Duke protesters disrupt president's speech to alumni

Duke students stage protest during Alumni Weekend presentation

Duke student protesters take the stage, disrupting speech by Duke University President Vince Price Saturday during alumni reunion weekend.
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Duke student protesters take the stage, disrupting speech by Duke University President Vince Price Saturday during alumni reunion weekend.

Student protesters commandeered the stage Saturday from Duke University President Vincent Price as he was about to address a crowd during Duke's alumni weekend.

Just as Price was to receive pledge gifts from each reunion class, nearly 30 protesters stormed into Page Auditorium, yelling, "Vincent Price get off the stage." For about 15 minutes, students listed their demands through a bullhorn, as administrators stood by and conferred about how to handle the situation.

There was a smattering of applause but also a chorus of boos, as many alumni stood and turned their backs to the protesters. The event was almost called off because of the disruption, but the demonstrators eventually made their way outside to hold a longer protest in front of Duke Chapel.

It was Price's first Duke reunion and, as he joked later, his "first megaphone experience." He said he admired the students' passion but did not condone them speaking over others and interrupting the alumni event.

Saturday's activism happened as the Class of 1968 celebrated its 50th reunion with memories of the Silent Vigil — a period of eight days of demonstration following the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

"It has been 50 years since the Silent Vigil, and we are still here organizing, disrupting, hurting and incurring trauma," one of the students said from the stage. "We are still here."

Someone in the audience yelled, "Enough!"

The students presented a long list of concerns related to admissions, racial justice, sexual violence, employee wages and working conditions, LGBT rights, disability rights, immigrant issues and Duke's relationship to Durham.

The protesters issued 12 specific demands, including $15 an hour pay for all Duke workers, loan-free financial aid, open Board of Trustee meetings, increases in psychological counseling, more money for the Women's Center, a community space for the disabled, hiring of more diverse faculty and training for staff to better serve immigrant students. They also want Duke to rename the Carr Building, named for Julian Carr, who is known to have given a white supremacist speech at the dedication of UNC's Confederate monument.

Though some alumni walked out of the event, others snapped photos of the protesters with their cell phones, including Gary Friedman, a 1983 Duke graduate from New York City.

"I think it's terrific, it's absolutely terrific," Friedman said of the demonstration. "It's what the university is supposed to be. They handled it well. It's a tribute to Duke that they were allowed to speak. There's been too much speech suppression on both the left and the right."

A few alumni and faculty listened to the students' demands in the bright sunshine outside the chapel. Allison Cowett, a 1993 graduate from Chicago, grabbed the bullhorn and told the group, "You are the best part of the reunion."

Protester Vinit Parekh, a sophomore from Anaheim, Calif., said it was important to speak out during a gathering of different groups of alumni, some of whom may remember fighting for the rights of others in the past.

"We thought it would be the best opportunity to actually do it during the State of the University address, because a lot students on campus have approached administration. Voices have not been heard," Parekh said. "To get our voice to be heard, we thought that was the most appropriate time."

Price eventually gave his address. In it, he described a competitive arms race in programs and buildings among elite colleges. That's not entirely negative, he said, because it results in greater opportunities for students.

"It does present a risk," he said. "We have to be sure that we never lose our sense of who we are as an institution, for the roots of our future, the roots of our Duke University of tomorrow, lie not only in the decisions we make today, but in the history and the values that make Duke Duke."