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Q&A: Administrators discuss ongoing conversations with sit-in students, approach moving forward

Admins requested students vacate the building earlier Monday afternoon

<p>Students have been protesting outside the Allen Building since Friday afternoon.</p>

Students have been protesting outside the Allen Building since Friday afternoon.

Following administrators’ announcement Monday afternoon that they will no longer negotiate with the Allen Building sit-in students unless the students voluntarily vacate the building, The Chronicle’s Claire Ballentine and Amrith Ramkumar spoke with Larry Moneta, vice president for student affairs; Steve Nowicki, dean and vice provost for undergraduate education; and Michael Schoenfeld, vice president for public affairs and government relations, about the announcement, the decision to give sit-in students amnesty and the ongoing negotiations with students.

The Chronicle: We’ve been hearing a lot about the discussions with students that have been going on in the Allen Building since Friday. What have those discussions been like and where do they stand now?

Larry Moneta: We started this morning with preliminary thoughts about all of the demands. We spent last night, a fairly lengthy period of time, everyone as a team working through, each looking seriously for ways to resolve it, ways to find solutions. And we began this morning, with an apology from [Tallman] Trask and I think you saw that it was a pretty quick, not as quick as it appeared in public, but I think it was a pretty quick agreement on that. It just became clear that these [issues] are much more complex, much more nuanced—they require more voices both from within the student community and others that the students are working with as well as from the administration and faculty. We went on for quite a bit of time.

When we took a break, that’s when we began to realize that this is going to be a long-term marathon—this is not a sprint. And the closure of the Allen Building, there were 35 classes [disrupted], close to 1,000 students, not to mention staff and faculty.

We concluded that we believe we’ve demonstrated good faith. It didn’t take us very long to agree to amnesty. We don’t want our students to be arrested. We don’t want our students to suffer unnecessarily for being activists. We three in our age group probably have more support for activism than you might even find among some of the students themselves. So it didn’t take us long to support that, it didn’t take us long to want to dig into the demands to see what resolutions we could find.

We’ve tried to be accommodating with food and other kinds of things. One student had a health care need this morning, and we had her transported to student health and transported right back even though technically they aren’t supposed to be leaving. We’ve said when it comes to health care whatever is necessary, so we arranged for that so she could be treated and returned. But you know this is going to go on for a long time and we need to get back to business and classes in the Allen Building, so what we’ve said to students is that you have our full commitment that our negotiations will continue with you, there is no intent to back off authenticity and seriousness in our approach.

We hope we’ve demonstrated that good faith by immediately working to look for a resolution. So there is a little bit of trust that’s called for here that we have no intent of stopping that, but we need to get the building vacated. We need to get the building back in use. Fundamentally, what we’ve said is that as soon as you voluntarily vacate the building, we’re prepared to sit down and start developing approaches to continuing the conversation about the demands.

TC: The question then is what will happen if they don’t vacate the building?

Steve Nowicki: One thing that’ll happen is that Duke students will suffer because they won’t be able to take classes, and Duke faculty will suffer. The biggest impact of the Allen Building being closed is not on the administration, it’s on the students.

Michael Schoenfeld: It’s easy to think of the Allen Building as the second floor and the dean’s office, but there are academic departments there, there are important advisory functions there, the arts leadership, provost’s office and a lot of classrooms and faculty offices. So it’s a very active crossroads of the University. Having it closed because, frankly, we need to ensure the safety and welfare of the people inside the building and those who are passing by, with crowds of protesters out front—it has created over the weekend a potentially intimidating and hostile environment for people walking through.

LM: As it pertains to the students themselves—we’re not reneging on our amnesty commitments. They’re still not subject to disciplinary or criminal [actions]. We’re true to our word and we wanted that to be part of the narrative, that none of this is an intent to back off commitments we made. We hope they don’t choose to simply hunker down. We have no means of avoiding that. We know there are faculty who are trying to talk with them as well and we’re hoping some of their faculty and others they have confidence in can convince them that the university is honest in its willingness to maintain all of our negotiations. But it’s time to let students and faculty and staff have access to the building, return to their uses and let us sit down and figure out ways to keep the conversation going.

TC: Why was it decided that they would be asked to leave today after administrators originally saying they would be asked to leave Sunday?

MS: We never said anyone was going to be forced to leave, evicted, arrested. When students entered the building on Friday, they had implicit permission because we did not revoke it even though the building was closed over the weekend. They had permission until the permission to be in the building was revoked. We indicated that to the students early on, that at some point on Sunday, their permission to be in the building would be revoked. That’s the process we are in right now. Students do not have permission to be in the building.

LM: We were heading down a more punitive path and I think as we thought about it, we concluded that that wasn’t going to get us anywhere, and that we would rather have been on a collaborative path. So we shifted course on Sunday to move towards the amnesty with the hopes we could actually advance the conversation. We’d met with the students and Dean Nowicki has met with the students, and I’ve had two meetings with them. We find that the conversation goes in different ways. There was optimism on Sunday that perhaps with the amnesty in place, we could really make good progress on Monday. We started well on Monday, then things began to bog down. It just became clear that we need the building back. We waited there Monday thinking, we said to them our goal is to resolve this today, if we have to be here until midnight or 2 a.m., we’re willing to do that. By 3 [p.m.], 4 [p.m.] we still weren’t past one of the demands and I think that’s what led us to say, we really need to shift approaches and invite students to vacate the building as a condition of our continuing the conversation.

TC: What’s the decision process like, is that President [Richard] Brodhead giving the go ahead, is that the two of you collaborating with Dean Sue [Wasiolek, assistant vice president for student affairs and dean of students], is there anything you can tell us about that?

LM: It’s the senior administration of the University. President Brodhead has been consulted with every formal decision. But it’s a collaborative effort, including faculty who have been a part of our conversations.

TC: What is the state of negotiations at the moment?

LM: We’re on hold. We’ve met with them, we’ve shared our requests with them.

SN: But I think it’s fair to say, I went in Saturday—we did not make progress. But we actually have developed a set of responses beyond what was published—specific action items—to address many of the specific demands. The challenge was that the students as I understand, what you and Dean Sue and Provost [Sally] Kornbluth said, simply wouldn’t give at all.

LM: We went in with a couple, and actually offered recourse that was stronger and more significant than their requests. As an example, one of their demands was about investigation inquiry into a couple of offices. And we said, what if we actually offered to create a grievance process including anonymous calls where a staff member or employee or any worker who feels like they were discriminated or subject to [harassment] could report that. It wouldn’t be limited to one or two departments but basically for the whole university. We weren’t able to get past that. I think we went in in some ways with even more significant options than some of the demands. But I think it’s just hard—it’s a group of well intended students that are connected to a whole virtual community, there are competing interests playing themselves out. That’s part of what has bogged this all down.

TC: I know other faculty and graduate students were allowed to go in today. Are there any specific names you can give us?

LM: No, I think we would let them share the names. They had asked us based on specific points of the negotiation if others—that they had confidence in and who they felt had some expertise—could join them. We said yes, but had to vet the names because there are active lawsuits and for some it creates an inappropriate legal liability. So having done that, we approved two and had them join us.

SN: It was a good faith measure to show that we the administration was really serious about engaging.

TC: What is the policy regarding tents outside?

LM: There are any number of policies regarding outdoor gatherings, and there are policies we could interpret to make this inappropriate and there are policies that suggest we’ve let students put up tents. There are times you lead with policy and then there are times you lead with logic. We concluded it was in Duke’s best interest not to be provocative when we didn’t need to be provocative. We didn’t want students to believe we had an ulterior motive or hidden agenda that we told them we were still going to negotiate in full faith and then we come out and swoop in on their supporters outside. I think we’ve been pretty hands-off in trying to let this thing play out safely.

SN: We hope that the safety and security of the other 13,000 members of the Duke community isn’t compromised by a hundred people or whatever, which can happen. Certainly, the mood outside the Allen Building has been very provocative and intimidating at times. I’ve gone through it and it was very intimidating to me. I had to be escorted out by a police officer. I worry about my administrative assistant. I wouldn’t want her to run that gauntlet. I wouldn’t want a typical Duke student to run that gauntlet.

TC: Can you elaborate about what is intimidating? We have seen decorations of the inside on Twitter.

LM: It looks like a dorm now on the inside.

SN: It’s gaining access to the building entrance and egress from the building [that is intimidating], that’s why we can’t let the building be opened. From what several of us have experienced now, going in and out—we just can’t subject the Duke community to that. So far there has not been any violence, but when I was coming out a second time, I felt like it was just a hair away from somebody doing some unfortunate spontaneous thing and throwing a punch at me. That could have happened.

LM: We’re crossing our fingers and maintaining our lean to non-provocation and for the hopes that we have a responsible community, we generally do. It’s not to say that we don’t have precautions and it’s not to say that we don’t have Duke police and other [security] just keeping a watchful eye but unless there’s a reason to intervene we’re gonna lead with thoughtfulness. You know there are policies and there are occasions where we may have to leverage those but right now that doesn’t seem to be the wisest approach to take.

TC: Is the plan now just to see what happens the rest of the day and then re-assess it?

LM: I think we only shared the information with the students at about 3 [p.m.] so it’s a couple hours and they have a large family to engage with and we will respect their time to do that. We would love them to leave today, we would love to open the building back up with business as usual tomorrow, but we’re willing to be patient.

MS: At some point later today we’ll have to make a decision about the use of the building tomorrow. There will be another notice from dean of students. That will happen by email later today but as Dr. Moneta said we’re taking this a couple hours at a time.

TC: I know you gave a speech at one point earlier in the year about questioning authority—is that one of the reasons that you all switched course? Because they were all questioning authority peacefully?

SN: If you talk about that speech, I actually pointed out that the way that slogan was used back when it was coined was not always the wisest way. I asked people to question authority with wisdom. I don’t believe that giving non-negotiable demands presented without a conversation is an effective way to question authority. At some point, questioning authority has to happen from a dialogue and a discussion to understand what the issues are. I fear that the political mood of this country in a number of dimensions is what we’re seeing here—my way or no way at all.

TC: What has the working process been like for all of you?

SN: I think most of us are here pretty much all of the time anyway, but we’d rather be doing good things for all of you. I was going to be on campus working with a group of students on a particular issue, but I’ve had to cancel that.

MS: We’re usually here through the weekend, although not always quite as much or quite as intensely as this weekend. We all also have remote other offices that we can work from. Our staffs are either working from home or other locations.

The cascading impact of keeping a building closed sounds like it would be most damaging to the administration, but as we’ve talked about with classes and offices being closed, we’re starting to think about things like work-study students who work in Allen and employees who work in the building. It’s a cascading, rolling implication—a disruption that is starting to accumulate.

SN: I’ve told work-study students who work in my office that they can’t come in, but that I will pay them anyway. I can’t have them suffer for this.

TC: What has the media policy been for external media?

MS: Duke has a longstanding policy as a private institution that if someone wants to come on campus with a news camera then they have to check in with the news office. We almost always grant access. Our policies are pretty open and pretty transparent—you can go to the place where you want to go, but you’re not allowed to go inside buildings or residence halls. We want to protect the safety and privacy of the people who go to school here, the people who live here and the people who work here.

TC: What has the policy for students inside to get supplies been?

SN: We’ve offered from the very beginning to get them whatever they need, and they’ve chosen not to have us provide them with food and supplies.

LM: Except today, when I asked what they wanted, and they said Grace’s [Cafe] So I had Grace’s delivered.

SN: They’ve chosen to have their friends deliver supplies, so the only reason there is a two-hour window is logistics. This is managing for safety and security.

MS: We’ve had a number of well-meaning people who want to get into the building—to either help the students or be part of the event.

LM: I will say having been there most of the day—they’re not starving. They have more food than Harris Teeter. There’s a humor to all this, but we’re being serious about wanting a resolution that is safe and that is authentic in our commitment to maintaining our decision. We know that is a hard thing to convince students who do not trust the administration—whose activism is centered on their distrust.

We understand and appreciate that, and I think that’s why we’ve been so earnest about trying to prove our authenticity by being as forthright as we can. There is a leap of faith, to be sure, that they would need to take in order to walk out and believe that now that they have no occupying leverage, we will still continue to negotiate. All we can say is that we have to be as good as our word. The statement we issued said publicly—now read by tens of thousands, I assume—that we are committed to maintaining the negotiations.

SN: We’ve already in good faith acted on a number of the demands.

MS: Negotiation by its very nature is a two-way street. A non-negotiable position is a very selfish one. That’s not what we’re about, and that’s not what we believe the students are about.

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