About 35 Duke students rallied Tuesday, calling for Executive Vice President Tallman Trask’s removal and protesting workplace discrimination.
In a story last week, The Chronicle, Duke’s student newspaper, reported that Trask used a racial slur against a Parking and Transportation Services worker after hitting her with his car in 2014.
He initially denied the incident happened, but after The Chronicle showed him an apology note he’d sent the worker, he admitted to hitting her, although not to using the slur. “It is a complete fabrication,” he told the newspaper.
The parking attendant, Shelvia Underwood, is now working to take legal action against Trask, according to The Chronicle.
The newspaper report followed two racially charged incidents last year. In the first a noose was found on campus; the student who put it there later said he did it as a joke and did not understand its significance.
In the second, someone defaced a poster publicizing a speech by a Black Lives Matter founder.
Duke junior Uzoma Bailey Ayogu said, unlike those incidents, he has seen little student reaction to the Trask story. Ayogu did not participate in Tuesday’s rally despite protesting the two previous incidents. “I’ve taken so much time out of my school last semester with the noose and the Black Lives Matter poster,” he said.
Senior Katie Jane Fernelius, who participated in the rally, said some friends who tend to be more moderate in campus politics don’t see the relevance of a 2-year-old incident.
She also suggested the response was muted “because this is something that happened with an administrator we don’t normally interact with and a worker we don’t normally interact with as students.”
During the rally, former Parking and Transportation Services worker Renee Adkins described a workplace marred by discrimination and fear of retaliation. Adkins was fired after working at Duke for 18 years. She said she does not want Trask to be removed, but instead for him to apologize and take accountability for the incident.
Duke Student Government President Keizra Mecklai worked with Trask on a committee tasked with determining how best to honor Julian Abele, a black architect who designed the university’s West Campus.
“He was very helpful,” she said in an interview. “He thought very hard about how we were going to honor Julian Abele. All of the individuals who had worked with Dr. Trask on race-related issues and the honoring of the black history of Duke felt like he was very respectful.”
According to The Chronicle, sophomore Chris Cook, Abele’s great-great-grand nephew, said Trask did an “unbelievable” amount of research on Abele’s work. “That’s certainly not the Mr. Trask I know,” Cook told The Chronicle in response to the recent allegations.
Trask led the taskforce in recommending that Chapel Drive be renamed after Abele. The Board of Trustees chose instead to rename the main quad after Abele.