Over the weekend, hundreds of Duke alumni flooded campus. With name tags slung around neck and cameras at the ready, many divided their time between touring the new Brodhead Center, reuniting with old classmates and attending on-campus events. However, the tone changed when a group of activist students protested during President Price’s speech in Page Auditorium. The undergraduates demanded action from the Duke administration to address the grievances of multiple student groups on campus. In response, dozens of alumni shouted angrily from the crowd and physically turned their backs as a sign of dissent. The viscerally negative reaction from some in the classes of ‘68, ‘67, ‘73, ‘78, ‘83, ‘88, ‘93, ‘98, ‘03, ‘08 and ’13—the alumni in the auditorium that day—gives the impression that they seem to have forgotten the stains on Duke's history that they lived through as well.
The Silent Vigil and its legacy are crucial to understanding Duke's history, but other instances of activism are equally as important to keep at the forefront of institutional memory. In 1967, right before the Vigil, students were protesting Duke’s use of segregated spaces for events—notably the Hope Valley Club. Years later, in 1971, three students staged a sit-in after then-President Terry Sanford announced that the Board of Trustees would remain closed to the public. A protest comprised mostly of black students materialized in 1975 in order to push administration to departmentalize the Black Studies Program and increase the number of black faculty in said department. In 1979, Duke's Black Student Alliance and the United Duke Students Coalition rallied with 400-500 individuals to protest the acquittals of the six Klansman who killed a Duke employee and four former Duke Students—all of whom were powerful local activists and Communist Workers Party Supporters. Students rallied again in 1985, this time to protest Duke's lack of divestment from South African apartheid. Administration eventually gave into demands, but only after six demonstrators were arrested. Then, in 1991—days before the anniversary of the Kristallnacht, or the "Night of Broken Glass—a full page ad appeared in the Duke Chronicle that claimed the Holocaust was a hoax. Although older alumni have all of these events and more to grapple with, younger alumni are no where near immune from unsavory campus history that transpired in their time here.
Ten years later, another controversial, disparaging ad entitled “Ten Reasons Why Reparations for Slavery is a Bad Idea–and Racist Too” appeared in the Chronicle. In 2004, Philip Kurian published an anti-Semitic article entitled "The Jews" that scrutinized the social place of Jewish Americans. Rounding out the trend of hateful Chronicle content, Stephen Miller—current senior policy adviser to President Trump—infamously wrote a slew of racist, sexist, and generally xenophobic columns in the newspaper between 2005 and 2007, and was also responsible for inviting the aforementioned David Horowitz to campus to decimate his Islamophobic views during "Islamo-Facism Awareness Week." Finally, one of the most recent controversies that affected the alumni of 2013 was the Kappa Sigma fraternity's party "Asia Prime." Not only did its invitational email deliberately misspell words to imitate an East Asian accent - "Herro Nice Duke Peopre" as the opening line—it also encouraged stereotypical costumes such as Sumo wrestler attire. Although the Asian American Alliance heavily protested the event, Duke did not take any disciplinary action.
Clearly, Duke's history is more nuanced than many alumni's fond (and selective) memories suggest. Rather than turning their backs to the current outstanding problems with the University, former students should face them head on in an honest confrontation of their own complicity, for only then can the University make amends for its past and move on to a better future.
Get The Chronicle straight to your inbox
Signup for our weekly newsletter. Cancel at any time.