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Statement to Duke’s Leadership and Faculty from the director of the Asian American Studies Program

Introduction: I submit this statement as the director of the new Asian American Studies Program and as a representative of the Department of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies. I also submit this statement as an alumna of Trinity and a former student activist with a mandate from our current students, in the wake of the discriminatory biostatistics incident, to call Duke’s faculty and Duke’s leadership to action. 

This incident, which was all over local and global news by Saturday, January 26, 2019, should need no introduction by now. Briefly, the director of graduate studies in the Department of Biostatistics in the School of Medicine, sent an email to the masters students in the program, warning them about potential consequences to their access to professional opportunities within and beyond the department for speaking a language other than English in a social setting. The investigation on the details are still pending, but the incident is a textbook case of discrimination against a vulnerable population as well as a gross abuse of power on many levels. Duke as an educational institution, and we as its faculty and as its leaders should not hesitate or equivocate for a moment in speaking out in the strongest terms against such abuses on our campus immediately when they occur. 

The incident is not an isolated one, but one in a line of many such discriminatory acts targeting different groups that have occurred on our campus in recent months and years. While there is also a national and global uptick in these types of discriminatory incidents, Duke has had more than our share, and some of these were more widely publicized and discussed than others (the hanging of a noose near the Bryan Center; scrawling of a racial slur on a sign at the Mary Lou Williams Center for Black Culture; the defacement of a mural celebrating Latinx Heritage Month; and the engraving of swastikas in a bathroom stall on West Campus, etc.). This is a symptom of broader societal problems with deep historical roots, and their legacies manifest as structural inequalities in the very fabric of our institution. What is clear from these multiple cases is that the status quo at Duke is not working and calls for a reexamination.While acknowledging the tremendous efforts in the wake of various prior occurrences (Duke University Task Force on Bias and Hate Issues (2016); Duke University Task Force on Diversity (2015); Duke University Task Force on Gender (2018); Duke University Task Force on Reimaging Doctoral Education (2018), etc.), we note that many of these reports and recommendations are still to be circulated widely or implemented in visible ways, sometimes years after the hard work of the committees and the submission of their reports. What is clear is that we need to build on these results to do more now.

Moving Forward: We, as the university leaders and faculty, have a responsibility to evaluate this broader situation holistically, break this devastating pattern, and make lasting changes in our campus culture now. Such plans will only be have impact if they have full buy-in both from the top and from below: from university administration and from individual units and departments. If we do not act decisively now, our legacy by default will then inevitably be that of inaction and failure in the face of the mandate handed to us from our students in their time of need.

The response of our students has been swift, decisive and eloquent, in the wake of each of these numerous incidents. After this latest one, our students have called on us yet again to act (A Resolution of the Duke Graduate and Professional Student Council on Linguistic Racism at Duke University; Joint Statement by the Duke University Asian Students Association and Duke International Association; Petition to Investigate Professor Megan Neely’s Discriminatory Emails, etc.).They have been working hard, calling upon their peers and the broader community, and most of all, to us, their teachers to respond.

Those who have been deeply injured are not limited to the international students of a particular country of origin, speakers of a particular language or members of a particular race, ethnicity, department or school. This incident and many like it have impacted a great majority of our students, even our faculty and staff. Many of our students are traumatized, unable to focus on their school work, wondering if they belong here despite the high tuition they pay and despite the tremendous contribution they make to the culture of our institution. The majority of the students in the Department of Biostatistics, who have been most directly and explicitly threatened by the very professors who were in charge of their well-being, are understandably still too afraid to come out and to speak and share their stories. One of the most sobering and moving recent moments was at a community conversation when one of these students sent in a powerful letter anonymously, translated and read to us by her peers who stood up for her when she could not herself come forward.

It is not the responsibility of our students to expose themselves to further danger and injury in their time of need and vulnerability. It is our responsibility as those in positions of leadership and power, with adequate resources, to make effective changes on their behalf. Our students are watching us, and now the world is watching us, to step up and take action now. As someone who has been in the trenches with some of these students, and who has been audience to the assessments of many other faculty and staff, I can assure you that the ongoing problem of racism in our campus community has reached a boiling point. If we truly aspire to be the global university touted in our shiny pamphlets and websites, we the faculty need to do more now to effect change. 

Race relations and racial dynamics are never easy. Duke, located in the heart of the American South, with its long and dark legacy of slavery and segregation, has understandably been focused on the Black and White divide. The rapid changes in our current dynamic and demographic, within the university and in the communities around us, call on us to reflect on the complicated story of race in our community. Some forms of racism are more familiar to us historically, and therefore, more easily recognizable: blackface, a noose, a swastika, all of which have appeared around us recently, for example, need no explanation, and we have no problems standing unequivocally and collectively in condemnation in the strongest terms as we should when confronted with such heinous acts and symbols. However, racism is tricky because it works in multiple ways and wears many different faces to target different groups. For Asians and Asian Americans and others whose “foreignness” is assumed, even for those born in this country, racism often targets their perceived “otherness” including the languages they speak or the accents or imperfect speech that are perceived, real or imagined. Because we as an aspiring global university are not yet fully equipped to understand the complexities of racism including everyday microaggressions, we more often than not fail to recognize and call out racism that manifests in less familiar terms. This results in unintended consequences of appearing to be in solidarity with certain injured groups more than others. 

We, the faculty and leadership of Duke University at large, have a mandate from our students and from our community to act now. We have been charged with the task to propose concrete and timely plans for action now, to change the status quo. Fortunately, the Arts and Sciences Council has been charged with the mandate to revamp our curriculum. This is a great starting point for us, but we also need leadership from the other schools and institutes.

Following the wisdom of the ancient cultures of China and Greece, in which the word for “crisis” (weiji危机/ krisiκρίση) also means “opportunity,” we call on the Duke leadership and faculty to turn this crisis (and others) into an opportunity for us to move towards an equitable future. 

Some Modest Recommendations 

1) Recommend using this crisis (and others) as an opportunity to move away from the repetition of the crisis reaction model to a more sustainable and consistent response model when addressing these incidents, so that they do not occur again. Duke should implement a clear and decisive procedure (a consistent plan of action), accompanied by a strong and unequivocal message of support and solidarity against forms of discrimination in these times of crisis. In other words, we need to lead with a zero-tolerance policy toward any forms of bias and discrimination, as soon as they happen. Discrepant messages sent out from incident to incident create confusion about the exact message being conveyed, exacerbating the problem, even when good intentions are involved.Such actions should include information on resources available to the entire Duke community.

2) Recommend using this crisis (and others) as an opportunity to build on the curriculum overhaul already in progress. As an aspiring global educational leader, bring our institution’s stated commitment to equity, inclusion and diversity, into the core educational mission of the university. Resolve that every responsible global citizen needs to have a nuanced and critical understanding of local history and recommend implementing an inclusive “American history and society requirement” (“Critical American studies,” or “Critical American Studies in the Local/Global South”) into the core of Duke’s curriculum. Consider requiring that each freshman at Duke learns the basics of American history and society, from an inclusive perspective that takes into account the institution’s stated commitment to diversity, inclusion and equity. Incentivize departments and faculty to design specific courses such as “Inclusive Narratives of America”; “Major and Minor Histories of America”; “Diversity in America”; “America and its Others,” etc. or incentivize them to tweak related courses or develop new ones. Brainstorm about creative ways to link different departments and disciplines into this endeavor through co-teaching or cluster course options. Focus Clusters and select freshmen seminars may qualify. Bring conversations about diversity, inclusion and equity that usually occur in extra-curricular spaces run by Student Affairs, into our classrooms, into all disciplines. Create special grants and collaboratories and integrate research and teaching on various levels around these themes. 

3) Recommend using this crisis (and others) as an opportunity to create timely signature university-wide initiatives throughout the next academic year that provide a community forum to share ideas about how we can move beyond the status quo.  Create a university-wide interdisciplinary and cross-campus dialogue on “Critical American Studies in the Local/Global South.” Hold visible university-wide events sponsored by the top-level of the university (Offices of the President and the Provost). These may include 1-2 days of a university-wide “festival” of conversations directly addressing the incidents; invited speakers from our campus and beyond; sponsored university course cluster initiatives; and teach-ins—all of which can be open to the public. Draw on resources from Duke Engage, Learning Innovations, Human Rights, Keenan Institute of Ethics, Franklin Humanities Institute, Duke Libraries, International House, Sanford, Duke Arts.

4) Recommend using this crisis (and others) as an opportunity to reevaluate structural inequalities in our institution on all levels (curriculum, assessments, hiring, promotions, adjudication of misconduct, especially those that involve faculty disciplinary actions). Implement or update clear, transparent policies in each unit and department. Mandate regular conversations with faculty at faculty meetings, make these policies visible and easily navigable in the department common spaces and websites. Provide training and support resources for faculty, staff and students. Office of Institutional Equity or Teaching for Equity Fellows trainings should be mandatory for all chairs and department leaders, while incentives, resources and encouragement are given to others.  Build and improve upon past actions and task force recommendations and tie these into hiring initiatives for more representation from both faculty and university leadership, with concrete timelines for implementation (3-5 year plans).

5) Recommend using this crisis (and others) to provide adequate resources, course releases and compensation for the faculty committee members who will lead this university-wide vision and charge for the next 1-2 years. Provide a commitment to transparency, to publish and widely disseminate the outcomes of investigations, update procedures of accountability and define a clear timeline for taking action on recommendations before the committees embark on their charges.

Nayoung Aimee Kwon is the director of the Asian American Studies Program and an associate professor of Asian and Middle Eastern studies.


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