On June 17, 2020, Duke president Vincent Price committed the university to taking “transformative action now toward eliminating the systems of racism and inequality that have shaped the lived experiences of too many members of the Duke community.” He acknowledged that in the past Duke had “often not fully embraced” its mission “to be agents of progress in advancing racial equity and justice.” Now, he said, it was time for the university to take a series of bold and specific actions that would “resolutely turn [Duke’s] attention toward the mission of anti-racism.” Although addressing issues that had confronted the university since the Sixties, Price’s words conveyed a new urgency and intent.
The program Price outlined was expansive, touching “every level of institutional activity.” It included expanding the diversity of the university’s faculty, staff and students; increasing faculty support for Black, Indigenous and people of color; ensuring salary equity at every level of the organization; curriculum changes to address systematic racism; anti-racism training for all faculty, students and staff; working with the Durham community to support the empowerment of underrepresented communities; and enhanced support for diverse alumni, including expanded networking and mentorship opportunities.
Although calling for manifold actions across the university, Price’s far-reaching anti-racism commitments shared one thing in common: each would cost real money. At a time when Duke, like other colleges and universities, is facing perhaps unprecedented financial pressures, where will this money come from?
Duke administrators in the 1960s faced a similar challenge. Prior to undergraduate desegregation in 1963, the academic and social opportunities offered by Duke were for white students only. Theoretically at least, desegregation meant that Black students now would have the chance to share in these opportunities. Yet Duke did nothing to acknowledge the needs of Black students or take the actions necessary to create an inclusive environment that could serve the needs of all students—both Black and white. In response, starting in the fall of 1968, the Duke Afro-American Society (AAS) presented the university with its “anti-racism” program. Among the items it demanded was the establishment of a department of Afro-American Studies, the hiring of a Black advisor for students of color, and a significant increase in the number of Black faculty members.
At that moment, the university was under significant financial pressure. A mass student protest in 1968—the Silent Vigil, begun in the aftermath of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination—had compelled the university to increase the wages of its predominantly Black non-academic employees. The next year Duke faced a budget deficit of over $2,000,000. Because of this shortfall, Dean Harold Lewis wrote to department chairs that “every possible economy must be made in all areas of the University.”
Choices had to be made. The first option was to reallocate a portion of Duke’s existing resources to meet the needs of Blacks as well as whites. If that course were adopted, some of the monies used historically to meet the needs of white students would be diverted to respond to Black student demands. The second choice was less controversial, at least to traditional Duke constituencies. It would preserve existing budget priorities. But the university would seek external grant or other funding to cover the cost of addressing Black student concerns. The key here was that any expenditures to address the pressing needs of a racially diverse campus would be contingent on raising outside funds.
Duke chose the second path. History professor John Cell noted that Dean Lewis, among other administrators, “was reluctant to do anything,” telling Cell that he was “going to fight anything that looks like hard money coming out of the university” to fund Black Studies or other Black student priorities.
This attitude was reflected in a meeting Cell and Black student leaders had with Duke president Douglas Knight in the Fall of 1968. Although the president was “genuine in his concern” for the Black students, Cell recounted, he made clear that outside funding would be required for initiatives like Black Studies to be implemented. His hands were tied, Knight declared, because of severe internal budgetary and political pressures. Knight asked Cell to develop a package proposal for foundation funding. This was his “way out” of the budgetary dilemma, Cell noted.
A similar pattern played out on the issue of hiring a Black advisor. Although the administration was, according to dean of Trinity College James Price, “receptive and sympathetic” to the idea, funding the position was “of much concern to the university.” Accordingly, Price recounted, Duke would be forced to look for money “from an outside source, a foundation that is interested in social concerns.” Likely due to funding constraints, Lewis reported to an ad hoc committee in November 1968 that the university “could not create an official position [for a Black advisor] at this time.” Several alternatives were, however, discussed.
The demand that the university add Black faculty members met a similar fate. At an administrative council meeting held January 30, 1969, Knight told his colleagues that “as to [Black] faculty recruitment, in light of the budget restrictions on faculty increment, the question will be whether due consideration has been given to Negroes in making faculty appointments." Although Duke had, at the time, only one Black undergraduate professor, no existing resources would be tapped to fund additional Black faculty appointments. Knight did tell his colleagues, however, that “department heads are to be reminded that in faculty recruitment, effort given to attracting Negro faculty is to equal that given to white.”
Since Duke’s large but finite resources were deemed off limits in responding to Black student demands, progress stalled. In January 1970, a faculty group investigating the university’s progress in addressing Black student concerns had a clear warning for Duke Chancellor Barnes Woodhall. “After only a limited inquiry into the state of affairs one year after a confrontation which dramatized the issue,” the group wrote Woodhall, “we are convinced that black students are legitimately concerned about their future at Duke. We, as well as they, conclude that the extent of the University's commitment to black students remains unclear.”
Five decades later, that remains the key question. President Price and others have acknowledged with greater clarity that systemic racism has shaped the “Duke experience” to the present day. But only if administrators agree to allocate the necessary budgetary resources to pay for the costly initiatives necessary to eliminate “systems of racism” at the school will this Duke administration make a difference. Only once all of Duke’s financial resources are deployed to meet the needs of all members of the Duke community can the university claim it is truly committed to racial justice. Who pays for racial equity? We all do.
Ted Segal is a Duke graduate (A.B. 1977), retired lawyer, and board member of the Center for Documentary Studies at the school. His book, Point of Reckoning: The Fight for Racial Justice at Duke University, will be published by Duke University Press in February 2021.
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