Dear Coach K: ‘Conflicts’ of interest

Dear Coach K,

We need your help. Both on and off the court, you’ve inspired a generation of Dukies (including ourselves) to become real leaders, to fight for those in need and to challenge the status quo. You’ve instructed us to “erect no artificial walls that might limit potential, stifle creativity or shackle innovation.” But right now, students seeking to start a meaningful conversation at Duke are ramming into one of those walls.

Two weeks ago, we approached the Line Monitors and Duke Athletics with an idea: Why not highlight student activism at an event that brought our entire community together? Our goal: Bring a well-known Hollywood actress to Countdown to Craziness to emphasize Duke’s commitment to social justice and spark some serious conversations about real issues students could address.

Miraculously enough, the pieces came together. We partnered with the Enough Project, a D.C.-based human rights organization, to get the attention of a major Hollywood celebrity and human rights activist. I’m sure you know the Enough Project very well—you did dedicate the Duke vs. Georgetown game in 2010 as a fundraiser for their work with refugee schools in Darfur. Another cause they work closely with—and the one Duke Partnership for Service wants to focus on at Duke—is the ongoing crisis in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. As the deadliest conflict since World War II, violence in the Congo has claimed more than 5 million lives in 10 years. What’s even worse is that we’re contributing to the problem—“conflict minerals” sourced from mines in the Congo can be found in consumer electronics products. Without a consumer demand for conflict-free products, there is little hope for the capacity for peace in the region.

The opportunity to highlight such an important cause on such an important night seemed like a fantastic idea. Duke Athletics seemed to agree as well—they even offered to let our celebrity guest judge the dunk contest and briefly introduce her cause. So, we connected Duke Athletics with the Enough Project to arrange logistics, and all was well.

Or so we thought. Last Wednesday, we got a call from the Enough Project with some pretty unsettling news. After multiple talks with its marketing director, the Enough Project was told that our celebrity guest could not speak in Cameron. Why? Duke has affiliations with—guess who? Electronics companies. J.D. Stier, a campaign manager from the Enough Project, told us in an email that Duke Athletics marketing and promotions told him “that the ‘Conflict-Free Campus Initiative’ video called out some of Duke’s biggest donors by name and [Duke Athletics] just couldn’t play it. I asked if [the actress] could mention the issues, not name individual companies, and when [Duke Athletics] got back to me [they] again said we just can’t have [the actress] discuss these issues.”

When we as students tried to reach out to Duke Athletics, all we got from the higher-ups is a statement that the celebrity visit “was not in line with the event” and that they already had “all the necessary elements included to continue making Countdown a great event for students.”

We’re confused. We thought our University was founded upon the ideal of “free and open inquiry.” Yet, corporate censorship seems neither free nor open. We know Cameron may seem like an unconventional place to chat about human rights—but why should it be? What other building can the whole school call “Our House?” And after all, shouldn’t those principles upon which Duke was founded apply to every single building on campus?

Coach, you taught us not to give up this easily. If our own marketing rules are stopping a conversation about student activism on campus, then that in itself is worth talking about. We at Duke proudly proclaim our commitment to “knowledge in the service of society.” We fully fund students to engage with less-fortunate communities (including some in Africa) every summer. We study worldwide inequity and its roots in our global health and political science classes everyday. But as soon as we bring the conversation back home—to actions we can take right here, right now, on Duke’s campus—we’re stamped out. It’s time for us to finally follow through on our rhetoric.

Our peer universities have stepped up—Stanford undergrads pressured their administration to pass a shareholder resolution shifting investment policy to encourage conflict-free electronics, and UPenn and Cornell have expressed support with symbolic statements of their own. We fully intend to have this same conversation at Duke, whether it’s in Cameron or in the Center for Interdisciplinary Engineering, Medicine and Applied Sciences (CIEMAS)—and we invite you to join us. On Saturday, Oct 15 (the day after Countdown), the Duke Partnership for Service will be hosting the Eureka Symposium—featuring the Enough Project—to highlight ways students can collectively lobby universities to take actions to address global injustice. After all this, we know we need this conversation now more than ever.

This is still our house, Coach K. Lead the way.

Sanjay Kishore, Trinity ’13
President, Duke Partnership for Service

Stefani Jones, Trinity ’14
DSG Senator for Athletics, Services, and the Environment
Chair, Coalition for a Conflict-Free Duke


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