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Making Duke perfect: part III

In recent weeks, late night hosts have been openly mocking Stephen Miller in a series of high-profile roasts. Miller (Trinity ’07) has become an instrumental part of the current presidential administration after having served under a number of key GOP leaders. Under Trump, Miller is thought to be the main architect beyond the administration’s controversial immigration ban policies. Late night hosts ranging from Samantha Bee to Saturday Night Live have mocked Miller, with Bee going as far as to label him “a political smallpox blanket.” Not surprisingly, most of these late-night roasts have referenced his time at Duke, particularly his biweekly Chronicle column. As a board, we condemn Miller and the gross intolerance he stands for. Nonetheless the case of Stephen Miller—his current role within national politics and late-night television—forces us to confront important questions regarding our institutional role in his creation. 

Miller was a controversial figure during his time on campus in the mid 2000s. While working as a regular columnist for the Chronicle, he often voiced ultra conservative opinions calling for the elimination of all affirmative action policies, the de-liberalization of the Women’s Studies department and an anti-Islamic foreign policy. Miller’s columns, which undoubtedly helped to shape his present and future political views, force us to confront the reality that such forthright, reprehensible conversations were integral to his Duke experience. They also force us to face the reality that the next Stephen Miller might actively be on campus today. 

On a campus that has shaped a series of morally ambiguous male leaders—to name a few: Richard Nixon, Eric Greitens, Justin Caldbeck and Charlie Rose—the Miller case also calls into question what responsibility we hold in preventing the rise of another similar figure. Ideally, those who actively spout hateful and dangerous propaganda would not make it onto this campus, but such ideals are not enough as people will always slip through with high SAT scores and whitewashed letters of recommendation. We need to recognize that part of Miller’s prominence came from our willingness to give him a platform to voice his rhetoric, and thus validate his hateful ideas. 

When hearing hateful ideas, like Miller’s, popping up on campus, we have an ethical obligation to counter these ideas rather than allowing them to grow unchecked. Too often, we dismiss these comments as harmless, though ignorant, byproducts of trivial classroom conversations. Academia does not exist as an ivory tower removed from any real context. Duke prides itself on being a prestigious institution known for its leadership in a number of fields. The ideas expressed here on campus often have very real impacts that reach far beyond Duke. This cannot be seen more clearly than in the case of Miller. 

We, as a board, support the notion of free speech and so rather than calling for censorship call for conversation. Last week, we spoke about the pressing need for students to embrace more meaningful conversations. Particularly, we spoke about the need to be willing to talk about uncomfortable topics, even those we might deem absurd. This responsibility extends beyond just students to faculty and professors whose opinions, for better or worse, hold a great deal of weight. By allowing students to go so far as to invalidate the existence of others unchecked, we promote a status quo in which these beliefs are validated. More than the “restaurant with waiters to main West” and a “resort style outdoor swimming pool” recommended by Miller in “Making Duke perfect”, the small steps that we can take to create a more open, tolerant community will undoubtedly make Duke into a better institution.


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