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Co-chairs of task force on bias and hate issues reflect on recommendations, success of committee

<p>The task force on bias and hate issues, co-chaired by&nbsp;Kelly&nbsp;Brownell (left) and Linda Burton, released its final report in May.&nbsp;</p>

The task force on bias and hate issues, co-chaired by Kelly Brownell (left) and Linda Burton, released its final report in May. 

Last month, the University’s task force on bias and hate issues released its final report to President Richard Brodhead and the student body. Duke administrators have since announced plans to consider the report’s recommendations for the upcoming year. The Chronicle’s Neelesh Moorthy spoke with the task force’s co-chairs—Kelly Brownell, dean of the Sanford School of Public Policy, and Linda Burton, dean of social sciences—about their work and how their report can lead to changes in campus culture.

The Chronicle: During the protests in the Allen Building, there was a lot of discussion and skepticism about how beneficial committees and task forces could actually be in effecting change. This report suggests the University establish another standing committee to release an action plan by the end of Fall 2016. Could you respond to skeptics’ concerns?

Kelly Brownell: My impression about this is that the university administrators who ultimately make the decisions about these things have a lot on their plate, and committees are helpful in advising them. Committees can do a tremendous amount of work, a lot of it behind the scenes, in order to make proposals that the University can then choose to follow up on.

Our committee spent countless hours working on this topic in-depth and that’s homework, if you will, that advises the administration on what to do.

Linda Burton: That really captures the scope and depth of why its so important to have these committees. None of these issues the Duke community deals with are simple, and we often use the term they have ‘multiple tentacles’ involved. Committees are useful in taking up the smaller parts of those tentacles and to unpack them in ways that are helpful for the greater good.

You have to understand the nuanced issues as well as some of the broader issues that are involved in these situations.

TC: But how does a task force ensure that its recommendations aren’t just lost in a stack of paper or forgotten amidst all the other administrative workload?

KB: I would say the standing committee is a mechanism of ensuring there is follow-up. I have the feeling our president and provost are highly committed to addressing these issues, and I am confident there will be follow-up.

LB: The other thing to add is that if you had been in the room with us, you would have seen how committed the entire team was, so we’re very confident about that. We certainly would not have used up so much of our time if we thought that this was just going to sit on a desk somewhere and gather dust.

TC: Does entering a presidential transition make it any harder to get the ball rolling on these changes?

LB: I wouldn’t think so, because it is in Duke’s best interest in terms of making sure the students, faculty and staff are in a positive environment that I’m sure in selecting the new president they will be looking for an individual who can carry these things through.

The world is so much bigger than Duke, and there are universities across the country that are dealing with these issues, so it's not likely there will be difficulty because there is commitment at multiple levels to make sure these things are implemented and are carried through.

KB: There’s also the fact that the provost will be one source of continuity, and the reporting mechanisms we suggested go through the provost not the president. The Board of Trustees are also committed to these issues, so I see every reason to think there will be continuity.

TC: In the report, there was a mention of wanting to focus on long-term solutions rather than the short-term ones. Won’t some students feel like in their four years their issues might not be immediately addressed or fixed?

KB: The spirit of that particular point was that a university has to be more than reactive to high-profile events, like the noose on campus. You need to simultaneously work on solutions that are helpful over the long-term. That doesn’t mean it will take the long-term to get those changes started, just that they will continue to have an impact.

TC: At the community forum, one student asked President Brodhead if he would acknowledge the University has a history of discrimination or racism. He declined to do so. How does the task force tackle such a question if it was asked this?

KB: The way the committee came down on this is that there is hate, bias, discrimination and racism inherent in our culture. We don’t know about all institutions, but we assume this affects all institutions, including universities and Duke.

We didn’t do thorough research on this, but from what we did we found that Duke has as much of it as any other peer university has. That’s too much, and it needs to be addressed, but I don't think Duke stands out. We’re part of the picture.

LB: In addition to that, we want to think about the fact that it's not just a question of the administration admitting that hate and discrimination exist. One of the things we wanted to make sure people understood is that we have to own the presence of hate and bias on our campus. It's not just administrators. It's students, it's faculty and staff as well.

TC: Did the task force discuss Yik Yak during its deliberations? That’s a forum for many of the hate and bias issues we’ve seen and runs into the issues of free speech President Brodhead has often mentioned when dealing with hate and bias.

LB: We did cover that somewhat. As you know, we were on a very, very short timeline so we didn’t have time to go into it in great detail. We do mention it in the report as a mechanism for how people can spread hate and bias type language or perspectives and in the alternative way as well. We made note of that.

One of the things that makes the current climate so different than prior years when these issues have been discussed is technology. People can spread erroneous information and make comments that touch a lot of people in a very short period of time. We discussed this as an issue that is inherent in any programs we develop in the future.

This gets into the thorny issue of free speech, and we struggled with that when writing this report. At this point, we do not have a recommendation on how to deal with Yik Yak.

TC: Another thing mentioned is diversity in the classroom—both in faculty diversity and in the diversity of writings presented to students. How does this get fixed? Do you recommend a form of affirmative action?

KB: I wish we had had time to dive into that in the kind of detail that would provide an answer to that question. But there are other committees on campus that can deal with that kind of issue, so what we decided to do was articulate a principle and let them think about how that can be executed.

TC: What about you personally? How do you think teaching diversity can be improved?

KB: I can give you an answer from my own teaching. I’ve taught courses on food and food policy, and one of the things I deal with is racial inequity and access to food, rates of obesity and diabetes. That becomes a strong focus in my class, but there’s a possibility I can do even more, so we’d like professors to think about that and try to reflect diversity issues in their teaching.

The execution would have to be left to the people who think about curriculum in more detail.

TC: The report also mentioned preventative mechanisms—a module, student guide or Orientation Week program. We have things currently like AlcoholEdu, student handbooks and various O-Week programs that, although some believe they are useful, many complete them without too much thought.

How do you design a preventative mechanism that carries force and makes an impact, rather than just checking off a box?

LB: In our classes, as faculty members, we can expand our teaching on these issues. It really is in students’ best interests to view and consider issues of diversity, because once they leave Duke they will face those issues in a much broader context. It makes perfect sense in terms of going out into the world to have in their tool kit what types of life strategies they should be employing in promoting a positive attitude. That is one of our primary missions.

Even having said that, there are individuals who have in the context of their family life or personal beliefs who have had generations of perspectives on bias and hate, and that is their choice. All we can do is expose them to other ways of thinking in ways that will help them possibly be more open-minded about those issues.

KB: In addition to the students having self-interest in these issues because it will serve them well in their professional careers, it's important for faculty and staff to internalize these values. Duke can be an even greater university if we get these things right.

We hope the community will embrace the importance of these issues. The other thing is that whatever programs are put forward in the future should be evaluated, here and at other universities. As time goes on, we will get better and better at doing it. 

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