This past week marks the anniversary of a seminal moment in the history of Duke University: the Silent Vigil on West Campus. On April 4, 1968, Duke students of various creeds and colors assembled in order to both commemorate the recently murdered Dr. Martin Luther King and, in honor of his legacy, to spur change at Duke. For several days, students assembled in front of Duke Chapel and silently protested. Their silence spoke volumes and their actions highlighted and helped change the discriminatory policies of the Duke administration.
Last Saturday, 50 years hence, several dozen undergraduate protesters aggressively took the stage of Page Auditorium, disrupting an address by President Price. A speaker with a megaphone connected their protest to the actions of Martin Luther King Jr. and the Silent Vigil, noting that the Silent Vigil would be “summarized as a turning point for Duke, but 50 years later so much has still remained the same.” Continuing on, the speaker said, in regards to Duke’s activists, that “We are still here.” In response, I acknowledge that you are “here,” but that is all you have in common with the protesters of 1968—physical location. In addition, those of us who disagree with both your disruptive tactics and disorganized and, in some cases, misguided demands are “here” and we too deserve a voice and a seat at the table.
Despite their deliberate efforts to draw a comparison between themselves and the righteous activists of the past, their demands, blared through a megaphone at a crowd of bewildered alumni being celebrated for their contributions to the school, failed to resonate as loudly as the silence of the Vigil. The claim that “50 years later, so much remains the same” both dismisses the contributions of past activists and does not align with the reality of today. In the last 50 years, Duke has evolved from being a racially segregated institution to one where diversity is intentionally and proudly championed. This commitment is not merely rhetorical. Today, due to a shift in administration policy, minorities collectively constitute a majority of the undergraduate population at Duke. In addition, Duke has adopted a need blind admissions policy, dozens of scholarships directed at women and minorities, and a quorum of programs, departments and organizations designed explicitly to support and celebrate its minority population.
Is Duke University truly deserving of the moniker “The Plantation,” as these activists claim in their published memorandum? I do not think so. If so, then Duke subverts every traditional expectation of that libelous label. Were these protesters met with fire hoses, attack dogs and institutional resistance as the Montgomery student protesters of 1963 were? No. Instead our administration handed them informational leaflets and politely requested they leave. Were they faced with the snarling growl and open hostility of Bull Connor, the notoriously vicious Montgomery police chief? No. Rather they were met with our own Larry Moneta a man who, on occasion, refers to himself as “LMo.” If Duke is a plantation, then it seems that the callous and brutal overseers are nowhere in sight.
I am not disparaging all of the demands of the protesters. Much of what they desire is proposed in good faith and could certainly be healthy for the school (renaming the Carr Building, increasing funding for grants and scholarships, etc). Nonetheless, a number of the demands are either patently absurd or poorly informed. For one, they insist that Duke raise its minimum wage to 15 dollars an hour. A brief inquiry online reveals that Duke already pays nearly double the North Carolina minimum wage and has a plan in place to raise that to 15 dollars an hour by 2019. Do these students lack the patience to wait less than a year for something that has already been instituted or were they simply unaware of this reality? They called for Duke to eliminate “the box” on all applications, meaning that Duke could never consider criminal record when accepting or hiring students or employees. This is a ridiculous proposal. Would any of us consider the prospect of hiring sex offenders to the Women’s Center or larcenists to Duke Security? I hope not. The truth is that criminal record is a vital consideration in evaluating potential students and employees and it cannot be casually discarded. To do so would be careless and even, potentially, dangerous. I also fundamentally object to their proposal of creating “hate speech” codes on campus.
I fully condemn racial epithets and any actions that seek to denigrate another group based on identity. However, the issue with formalized hate speech codes is that no formal definition for hate speech exists. As a result, any policies designed to combat hate speech are based on subjective definitions and are often just vehicles to lump together actual bigots with those who simply hold opposing political viewpoints.
Finally, and most importantly, both our alumni and President Price did not deserve to be publicly lambasted on the stage of Page Auditorium. I would be remiss if I did not note the irony inherent to this demonstration; by publicizing their demands in such an aggressive and uncompromising manner, the protesters may have jeopardized the source of the very resources needed to fulfill their desired ends. The alumni, dozens of whom booed and turned their backs to the protesters, seemed to be blindsided by the demonstration at best and enraged at worst. Actions have consequences and the cloud of ill will from this controversy will likely hang over the next fundraising campaign. Sadly for the rest of us, the actions of the few have the potential to jeopardize the resources available to the many. Furthermore, President Price specifically should not have been burdened with this tirade for two reasons. Firstly, he became President of Duke less than a year ago. Even if he wanted to address every single one of the students’ complaints, he literally has not been in office long enough to affect such drastic institutional change. Furthermore, while it's important that he knows the concerns of his community, there was no need to address it in this fashion, nor is it productive for the cause. Secondly, in his limited tenure at Duke University, President Price has consistently signaled that he is a conscientious, thoughtful, and empathetic man and has demonstrated his desire to reach out to and engage with students and their concerns. It ought to be noted that not only was his very first action as President was to remove a statue of Robert E. Lee in response to student concerns, but also that he has been receptive to and collaborated with the student Housing Reform movement. I discussed the protest with Dr. John Blackshear who noted that “President Price is someone who would willingly open his door to discuss issues like this.” There was no need to treat him this way. Yet they decided to march into Page to shouts of, “President Price, get off the stage.” Clearly the protesters targeted President Price in a brash attempt not to be constructive but to be needlessly provocative.
I have certainly been severe in my criticism of these protesters, but I want to reiterate that I know they are good-hearted advocates for change and I want to extend the olive branch. In addition, I believe this is not an issue of right vs. left, but an opportunity to define civil discourse at Duke. I recently joined the board of an organization called Bridge the Divide as Director of Public Relations. We specialize in mediating political disagreements and finding consensus in order to foster change. I propose we organize a forum where students of all walks convene and discuss these ideas and our strategy for advocacy going forward. Working together, I am certain we can take these issues in stride.
Reiss Becker is a Trinity first-year.
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