Students expressed frustration after a Friday email from the dean of the Sanford School of Public Policy failed to properly name the victims of a shooting in Atlanta that killed eight people, six of whom were women of Asian descent.
The Sanford school initially claimed that the names were omitted on purpose, but Sanford Dean Judith Kelley later acknowledged that it was an error and that she was mistaken in believing that it was intentional.
On Friday, Kelley sent an email on behalf of Sanford to its graduate students and undergraduate public policy majors. The message expressed “sadness, horror, and anger” regarding the violence in Atlanta.
However, the email, a copy of which was reviewed by The Chronicle, contained an apparent misprint. Instead of naming the victims of the shooting, the message included a placeholder that appeared to be a reminder to add the names before sending the email.
“We are also able to facilitate a Zoom forum, if you would like to come together as a community to discuss the deaths of (name all 8 victims) this week, and the work we must do as individuals, as professional policy makers, and as a society, to prevent tragedies like this from occurring,” the email read.
Sophomore Alice Chun tweeted a screenshot of the email on Friday at 1:49 p.m. In the tweet, she named the eight victims and called on Duke to “do better.”
“They’re mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, friends, and colleagues. Do better. #StopAsianHate #StopAAPIHate,” the tweet read.
Sanford’s official Twitter account replied to Chun’s tweet at 5:26 p.m, claiming that the inclusion of “(name all 8 victims)” in the email was intentional.
“Thank you. We meant to suggest that we bring people together for the purpose of naming the victims. We appreciate you saying their names,” Sanford’s tweet read.
Kelley sent a follow-up email to students at 5:33 p.m. echoing the sentiment in Sanford’s tweet.
“I realize the below was confusing,” Kelley wrote. “I just want to make clear that the intent with the message was precisely to suggest that we bring people together for the purpose of naming the victims, as a collective exercise of saying their names.”
She added that students should reach out to Sanford program heads if they “would like to come together” and that Duke “is also preparing an opportunity to come together next week.”
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In response to Sanford’s tweet, Chun posted a screenshot of Kelley’s follow-up email and expressed her frustration with Sanford’s explanation.
“where’s the accountability for the obvious harm this caused? this was clearly not a misunderstanding of intention. it was a blatant mistake that needed an honest apology. yet another example of the failures of performative gestures. the least you can do is own up to it,” Chun tweeted.
Other people also replied to Sanford’s tweet, most saying that they did not believe the explanations provided by Sanford and Kelley.
Asian Students Association responds
Senior Elizabeth Lee, president of Duke’s Asian Students Association, emailed Kelley and President Vincent Price on Friday expressing frustration with Kelley’s email and Sanford’s response. She expressed her belief that the phrase “(name all 8 victims)” was a placeholder that Kelley forgot to update with the victims’ names.
“Although we understand that this was a mistake, this error could have been solved with an easy proofread,” Lee wrote, according to screenshots of the email exchange. “Many of our community members are disappointed and angered at the lack of intention and care that is now communicated from Sanford and the lack of acknowledgement from higher administration. These actions speak loud implications against Duke’s Asian communities.”
Kelley responded to Lee by reiterating her original claim that her “intention with the message was precisely to suggest that we bring people together for the purpose of naming the victims, as a collective exercise of saying their names.”
Kelley apologized “that [she] caused disappointment and anger” and that she “did not make [her] intent clearer.”
While Price has not yet publicly addressed Tuesday’s events, he sent an email to the Duke community March 5 in which he “resoundingly [condemned]” ongoing violence against the AAPI community. As of Sunday, Price had not responded to Lee’s email.
Kelley acknowledges the mistake
In a Sunday email to The Chronicle, Kelley acknowledged that the email originally contained a mistake, a break from Sanford’s previous claim that the wording was intentional.
“The fact is that I made a mistake by not carefully reading a draft that included editorial suggestions from many of my Sanford colleagues, one line of which I did not realize at the time had been intended as a placeholder, because I thought the sentence was suggesting that we gather to name the victims,” she wrote.
Kelley acknowledged that her email had a divisive impact but wrote that she did not intend for that to occur.
“In my desire to reach out to our community with a message of comfort and solidarity, I inadvertently created division,” she wrote.
Kelley further expressed her regret for the impact the email had on the AAPI community at Duke.
“I deeply regret that my message caused pain to our Asian, Asian American and Pacific Islander community at a time of unimaginable grief and suffering,” she wrote to The Chronicle.
“I hope this will not distract us from our common goal of understanding and supporting our Asian, Asian American and Pacific Islander community through our education and service, and defeating the forces of hatred that led to the horrific murders in Atlanta,” she concluded.
‘Disappointed but not surprised’
Junior Lindsey Shi first saw a screenshot of the email in a group chat she’s in.
Shi did not believe that the “(name all 8 victims)” was left in the email on purpose. She told The Chronicle she finds it “ridiculous” that Sanford continued to push that reasoning.
“It was pretty clear that it was a mistake. They messed up and didn’t own up to it, which made it so much worse,” Shi said.
Shi said she is “disappointed but not surprised” and believes the typo is reflective of performative activism by the University. “If you really cared, you would have double-checked the email at the very least,” she said.
Regarding Kelley’s email to The Chronicle, Shi wrote that “it still all feels a bit performative.”
“There are concrete steps that Duke could take to support its Asian and Asian American communities, but it hasn’t taken them,” Shi wrote.
Several campus organizations for AAPI students, including the ASA and AASWG, released a list of demands on Sunday to members of Duke administration. The demands include the formation of an ethnic studies department and/or center, the creation of cultural centers, disaggregation of admissions data and updating hate and bias policies.
The list of demands included a reference to Kelley’s email and reiterated students’ frustrations.
Junior Alice Wu is a public policy major, so she received the original email from Kelley. She read the first couple of lines but didn’t finish reading.
“I was like, ‘Oh, not another one of these statements that doesn’t do anything,’” Wu said. She didn’t read the follow-up email from Kelley she received later either. It wasn’t until she was at dinner with a friend who mentioned the content of the emails that she read them in full.
Wu thought the email was “insulting” because it seemed that Kelley believed “that just because even if she did actually mean it as some sort of exercise of saying their names collectively, that doesn't take away the harm that she's already done by that really confusing wording.”
Wu did not believe that the wording was intentional. She felt insulted that Kelley did not own up to the mistake and apologize, even if she did not intend to be hurtful in her email.
“It brought back a lot of wounds that I've had dealing with racism in the past from people who publicly seem to you know be an ally and be really supportive of minority causes but then privately disparage minorities,” Wu said. “It was a really insulting experience.”
When asked about Kelley’s email to The Chronicle in which she acknowledged the mistake, Wu said she accepted the apology in part but that it “doesn’t excuse the fact that she didn’t forthrightly come out and say that and apologize.”
“When you make mistakes, you need to own up to them immediately,” Wu said. “That was kind of a late apology and a rather incomplete one.”
Asked if they felt supported by Duke during this time, Wu and Shi both said they did not.
Wu said she doesn’t know what specific resources Duke offers other than the usual ones referred to students, like Counseling and Psychological Services.
“I feel like there are no unique systems in place that I know of to support students, especially Asian American students,” she said.
Shi said that her “trust in Duke has begun declining pretty rapidly” since her sophomore year and that she’s becoming more “skeptical and critical” of the University. She feels supported by other students, but she doesn’t feel supported by Duke as an institution.
Shi doesn’t feel that she’s been able to give herself the space to grieve and mourn the recent violence against the AAPI community. She told The Chronicle that she is tired, sad and angry, particularly due to the “go go go” mentality shared by many of her classmates.
“There’s so much happening. This is happening on top of a pandemic, which is also happening on top of people pretending that we can just go about our lives and crank out assignments and do exams as normal,” Shi said.
However, Wu expressed that seeing Asian American campus groups speak out about the email has been exciting. She told The Chronicle that she encourages students, especially those of Asian American descent, who are hesitant about majoring in areas such as policy to “give it a shot.”
“I think we definitely need a lot more vocal Asian Americans in other spaces but also within the public policy space, and I’m really proud of other Asian American policy students who are speaking up against this whole conundrum,” she said. “It’s just been very hurtful.”