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Reunion and remembrance

This Saturday, an alumni gift-giving ceremony in Page Auditorium was the scene of twenty-five undergraduate students taking the stage from President Vincent Price. The impetus for their actions was the fifty year anniversary of the Silent Vigil, a retrospectively-praised hallmark of Duke’s tradition of student activism. Occupying Price’s podium, the students linked arms and announced a damning review of a myriad institutional inequities to the gathered alumni. They condemned administrative tendencies of evasion rather than confrontation, of task forces rather than conversation and of unbounded—almost hubristic—reminiscence rather than painfully holistic reflection. This type of institutional critique champions the idea that it is necessary to conserve what we remember Duke for, while also chipping away at anachronistic skeletons.

Regardless of the debate over the activists’ tactics, this demonstration has and will continue to facilitate student conversation on topics of institutional inequity. Critiques that have surfaced regarding the potential for alienating some alumni aside, the activists’ attention-grabbing methods and the sheer breadth of their stated goals are indicative of their primary aim being not immediate reform, but rather the ignition of a debate that may well outlast four years. Central to their motives for choosing this type of protest is consistent institutional evasiveness. Forcing the hand of a reluctant administration may surely be critical at times, especially in a situation where administrators have been stably in office throughout several graduating classes. Nevertheless, some have questioned the adoption of this resort in the inaugural year of President Price’s tenure as it may risk turning past complaints of evasion—not uncommon in President Brodhead’s administration—into a self-fulfilling prophecy. Concerns over donation impacts have surfaced as well given how the assembled former Blue Devils were there to present class gifts. However, available data from previous years call into question the supposed threat that student activism poses to financial gifts from alums. In 2016, for example—the year of the week-long, heavily publicized Allen Building protest—Duke had record-shattering donations

Historically, disruptive student activism has been of critical utility in the way of incurring positive change. This isn’t to say that student protests become effectual overnight. Rather, the pressure of urgency that they create push administrators to act. Additionally, the conversation sparked by these types of demonstrations plant seeds of discontent that indeed often spark necessary conversations between administrators and activists. Even in the short term, brazen acts of protest are symbolic of the role of students in holding the administration accountable for their actions—or lack thereof. 

The book on the demands of Saturday’s student activists remains open. Like always, only time will tell what comes after this latest public airing of grievances. The precedent handed down by President Price’s response is capable of setting the tone for student activism throughout the rest of his tenure—something that will outlast most of our time as undergraduates. Presented to us is a conflict that will hopefully give way to reform and progress. It is without a doubt that passionate student activists will continue to remind current students, alumni and the administration, that milestones like the Silent Vigil should not be a one-time occurrence. 


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