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Guest column: Open letter on bench burning

guest column

To the Administration of Duke University,

To speak on behalf of most of the Duke student body, students should not be punished for what they did not know was wrong. Certainly, many of the actions taken during the bench burning constitute breaches of the code of conduct, but the ambiguity surrounding the situation suggests to us, and a majority of Duke students, that the punishments being suggested for those involved with the fire are entirely out of proportion. What left many students puzzled when the email from Dean Jeanna McCullers and Dean Clay Adams went out was why was there a clearly marked circle in the quad with a bench sitting in the middle of it. While we are unsure of the veracity of this claim, many at the event believed that there was a Duke administrator present, implying that even if the fire had not been planned, the administrator would have intervened if there were any egregious violations. While the presence of an administrator is unverified, there were definitely both police and firefighters present for the majority of the fire. The fire was started shortly after 8 p.m. and was not put out until after 9 p.m. If students saw police and firefighters standing by and not intervening for almost an hour, they had little reason to believe that what they were doing was wrong. Because both freshman and sophomores have not been on campus for an active basketball season until this year, they are unfamiliar with the exact mechanics of the celebratory traditions following basketball wins and could reasonably believe that what happened Saturday night was not out of the ordinary. Additionally, if the administration was so adamantly opposed to that bench being burned, they could have informed students in advance that the bench and circle were not meant for that particular basketball game celebration.

Regardless of all of those potentially mitigating arguments, Duke administration still decided to send an email to the entire student body condemning the actions of those that burned the bench, going so far as to provide an email address to send any evidence to. Simply because this was the most recent and widely discussed example, where were such emails following sexual assaults committed against members of the Duke community? One bench was burned, but according to the Chronicle of Higher Education in 2019, “48 percent of the undergraduate women and 14 percent of the undergraduate men who responded said they had been sexually assaulted while they were at Duke.” The university administration sent a clear message with this email: throwing cardboard on a smoldering bench poses more of threat to students than sexual violence. Duke needs to start sending better messages and start acting in support of victims on campus in a more material way than sexual assault trainings at the beginning of the year. 


Lincoln Hama (Trinity freshman) and Dagny Edison (Trinity sophomore)


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