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Letter: One thing I wish for Duke

letter to the editor

One thing I wish for Duke is that we would embrace a simple principle that could inform and guide our intellectual community, including through painful incidents such as the painting of a Swastika on the East Campus bridge, the hanging of a Noose on campus or other acts of intimidation that visit us regularly. I suggest the following principle for your consideration:

We will allow and encourage most any point of view or argument to be made on campus, so long as an individual is willing to make their case publicly and in doing so own responsibility for their words, and be willing to defend them and hear from others. This means providing the benefit of the doubt to members of our community who argue openly, and in good faith, even if they are saying something that offends us or we believe to be wrong. 

Using this principle as a guide, we as an intellectual community of students, staff, faculty, alums and Durham residents would have a North Star to guide our response when incidents on campus take place. A Swastika or a Noose left under the cover of night is not how a scholar communicates, but how a coward seeks to inflict harm on others while avoiding any costs to themselves. Such an act could be a hate crime under Federal or State law, and could also run afoul of the Community Standard that governs how we engage with one another on campus. There are proper channels for these incidents to be investigated and the law and rules should be followed. The rules themselves are open for debate, and I am sure there are differences of opinion in what the penalty for violating the Community Standard in this way should be. These are important issues, but I want to suggest they are not the most important issue for Duke as an intellectual community. 

The simple (but not necessarily easy!) principle offered above would allow us as an intellectual community to say immediately upon the occurrence of such an event that this is not how scholars make the case for their point of view, and that anonymous acts of intimidation will not be given more attention than they deserve. Then the relevant University and legal offices investigate any such incident, keeping the community informed as appropriate, while we move ahead together to the work of learning, teaching and discovering. 

Don Taylor is the Director of the Social Science Research Institute and the former Academic Council Chair.


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