Duke president apologizes for coffee shop incident, says university has work to do on race

Someone painted this graffiti regarding Larry Moneta, vice president for student affairs, on a tunnel on Campus Drive at Duke University.
Someone painted this graffiti regarding Larry Moneta, vice president for student affairs, on a tunnel on Campus Drive at Duke University.

Duke University President Vincent Price apologized Thursday for a campus climate marred by recent racial incidents, and he said he was sorry a senior administrator's complaint about rap music at a coffee shop got two baristas fired.

In an email to students, faculty and staff Thursday, Price said: "Something has to change," adding, "I will simply say that I am deeply sorry that we are not where we want to be as a university."

He described a series of recent incidents that have made the campus feel "angry, discouraged and disappointed" — a racial slur scrawled on a dorm door, a social media post that used "abhorrent language," anti-Semitic posters distributed in Durham and workers on Duke's campus being treated unfairly.

He said these things represented a disturbing trend.

"Duke should be a place where these things don't happen," Price wrote. "They are a painful reminder that we have more work to do to make our community the dynamic, diverse and welcoming community of students, faculty, and staff we aspire it to be: a place where our daily challenges are grappling with a new concept, a new idea, or a new way of thinking – and not with how someone has behaved, or how we ourselves have behaved, that has caused others pain or hurt."

Price said he was consulting with a diverse group of students, faculty, staff, alumni, friends and critics to gather ideas about how Duke should move forward in the fall semester. He invited people to send thoughts to dukepresident@duke.edu

"Having now completed my first academic year as president, I am reflecting on these problems of basic decency, and our legacies of racism, intolerance and xenophobia, that continue to follow us, and indeed all of society," Price's email said. "They do not lend themselves to easy answers or quick fixes. But they will continue to plague us unless we address them directly, honestly, in good faith, and with a healthy dose of courage."

Anger has bubbled up at Duke after the firing on Monday of two baristas at the Duke-based Joe Van Gogh coffee shop after Vice President for Student Affairs Larry Moneta visited the shop and complained about a rap song that included multiple profanities and use of the n-word. The situation led to a protest on campus Thursday, with students marching to Moneta's office. Someone also painted graffiti that said "Dump Moneta!" on the walls of a tunnel on Duke's campus.

The owner of Joe Van Gogh, Robbie Roberts, apologized Wednesday and said he was making an effort to rectify the situation, though he did not say what steps he was taking. One of the baristas, Britni Brown, said she did not want to return to a job at Duke or at Joe Van Gogh.

Price said it's important that people are held accountable for their conduct and words. "At the same time, we cannot and will not succumb to a rush to judgment that demands instant retribution absent context and deliberation," he wrote.

Price took decisive action at the beginning of the academic year when he had a sculpture of Robert E. Lee removed from the entrance to Duke Chapel after it had been vandalized. The removal happened quietly overnight in the aftermath of deadly violence during a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va., last August.

"Getting this right is hard work," Price said. "I am committed to doing that work, and I ask for your wisdom and engagement as we move along these paths."

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