Before the start of a volatile student forum protesting incidents of racism and homophobia at Duke University on Friday, campus officials discovered that someone had spray-painted the words “Black Lives Matter” on the statue of its namesake, James Buchanan Duke.
Workers had removed the statement from the granite base of the bronze statue, near the steps of Duke Chapel, by the time the forum started. University leaders promised to form a “hate-bias” task force to examine the issue on campus and to create a new website to inform students about hateful incidents on campus and how they would be handled, in an effort to create greater transparency.
One campus leader also spoke of a growing “faculty diversity movement” on the campus. “The goal is that students will see themselves in the faces of the faculty,” said Trinity College Dean Val Ashby.
Before Duke President Richard Brodhead and his colleagues walked onto the stage of Page Auditorium, the anger, frustrations and concerns of many in the audience were evident. One group that billed itself as the Concerned Students got on stage and led the crowd in a chant: “Whose university?” they asked. “Our university!” the capacity crowd roared in response. A second group got on stage and started a different chant.
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“Duke, you are guilty, too!” they chanted, and when Brodhead walked on stage, the group of about 60 walked out of the auditorium in protest.
Brodhead, Ashby and Provost Sally Kornbluth came to answer questions and address students’ frustrations after the university’s response to a death threat and homophobic slur aimed at a freshman student last week, the defacement of a Black Lives Matter flier last month and a noose found last spring at the Bryan Center Plaza.
Katrina Miller, a student from Phoenix, Ariz., said she’s “angry and scared” on “my own campus” because she does not know whether the person who posted the racist and homophobic slurs or left the noose will be sitting next to her in the library. Miller also took Brodhead to task for publicly saying he did not think the noose was fueled by race.
“My great-greatgrandfather was a slave in the South,” Miller said to Brodhead. “He was probably owned by the Duke family. You can’t tell me that a noose found in the South don’t have meaning.”
Brodhead said he understood the racial implications surrounding the noose, and he reminded Miller that he spoke about the history of lynching in America after the incident, which he described as “despicable” and “disturbing.” The student responsible was removed from campus but not expelled.
“Expulsion is the same as an execution at a university,” he said.
Other issues came to the forefront during the session. Some students who are part of the campus’s LGBT community spoke of not feeling safe on campus. Others spoke of the need for more diversity among faculty and students. Still others spoke of “structural inequities” at the prestigious private school and demanded changes to the curriculum, including more classes that emphasize cross-cultural understanding, empathy and self-identity.
One speaker, an Asian-American student raised in a single-parent home in Cary, said becoming a teacher was her dream. But after enrolling at Duke she found herself “mentally stressed” and said that her experience there has “destroyed” her dream and “broke” her mentally.
She begged campus leaders to hire a faculty that reflect the American population.
“No amount of workshops or training can make up for actual life experience,” said the student, who asked Brodhead to create a “faculty composition so that I can see someone who looks like me.”
Rafiq Majolagbe, a 19-year-old biophysics major from New Jersey, arrived late at the forum and said he reserved judgment before condemning the administration’s actions.
“I think we should hear him out before we act,” Majolagbe said, after hearing about the student walkout when Brodhead appeared on stage.
Another student, Joseph Andrews, a first-year Ph.D. candidate in electrical engineering, thought that as a white American listening to grievances offered by people of color that it was his “responsibility to listen more than speak.”
“It hurts me to know that I’m part of a community where things like this are happening,” he said.