The independent news organization of Duke University

Dissenting at Duke

From the devastating scene at Columbine to the tragedy at Sandy Hook, a seemingly unshakable pattern has arisen in response to classroom shootings: grief, outrage and then collective silence. That was, however, until Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School students began mobilizing soon after violence rocked their community. The young leaders in this wave of support for legislative gun reform have made appearances on a televised CNN town hall, daytime cable shows and have given countless interviews for journalists, further galvanizing students around the country. As a result of this, various universities—including Duke—have begun releasing statements ensuring that high schoolers organizing for this cause their activism won’t negatively impact their admission chances. While this has been met with praise by many and make institutions like Duke appear enthusiastic about exercises of dissent, the historical and contemporary attitudes towards activism on campus tells a much different story.

On February 13th, 1969, black Duke students occupied the Allen building in response to institutionalized racism. They were met with police in riot gear firing tear gas into the crowd and an entire year of probation. Nearly fifty years later, nine undergraduates occupied the same administrative offices to calling for the resignation of Executive Vice President Tallman Trask III and an independent investigation into his involvement in a racially-charged hit-and-run as well as a number of other pressing reforms.  While a myriad of faculty and student groups on campus supported the cause, protesters were met with threats of disciplinary actions, forcible removable and charges of trespassing. Even bureaucratic, non-occupation attempts at labor organizing on campus among professors and graduate students have been met with resistant administrative responses. This paints a clearer picture of the hypocrisy in Duke’s attempts to quell application fears that their activism will cast them in a harsh light. 

The statement released on Twitter is a carefully constructed and intentionally vague addition to the growing number of announcements released by peer institutions. Instead of an open arms embrace of these forms of political engagement that Yale issued, Duke emphasized a larger contextual consideration for disciplinary issues as a result of activism. It seems that the University is only interested in student protests when they take a easily controlled, white-washed form without actively challenging structures of power that the University benefits from. Despite lip-service given to student activism, as evident in Dean Nowicki’s encouragement to the Class of 2019 to “question authority”, current and historical examples show that Duke is more interested in maintaining the status quo against dissenting student voices. 

Ultimately, the issue to take with this recent attempt by Duke to brand themselves a benevolent, progressive institution that values the voices of next generations of agitated leaders is that such a canned response reeks of institutional hypocrisy. The University is happy to admit politically-oriented students, but only if their frustration and rage can be contained to op-eds in The Chronicle or chartered student groups. At the end of the day, Duke is a brand with no clear ideological commitments. The first priority of the admissions office and administrators is to protect that brand and cultivate only very particular forms of student dissent. The acceptable venues and outlets for protest are institutional channels that don’t dare confront Duke itself. It would serve prospective Blue Devils well to learn early on that when Duke says it welcomes students bold enough to stand up, it only means in a rigid, containable ways. 


Share and discuss “Dissenting at Duke” on social media.