Duke halts negotiations with protesters, asks them to vacate building

Duke students protest to have university official removed

VIDEO: Michael Schoenfeld, Duke University's vice president for public affairs and government relations, attempts to answer reporters' questions as protesters demand that an executive vice president be fired for his treatment of a traffic control
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VIDEO: Michael Schoenfeld, Duke University's vice president for public affairs and government relations, attempts to answer reporters' questions as protesters demand that an executive vice president be fired for his treatment of a traffic control

As a sit-in entered its fourth day at Duke University’s main administrative building Monday, negotiations between campus officials and nine protesters reached an impasse.

Late Monday, the university issued a statement saying it is committed to further progress at reaching “a mutually agreeable resolution” to student demands, but that the closure of the occupied Allen Building has presented a “significant disruption to students, faculty, staff and visitors, and cannot continue indefinitely.”

“As a result,” the statement concluded, “the university will only continue negotiations after the nine students voluntarily leave the Allen Building.”

Late Sunday night, Duke said protesters camped inside the building wouldn’t face disciplinary action or legal penalties, reversing its stance from earlier in the weekend, when the nine protesters were told they would have to leave the Allen Building or face removal. Arrests and university discipline appeared all but inevitable.

The nine protesters first entered the building, which houses the office of Duke President Richard Brodhead, late Friday. They brought food and supplies with them as they protested the actions of several Duke administrators and highlighted the condition of Duke employees.

On a brilliant spring day Monday, the event had the feel of a festival, as supporters of the student protesters pitched tents on the quad outside the Allen Building. But there was clearly tension in the air, as student organizers spoke in hushed tones with the nine occupiers, who appeared on the balcony to talk strategy. When they climbed back through the windows of the neo-Gothic building, cheers erupted from students gathered below.

As talks progressed, administrators came and went from the building, where protesters demanded the dismissal of three administrators, including Tallman Trask III, Duke’s executive vice president, because of a two-year-old dispute with a contract parking employee. Trask hit the attendant with his car in 2014, and last month she sued him and the university. In the suit, she claimed he uttered a racial slur at her.

The university’s police department investigated, but the employee, Shelvia Underwood of McLaurin Parking and Transportation Management, chose not to pursue the police complaint, a university statement said. Duke also said an investigation by its Office of Institutional Equity “did not produce sufficient evidence to confirm” the racial epithet.

On Monday, Trask issued an apology that was posted on the university’s website.

“I want to say a word to the Duke community about my interaction with Shelvia Underwood in August 2014, which has been a subject of much recent discussion,” the Trask statement said. “While the details of what happened are a matter of disagreement and subject of civil litigation, I recognize that my conduct fell short of the civility and respectful conduct each member of this community owes to every other. I express my apology to Ms. Underwood and to this community and re-commit myself to ensuring that these values are upheld for all.”

The protesters are not only focusing on the incident involving Trask. They’ve issued a list of demands, including an increase in minimum pay to $15 an hour for Duke employees.

Students hung a sheet outside the building with a checklist of action they want to see, including an outside investigation of the Trask incident, a transparent review and transparency in recruiting. Two boxes were checked by late Monday: “Unconditional amnesty” and “Public apology.”

The protesters had paid homage to the Duke tradition of “tenting” at Kryzyewski-ville to score tickets to Blue Devil basketball games. Their list of demands was titled “A-Ville,” with the “A” referring to “Allen.”

Kari Barclay, a senior from Bethesda, Md., said students had been celebrating the two victories.

“We try to draw this parallel between K-ville because it’s really about Duke spirit, connecting to the Duke identity, and saying that, really, to be a Duke student is also to stand for workers,” Barclay said. “Working towards a better university is just as important as cheering on Duke basketball.”

Onlookers watched as the protesters at times appeared on a balcony of the building, where an unfurled banner said, “OCCUPIED. NO justice. NO peace.”

The protest had gained attention on social media with the hashtag #DismantleDukePlantation. Last year, a noose that appeared on campus resulted in a gathering of about 1,000 people in front of the Duke Chapel. A student admitted hanging the noose and apologized. The student said it was a joke, and was sanctioned for the action but allowed to return to Duke.

“None of these things are isolated incidents,” Barclay said. “They occur sort of in a larger context of being an elite university that has a lot of racial baggage with it.”

Jane Stancill: 919-829-4559, @janestancill