who will contribute to the task force’s mission of providing thoughtful, proactive and substantial proposals for advancing Duke’s approach to issues of bias and hate.”


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