On Monday, the Duke community learned the shocking story of an alleged criminal incident involving Executive Vice President Tallman Trask. Before a football game in 2014, Trask hit a game day parking attendant with his car and allegedly called out a racial slur as he abruptly left the scene. Shelvia Underwood, the attendant, sought medical care for a muscle contusion and possible elbow fracture shortly afterwards. Trask “categorically denied” hitting Underwood with his car until The Chronicle presented him with a copy of the apology note he had written to her for the incident.
We also learned that a special events manager for the Parking and Transportation Services department made clear to President Richard Brodhead that the allegations made against Trask were part of a hostile and discriminatory environment within PTS, claims corroborated on Tuesday after interviews with 12 current and former PTS employees by The Chronicle. We urge all students to read these articles to better understand the severity of these incidents. These investigative reports highlight our previously articulated concerns about how administrative conflicts of interest can manifest at Duke and how our community must not back down from addressing systemic issues of race and inequality.
Trask conducts himself as though he is untouchable more often than any administrator should, evidenced by a reputation for not properly displaying his parking permits and his outright lie to The Chronicle when first asked about hitting Underwood. Legally, for Trask to leave the scene without ensuring Underwood’s well-being possibly constitutes a criminal offense and, at a basic level, is behavior no student trying to become a scholar “in the service of society” should see in one of our highest ranking University leaders.
We find ourselves even more concerned that the Trask incident and reports by the PTS employees reflect fundamental flaws in our administration’s hierarchy of oversight and accountability. PTS and the Duke University Police Department are supervised by VP of Administration Kyle Cavanaugh, who is directly supervised by Trask, yet DUPD was the body investigating Underwood’s complaint. Further, while deputized to carry out investigations, DUPD’s status as a private police force exempts it from regulations on many federally supervised departments. This allowed DUPD to decline to provide Underwood with any part of her police report until Underwood spoke with the Raleigh Police Department, at which point DUPD released only the report's first page to her. Additionally, PTS employees gave voice to their lack of faith in the Office of Institutional Equity’s complaint channels, mirroring faculty concerns in the Task Force on Diversity’s report. While Cavanaugh stated that all such complaints were investigated and resolved, students, faculty and administrators ought to be gravely concerned about the current state of transparency, accountability and fairness in some administration policies.
We call today for a significant overhaul of University oversight and documentation and the removal of glaring conflicts of interest that contribute to their flaws. We ask university administrators to put their promises into action and not accept the inappropriate and hostile behavior reported through these investigative pieces. We are tired of reading lawyer-proofed responses that hint at unspecified progress which fails to acknowledge the real experiences being reported. We are concerned that those affected by changes in policy, such as the employees in PTS, are not being included in conversations about these changes. We are further unsettled that those who have committed simply indecent and unkind acts here have not been held sufficiently accountable. Ultimately, Duke must be better about addressing these concerns before they reach such flashpoints, lest we never achieve the open and equitable community we aspire to be. Tomorrow’s editorial will turn to the responses so far of students and administrators.
Correction: An earlier version of this editorial mistakenly stated that DUPD released Underwood's full police report to her after she spoke with Raleigh PD. It should have reflected that DUPD never released the full report to any party and eventually released only the report's first page to Underwood. The Chronicle regrets the error.