Durham News: Opinion

Gaspo: Duke should step up after death threat

By Tom Gasparoli

John Noel and I met at the entrance to the journalism school. Rather, I met John’s distinctive and redoubtable voice, which I heard as I passed under the arched walkway on our first day.

The voice was Brooklyn-based.

He had thick glasses, was clearly in great shape, and carried a pretty cool bag for his books and such. He stood out.

Five minutes later, there he was in my first class.

John said he was from Brooklyn, right off. His parents were from Grenada, originally. He’d been in the Army. John’s skin color was black.

I told him I’d arrived in central Missouri from New York City, too, where I’d been in advertising.

We were both fish out of water in that large school in the small Midwestern town. The school was the University of Missouri-Columbia. Mizzou.

That’s right, the same school where the unprecedented just happened: the state system president and the university chancellor resigned almost in unison.

African-American students, one person’s hunger strike, the football team, and many more people of all colors put pressure on the two men to go, saying their responses to a series of racial incidents on Mizzou’s campus were simply insufficient.

The leaders left.

About the accomplished men who packed up their offices and departed, Noel, who would become an accomplished New York reporter before he died two years ago of cancer, might have said: “Good for them. Took responsibility for being weak or wrong-headed. They’re gone. Now let’s get back to studying. We’ve got journalism to do.”

He was a focused man. At Mizzou’s J-School, they taught us both, “When you get a chance to write or speak, do it well and get it right.”

So what does this have to do with us?

A lot. Durham has Duke, and the larger area is college central. Campuses dotting the country are now all over these issues, and how administrators handle them.

Racist talk, gestures, acts. Bigotry. Ugly speech. Hate.

And danger, as in the case at Duke, where a death threat recently showed up on a dormitory corridor wall.

Someone slithered up and scrawled the threat and a gay slur and mentioned an openly gay freshman by name.

Considering what’s happened at Missouri and at other universities (such as Claremont McKenna in California, where the dean of students just resigned), I am surprised about two things in the wake of the wall-written death proclamation at Duke. The icy threat comes weeks after a Black Lives Matter event flier on campus was marked up with a crude racial epithet, and the spring incident where a Duke student hung a noose on a tree limb and then claimed ignorance that it would bother anyone.

Surprise No. 1: National reporters have not arrived in town to highlight Duke’s trio of ugly, incendiary incidents.

Surprise No. 2: A top administrator has not exactly helped himself or the university with some recent comments.

It should be hard to say the wrong words after a crime, hate crime or harassing action. Yet the Duke Chronicle quoted VP of Student Affairs Larry Moneta saying, in part, about the death threat: “I’m a little fearful that we may be in a period of some copycat hatred.”

What is copycat hatred but more hatred? A threat to kill and he’s just “a little fearful?”

Moneta’s copycat comment comes after he said in October that he was disgusted the “n” word was handwritten on a campus flier. But he added: “I wish we lived in a world where racism and sexism and homophobia never occurred, but that’s unlikely.”

Hmm. It strikes me that Moneta is fast approaching the territory of misguided, mushy comments that ultimately brought down the two educational leaders at the University of Missouri.

Even Duke’s top public affairs person had some trouble. Michael Schoenfeld said in part, after the death threat, “Duke does not and will never condone intolerance.”

This wasn’t merely “intolerance.” A man and a minority group were publicly threatened with death.

A noose in a tree. The “n” word on a posted flyer. An unmistakable death threat on a dormitory wall. It’s time for Duke administrators to step up their game and lead nationally on this or the national media will make its way to Durham to write the next story for them.

You can reach Tom Gasparoli at tgaspo@gmail.com or 919-219-0042.