Fifty years ago, approximately 1,500 students occupied the Quad for several days in response to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s death, silently calling for institutional change at Duke.
Fifty years later, approximately 25 students took the stage during President Price’s alumni weekend speech Saturday, loudly demanding other institutional reforms.
Although their tactics may have been different, the students who organized the protest said they follow in the activist tradition of the 1968 protesters—many of whom were present in Page Auditorium as the protest unfolded.
Unlike the 1968 Vigil and other recent campus protests, there was no single triggering event for this protest, which was planned weeks in advance, the student protesters said. Sophomore Gino Nuzzolillo said he and several other students had been asked to help publicize and promote alumni weekend events commemorating the Silent Vigil and activism at Duke. However, for Nuzzolillo and fellow students, including junior Trey Walk and senior Bryce Cracknell, more needed to be done.
“We felt that you don't honor activism with panels and things that keep it firmly in the past as an artifact,” Nuzzolillo said. “It's something that's viable and visible and present now and in the future.”
They decided to contact student leaders from a variety of organizations on campus in an attempt to assemble a coalition. In a meeting among the campus leaders, they began hashing out what would eventually become their “manifesto.” The final document was a collection of a number of priorities that several student groups had been working on in recent years.
“What this document represents is an accumulation of a lot of work that students across the campus in different identity groups and within different marginalized communities have been working on with the administration for many years now,” Cracknell said.
Eventually, the group decided to disrupt Price’s State of the University speech at alumni weekend. Cracknell said the group intentionally chose an alumni event because alumni are often disconnected from current conversations on campus.
The students indicated that disruption was one way to signal to administrators and alumni alike the urgency of their demands—which range from increased worker pay, to added mental health support, to greater transparency in Board of Trustees meetings.
“We can send email after email and we can show up for public forums and talk about these issues, but the University doesn’t feel like there’s an urgency unless we are actively meeting them where they are and making it a spectacle and making it something where they can’t just push it into their spam box,” said junior Sydney Roberts, a protester and co-chair of The Chronicle’s independent Editorial Board.
On the day of the event, alumni entered Page Auditorium and were ushered to seating sections based on their graduation year. Many of those in the audience were members of the Class of 1968 and participated in the Silent Vigil. The students planning the protest sat scattered around the room.
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Cracknell said they were easily identifiable, as the room was largely full of older, white alumni.
Sue Wasiolek—associate vice president for student affairs and dean of students—and Clay Adams—associate dean of students—spoke to the students and handed out leaflets, which noted that disruptive protests were against University policy, the group of students said. Administrators had been made aware of the planned protest by a news report earlier that morning based on a press release the group sent, the students said.
As Price was preparing to announce gifts from each alumni class, the students took the stage chanting, and began announcing their demands from their “manifesto.”
The protesters received mixed reactions from the alumni in the audience. Some alumni did nothing while others booed loudly or clapped in support. Many alumni stood up and turned their backs to the stage, some shouting vulgarities—the protesters reported hearing racial epithets.
The protesters noted that they were surprised by the extent of the alumni's negative reactions. Cracknell added that he was disappointed that the administrators focused more on stopping the students than angry alumni, Cracknell said.
“Instead of actually going to the alumni and saying 'that's not appropriate' or removing them from the space, they were more worried about us,” Cracknell said.
Larry Moneta, vice president for student affairs, did not respond to a request for comment about administrators’ response to inappropriate statements by alumni.
After trying to cut the students off, Price decided to let the students continue speaking. Sterly Wilder, Trinity ‘83 and associate vice president for alumni affairs, later announced over the microphone that the event would be canceled, but the students left several minutes later, and the event continued.
The students regrouped outside on the steps of the Chapel to provide further explanation of their 12 demands. Several supportive alumni joined them, even offering suggestions for how to update their manifesto, Walk noted.
“I think when we walked out all of us were kind of shaken by the negative feedback, but so many alumni came up to us and were like, ‘Thank you for what you're doing. Thank you for continuing this work,’” Walk said.
Back inside the auditorium, David Henderson, Trinity ‘68, connected the students’ protest to the 1968 Vigil in a comment to Price during the Q&A session after his speech.
“Nobody in the administration thought that what we did was appropriate. In history it has come to be enshrined,” Henderson said.
Administrators were displeased with the protest. In an email, Moneta wrote that he thought the protesters should have used other tactics.
“Candidly, I think there were better ways to convey their concerns and I shared that with them as best I could,” Moneta wrote.
During the Q&A session after his speech, Price also said that the students should have brought up their concerns in a way that did not interrupt the talk.
“I disagree deeply that this was an appropriate way to handle these issues,” he said.
In a statement April 20, Price said he had met with the student protesters on Thursday, April 19 to discuss their goals. He wrote that he trusts "our community is absolutely sincere in its efforts to improve Duke." That trust will be validated, Price wrote, if the groups are able to have constructive dialogue that respects their "mutual commitments to open expression."
"Duke’s longstanding principles of free speech make clear that we promote both individual and collective rights to express views and to protest; however, they make equally clear that we do not accept doing so at the expense of others’ expressive rights, or by interfering with other’s rights to engage in university work," Price wrote. "Such disruptions are not a sign of our community’s strength, but rather an indication that we, together as teachers, learners and leaders, must do better."
The students have expressed frustration with the modes of conversation that administrators have asked them to use to to convey their concerns. Junior Mumbi Kanyogo described her experience organizing around the University’s hate and bias policy.
“One thing that we consistently brought up is that the University will consistently use our labor on their own time [for task forces], which is unpaid," Kanyogo said. “They insist on using these tired, old tactics which they've used since 1968 to sort of slow us down and to exploit us.”
Moneta said that administrators were reviewing the students’ behaviors to determine an appropriate response.
In a group statement, the protesters condemned any potential punishments.
“What an incredible irony it would be if in the midst of celebrating a history of activism, Duke is considering punishing the current generation of organizers on campus and the student groups, faculty and alumni that support us,” they wrote.
The group noted that they would seek to continue the conversation with administrators.
“Ultimately, we seek to work, rather than battle, with administrators to implement our demands,” they wrote. “In the paraphrased words of Dr. King in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail (which we respectfully suggest the administration and angry alumni read), through direct action we merely hope to bring to the surface the hidden tension at Duke that is already alive.”
With impending finals and the start of summer, maintaining energy may be difficult. However, the student protesters expressed optimism about the future of their coalition. They plan to seek support from other student groups for their manifesto, and are still brainstorming further courses of action.
The Asian American Studies Working Group issued a statement in support of the protesters' manifesto Sunday.
Walk noted that he foresees greater collaboration between student groups doing organizing work, a greater focus on the role of alumni in student advocacy and more rallies and teach-ins next year. The group is also composed of many first-years and sophomores, giving the organizers another reason to feel confident about the coalition's future.
“We always welcome any opportunity to engage with students about any matter of importance to them,” Moneta wrote in his email.
Price also expressed willingness to engage in further discussion about students’ concerns.
“We just have to find vehicles to have honest discussion and I’m happy to take up any of the issues which the students raise,” he said.
Nuzzolillo said the student protesters are determined to hold Price to that.
“If the administration expects that they can just slow us down or obstruct us or drag their feet, they've got more coming,” Nuzzolillo said. “This isn't the end of it.”
Sarah Kerman contributed reporting.
Editor’s note: This article was updated Saturday afternoon to include Price’s comments.