In an effort to help professors confront issues of bias in their classrooms, the University is implementing a new "Teaching for Equity Fellows" initiative.

Developed by the Human Rights Center in the Franklin Humanities Institute and debuted as a pilot program last year, the program aims to address subconscious biases that might make students feel isolated. It features a series of monthly workshops, during which teachers are trained to become more aware of their own biases and assumptions.

They are also coached on how to deal with these problems while teaching, and professors can sign up to work one-on-one with experts in the fields of educational equality and racial justice. Training sessions will advise professors on how to facilitate respectful conversations, design culturally-sensitive syllabuses and create a positive environment in their classrooms.  

Part of the impetus for the program stemmed from a student panel discussion, which facilitator Krista Robinson-Lyles said identified a pressing need to prevent minorities on campus from feeling silenced or marginalized. These concerns included the University "sweeping" racist incidents "under the rug."

“Students felt invisible,” she said. "Not only on a regular basis, but they felt like when things happened on campus that were clearly racist incidents, that was either swept under the rug by the University at large or that their professors would never mention something had happened, and this whole emotional impact that the trauma of racism can have on students. And that in turn has an impact on students' willingness to participate.”

In April 2015, a noose was found hanging at the Bryan Center plaza, which ignited conversations about racial hostility. A Duke investigation found that the noose was the result of a lack of cultural awareness, not racism.

Last February, news broke that Executive Vice President Tallman Trask had hit a parking attendant with his car and allegedly called her a racial slur. Students then initiated a series of protests, including organizing a one-week sit-in of the Allen Building.

"[Students] feel unsafe and unwanted, and that has an impact on students' ability to actually succeed, because it is such a heavy burden," Robinson-Lyles said. "Even when students didn't feel unsafe, they felt like their cultural context wasn't understood by many instructors on campus."

The new program aims to be one piece in the puzzle that will bridge this gap. Its organizers hope to discuss how professors can improve overall learning by merging what goes on inside the classroom with external influences, such as what happens on campus.

“One of the biggest assumptions is that equity is only for the oppressed," said facilitator Tema Okun. "That’s not the case. Equity is for all of us, because we are all harmed by racism and bias. All of us have a stake in figuring out what we are going to do about it."

The program—which is drawing contributions from students—will also show professors new methods of diffusing tension and maintaining respect between teachers and students.

“We ask ourselves where we want to go," said Barbara Lau, director of the Pauli Murray Project at Duke, which focuses on enduring inequities and injustice in Durham. "What would a classroom where everyone is able to learn look like? How do we get there?”