Letter from alumni: Duke leadership needs new direction

guest column

We write as alumni of Duke University to urge the leadership to set goals that lead to fair and equitable employment practices, sustainable environmental policy and responsible investment strategies. Many of us are women and men who arrived on campus in the 1960s and 1970s. During that tumultuous period, we learned values in the classroom and the larger Durham community that shaped our lives and led to decades of social and political activism.

This letter was stimulated in part by the New York Times Magazine article about the important issue of the lack of economic diversity at Duke, an issue we will address in a separate letter.

Today we marvel at the accomplishments of the university, and we credit it with important developments that have changed the lives of hundreds of thousands. Nonetheless, we believe that Duke's current direction is at odds with the best of its history and the needs of our community and nation. The time has come for change.

Duke needs leadership to embrace goals that improve all levels of university life at Duke, including fair employee relations, sustainable campus environmental policies and investment strategies that are sensitive to the perils of global warming and climate change. 

Fair employment practices

Duke has long reinforced community and regional inequality and division through its enduring hostility to labor unions. Campus workers now represented by AFSCME Local 77 originally achieved representation through their own courage and the university-wide shutdown caused by the Vigil of 1968. They faced near-intractable opposition to collective bargaining from University trustees with ties to the textile and tobacco industries. Local 77’s victory is an enduring monument to the achievement of social justice through collaborations across class, race and gender. 

Despite this triumph, Duke has continued to act in ways that differ little from other union-busting conservative and right-wing businesses. In 1992, for example, the school entered negotiations with its bus drivers and transportation staff (ATU, Local 1328) only when compelled to do so by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). Afterward, Duke reluctantly recognized the University Press Workers and the Graduate Student Union only after the NLRB again took action. At Duke Hospital — despite organizing efforts beginning as far back as 1970 — no group of employees has gained recognition as a bargaining unit in the face of management's implacable opposition. In comparison, unions are strong at other premier teaching and research hospitals, such as the Massachusetts General/Brigham system (Boston) and the Yale New Haven Hospital (Connecticut). Duke's enduring hostility to organized labor has undermined efforts to achieve economic equality and fair treatment of working people. 

Environmental policies

The current Duke administration's approach to environmental issues reflects a similar reluctance to promote real change and grapple with issues of social justice. Duke is home to a world-renowned school of environmental policy, where scholars frequently describe the dire effects of a corporate order based on the hyper-exploitation of resources and environmental destruction. Yet Duke has embraced a financial structure that underwrites these very catastrophes.

The very foundations of Duke were at odds with responsible approaches to the environment and pollution. The University was built in part with income from the company now known as Duke Energy, which today is one of the largest polluters and producers of planet-warming gases in the country. The administration refuses to state how much income the school now receives from Duke Energy through its endowment, and Duke Energy's financial statements only include financial investment funds in its lists of large shareholders. 

This lack of transparency raises serious questions about the degree to which Duke University is intertwined with a corporation that consistently sees short-term financial gain as more important than the communities it serves. Global warming and damaging pollution are sustained, in part, by institutional investors who look the other way. We are unable to tell whether Duke is one of them. This lack of candor from Duke occurs while Harvard, Princeton, Columbia, Georgetown, USC and dozens of other major universities have divested from or are committed to divesting from fossil fuel corporations. 

Duke’s commitment to achieving a carbon-neutral campus this decade sounds good, but much of the plan to achieve this goal remains too opaque to evaluate. Even at its best, the carbon-neutral initiative does not excuse Duke's abrupt refusal to continue its support of the Durham-Orange Light Rail Project in 2019. After years of cooperation with this effort to lessen automobile traffic between Durham and Chapel Hill, Duke raised a series of objections. It even proposed running the rail line through the historically African-American Crest Street neighborhood. It then refused to enter a mediated negotiation of these issues. This show of bad faith ended the project and significantly undermined the city's efforts to combat climate change at the local level and build more affordable housing.

Again, the time has come for change. The Duke University Board of Trustees and Administration should take concrete steps to create a more equitable, just and sustainable community.

  • Duke University should cease its opposition to other unionization efforts by Duke's workers, including the unionization of Duke Hospital and Medical Center workers, recognizing the improvements in productivity and quality of life that its workers and the entire University community will gain.
  • Duke should promptly negotiate in good faith and sign a contract with the Duke Graduate Student Union (DGSU) that includes a year-round stipend in the very reasonable amount called for by the DGSU.
  • Duke should provide specific metrics by which the progress of the carbon-neutral initiative can be monitored and assessed.
  • Duke should engage with the Durham community to promote efforts to fight global warming and environmental injustices. 
  • Duke should report the income its endowment receives from Duke Energy.
  • Duke should develop a strategy to divest itself in the near future of all investments in fossil fuels and should report its strategy to the university and Durham communities.

Each journey begins with a series of individual steps. We look forward to hearing from Duke about the steps that it will take to improve the lives of university workers, its relations with the Durham community and its impact on the global climate crisis.

Signed on behalf of concerned alumni at Duke University,

Jim Kruidenier '71                                                       

Additional Signatories Below:

Ninian Beall '68

Andy Berlin ‘72

David Birkhead '69 (former editor-in-chief of The Chronicle)

John Charles Boger '68

Bill Boyarsky '69

BJ Spinelli Boyarsky '68

Gail Boyarsky '73

Rose Boyarsky '68

Sam Boyarsky '01

Harry Boyte '67

Julia Borbely-Brown '70

Sallie Brown '71

Ann Bushyhead '73

Tom Campbell '70 (former editor-in-chief of The Chronicle)

Candace Carraway '72

Jean M. Cary '71 (former staffer for The Chronicle)

Karlana Carpen '76

Robert Creamer '69

Christian Dame '68

Abigail Doggett Bordeaux '68

Robert Dunn '72

Paola Florez de Sessions '97 (B.S.), '01 (Ph.D.)

Jeffrey Gold '72

Rivka Gordon '79, '91

Wib Gulley '70

Dub Gulley '70

Huck Gutman '71 (Ph.D.) (former staffer for The Chronicle)

David Hamill '69

Ed Harrison, ’72, ’76.

David Henderson '68

Donna J. Hicks '69

Kelly Jon Morris ‘68

Dabney Hopkins '74

Arnie Katz '68

Reed Kramer ‘69

John Mark Krenkel '71

Lawrence Landerman '67

Biff Maier '72

Michael R. McBride '71

Page McCullough, ’71

Sandy Kavanaugh Moore ‘69

Andy Moursund '67

Paul Nielsen ‘62

Berl R. Oakley '71

Peggy Payne '70

Andrew Parker '72

Mark Pinsky '70 (former staffer for The Chronicle)

Zoya Pugh '72

Alan Ray '70 (former editor-in-chief of The Chronicle)

Nancy Richardson '69

Lao Rubert, '74

Timothy Sanderson '68

Doug Schocken ‘70 ‘74

Alan Shusterman '70 (former staffer for The Chronicle)

Lisa Shusterman '70

Margaret Small '68

Gale Touger '72

John Valentine '71

Joan Dickinson Walker '71

Diane Weddington '72, '76

Janice Gill Williams '72


Share and discuss “Letter from alumni: Duke leadership needs new direction” on social media.