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Humans stuck in Duke's institutional workshop

“Duke does plan to be around forever, and it has to manage its endowment as if it will be.” This throwaway sentence by Scott Huler, ironically, was the key that locked a Pandora's box of contradictory conundrums and reservations that I had about Duke. How can an organization be the voice of the oppressed, while oppressing the same people? How can an institution be an agent of capitalism while being ground zero for anti-capitalist ideas? 

The key answer that I formulated is to separate Duke into two: the institution and the human element. The institution’s goal, as implicitly hinted by Huler, is self preservation, both as an elite institution and biopolitical power. Inversely, the human element’s goals are diverse, and are highly dependent on outside forces. Nonetheless, sometimes those goals align or come to blows, creating a fascinating web of interactions.

Let's start our discussion by shedding some light on the institution’s characteristics and mannerisms. The Duke institution was created in a system of capitalist ideals: thus to survive, it has first to amass capital through whatever means necessary. At first, this hunger was satiated by tobacco money. However, over time, this wasn’t enough. Thus, the institution had to create “acceptable” streams of revenue. Those “acceptable” streams of revenue came from two sources: government funding and elites’ donations. First, government funding came through furthering government research and ideals. In some cases, this was just normal scientific research, and in other cases, the institution functioned as an arm of the oppression of the government such as in the case of Trinity College Indian Boarding School. However, government funding doesn’t make you “elite,” thus Duke had to effectively gather donations from billionaires and millionaires, whose wealth was/is built on exploitative practices. As there is a limited number of elites willing to donate, Duke created new willing elites through the creation of the “legacy” label, which promised prestige to those elites and their offspring. This, in turn, created a circle of elites whose interests aligned with the preservation of the institution.

The second means of self preservation that institution relies upon is the growth of its image and brand. This is done through a mix of marketing, acquiring real estate, funding of certain research and keeping a restrictive admission process. Through marketing, the institution can expand its influence and create its elite image. This image is why Duke cares about being in the top 10 in all those university ranking lists. Real estate, on other hand, helps in shaping the institution's elite persona while also creating a dependence of the human element on it.  Funding of certain research and restricting admission, both give the institution the power to choose the human element while defining its brand on the accomplishments of the same human element.

Next, let's discuss the human elements that constitute Duke. The human elements of Duke include workers, professors, students (grad and non-grad), Alumni and even administrators. While summarizing the goals and intentions of one member of Duke at a specific point of time is simple, doing the same for all the human elements is infeasible. However, through the hierarchy of Duke, we can make a generalization about the goals of the human elements. The higher the position of the person on the hierarchy, the more likely their goals will align with the institution. The inverse also generally holds true. This trend is due to the unequal distribution of benefits, where individuals at the top of hierarchy receive benefits based on their perceived loyalty and value to the institution. Individuals at the bottom, inversely, are perceived to be non-essential to the institution or being a parasite. This trend creates a mix of interactions, both from the top and bottom of the hierarchy.

Sometimes the goals of the human element and the institution will align. This can come in the form of funding professors, funding of outreach programs, creation of micro-communities and cementing upward mobility. But don’t be fooled into thinking the institution in itself is good. The institution, in order to preserve itself, has to delicately dance between balancing capital and prestige, where the gain of one usually causes the loss of the other. This creates all sorts of formulas in which funding for the human elements can be slashed if they can’t provide either future capital or prestige/marketing value back to the institution.

Moreover, the institution also has the habit of hijacking people’s good intentions for its own purposes. Since it’s well documented, let's use the policy of mandatory reporting as an illustration. The policy may be well intentioned in its goal of protecting SA victims, yet it was hijacked by the Duke institution to protect itself from lawsuits from SA victims. In other cases, the human actors themselves might have ill-intentions that the institution will further. Nonetheless, this also raises an interesting conundrum: can an anti-racist, anti-classist and anti capitalist research be effective if it’s in the constraints of an institution that prescribes the opposite values? This question doesn’t have a clear answer, but I would like to imagine that this research at least creates crises and flaws that both the institution and capitalism have to adapt to. 

Another point of contention is when the human element and institutional elements come to blows. This challenge to the institution usually stems from the humans on the low end of the hierarchy. We see that through the efforts of many groups to unionize from the Duke’s grad students to nurses. In response, the institution usually retaliates through hiring a union busting firm like Ogletree Deakins to guide its war against the workers. But why? Well it's complicated but the simple answer is the potential loss of capital AKA the bloodstream of the institution. Moreover, in letting a union form, the institution risks the loss of one of its important tools of control: the hierarchy. If unions were to spread through the bottom and middle of the hierarchy, the institution will either have to expend its capital to maintain the hierarchy or risk the hierarchy folding on itself. Both options are undesirable for the institution, thus the institution has to eradicate the unions through either misinformation or a policy of divide and conquer.

The methods of misinformation and dividing and conquering work great on groups but not particularly well on individuals. Thus, the institution has to adopt new methods to deal with individuals. The most effective of such methods is “strategic inefficiency.” To put it simply, the institutional system is designed to be as inefficient as possible in dealing with human concerns. Through this inefficient design, the system can delay dealing with issues until the individual gives up on the issue or is given a bureaucratic response. In other words, the bureaucratic maze is not a fault of the system but the system itself.

In writing this article, I hope to establish a framework in which future criticism of Duke can be formulated. Thus, I sincerely ask and hope that fellow columnists, students and professors will expand upon my framework through their experiences and expertise. In the future, I will personally expand on some of the points and generalizations that I made throughout this piece.

Abdel Shehata is a Trinity sophomore. His column runs on alternate Wednesdays.


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