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The Duke Difference: A tradition of admin refusing to listen to students and staff

Over the course of my first semester at Duke, I’ve grown to realize just how important maintaining tradition is to the administrative body. I’m talking about traditions beyond the blue and white and black colors that paint our school at face value. I’m talking about the historical pattern of Duke’s administration ignoring the needs and requests of their students and faculty, which persists today.

Duke has already demonstrated that they believe the aforementioned practice to be integral to their institution by once again denying ethnic and multicultural student identity groups a visible space in the Bryan Center (a demand that has been advocated for since the 1990s) earlier this year. It appears, however, that they want their tradition to be more prominently demonstrated, a desire evident by their plans to cut nearly 23 Thompson Writing Program staff members and change the “Writing in the Disciples” Writing 101 program to a program centered around standard grammar and composition.

The news came Friday afternoon, first across Class of 2025 group chats and then being confirmed by both the Duke Faculty Union and the Thompson Writing Program employees. Yet, this isn’t the first time faculty and students became aware of unexpected alterations made to their beloved Writing 101 program without their input. Last semester, lecturing fellows and instructors of the Thompson Writing Program penned an open letter to the university expressing concern over the decision to decrease their faculty size. Since the lecturing fellows were hired as non-tenure track faculty, many of the professors at the time had non-renewable appointments, allowing for Duke to terminate their appointments after their first term—despite many of them holding PhDs, being praised for their unique course attributes and having extensive teaching and research experiences. These terminations, in turn, meant that the size of all Writing 101 classes would change from 12 to 15 students to accommodate for lost instructors.

The Thompson Writing Program lecturing fellows like Michael Accinno and Brenda Baletti believed that enacting these changes by restricting instructors to non-renewable appointments would diminish the quality and success of the Writing 101 program. The program had been renowned in Durham and beyond, with students voting Writing 101 the “Must-Take Class” at Duke in 2019 and with the U.S. News and World Report ranking Duke as having the third-best college writing program. The fellows feared that the aspects of the Thompson Writing Program that allowed for these accolades to exist—courses that fit a range of diverse disciplinary interests; close mentor relationships with instructors that allow students to get letters of recommendations, research and publication opportunities, guidance and access to university resources; high levels of individual attention that allow for rapid academic improvement—would disappear with the 2021 Spring Semester decision. 

With a limited staff, students won’t be able to get the mentorship they so desire in one of the most difficult academic transitions of their life. They’ll have less of a chance to formulate one-on-one relationships with faculty members that genuinely care about their wellbeing on multiple levels. The lack of individualized care and feedback could leave many Blue Devils without the proper resources and writing skills necessary to excel in their next four years; their confidence in their abilities to navigate the world of academia could be shaken. And while last year left students with a diminished chance to explore a writing discipline tailored to their interests, the potential decision to make Writing 101 focused on grammar and composition will mean that that chance is cut to zero. Students may be left disillusioned and disinterested in improving their writing abilities as a result of these courses that don’t form those abilities on a personalized level. 

In many ways, the reality of Writing 101 at Duke will be even grimmer than these fears if the administration continues on with their plan to make the program composition-focused and cut even more faculty. It’s not just students that will be harmed through this process. Numerous faculty members will be left without jobs, impeding their ability to gain research and career experience and their ability to financially support themselves and their families. They’ll be separated from the students they formed meaningful relationships with. They’ll be separated from the jobs they love and are uniquely qualified for.

Duke University can follow tradition and divert the blame to a lack of funding, but students and faculty members know the truth. Duke’s endowment increased by $4.2 billion from 2020 to 2021, leaving the university with a $12.7 billion endowment that makes up 23% of Duke’s operating budget. This endowment will likely increase even more in the upcoming year due to soaring public and private interest. Furthermore, the 2021-2022 tuition increased by 3.9% from the year prior. Still, the non-renewals of Thompson Writing Program faculty members continue to be blamed on financial difficulties.

The narrative should instead be shifted to another tradition that the Duke administration prioritizes: union-busting. It’s a term not unfamiliar to the Blue Devil vernacular. In 1968, the Local 77—a mid-century union for Duke faculty and students—went on strike for two weeks on behalf of nonacademic black employee rights at Duke-affiliated institutions, which resulted in Duke Trustees refusing to grant any wage increases or policy changes, despite agreeing to address their grievances. In 2015, Duke Teaching First (now called Duke Faculty Union) and SEIU’s Faculty Forward attempted to organize Duke professors to push for an improved employment contract and were met with a letter from then-provost Sally Kornbluth, who claimed that unionizing would impede “an open and direct dialogue between administration and faculty”—a letter many claimed to be propagating anti-union propaganda. In 2016, Duke administration hired a notable anti-union law firm against the same two organizations. And now, Duke plans to replace their unionized Thompson Writing Program professors with non-unionized professors, as shown by the non-tenure-track faculty openings online that list Ph.D. requirements not already held by unionized faculty, leaving them unable to reapply for their jobs. Duke Faculty Union describes these plans as “a transparent attempt at union-busting.” 

The decision to fundamentally alter the Thompson Writing Program is almost unilaterally opposed by the student and faculty body, who called for Duke to support faculty and listen to students during Sunday’s protests. As such, it can only be concluded that there are some traditions that the Duke administration cannot continue to uphold. Refusing to listen to the staff and students that are the foundation of Duke’s functioning is one of them.

Viktoria Wulff-Andersen is a Trinity first-year. Her column usually runs on alternate Mondays.

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