Duke University administrators welcomed members of the Class of 2019 to campus in August. One hit-and-run, one cover-up, and a slew of other racial slurs and instances of discrimination later, they’re now surrounding a campus building with police and threatening to arrest some of these same students.
A total of 9 students – senior Amy Wang, juniors Mina Ezikpe, Lara Haft, and Carolyn Yao, sophomores Cindy Li, Ashlyn Nuckols, Jazmynne Williams, and Dipro Bhowmik, and freshman Sydney Roberts – launched a sit-in on Friday afternoon calling for the resignation of multiple Duke administrators, hiring reforms, and an independent investigation into an administrator-involved hit-an-run. The students spent the night in the Allen Building, home of the Office of the President, and hung a banner Saturday afternoon reading “Occupied: No Justice, no peace.”
The student activists were finally acknowledged by the Assistant Vice President for Student Affairs Sue Wasiolek and Dean and Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education Steve Nowicki late Saturday, and were told that they would be asked to leave on Sunday and charged with trespassing if they do not leave by an unspecified time. The students have said that they do not intend to leave and will continue to protest if arrested. In the meantime, a fund has been set up in their support, while other students have been prevented from sending them food and supplies, also under threat of arrest by the police forces that have surrounded the building.
The backstory is something you’d expect to happen at Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, not at one of America’s top universities:
Duke University Executive Vice President Tallman Trask hit parking attendant Shelvia Underwood with his car before a football game against Elon in August, before calling her a “dumb, dumb, stupid n____,” and driving away.
Underwood said she received a muscle contusion and a possible fractured elbow, and wanted to immediately file a police report about the incident, but her immediate supervisor, Meredith McLaurin, told her to wait and that it would be taken care of; following the delay, Underwood was told that she would have to file her report herself after all.
The Duke Chronicle reported that DUPD Investigator Arthur Holland eventually met with Underwood four days after she was originally hit, but that DUPD refused to provide Underwood with a copy of the report she had tried to file until she told them a lieutenant from the Raleigh Police Department had said they were legally required to show it to her. The copy of the report she received was clearly incomplete, although the DUPD maintains a complete copy is on file but is simply not public record as they are a private institution.
Throughout this whole ordeal, Underwood has maintained that she would not have taken legal action against Trask and the university if she simply received “a sincere apology.” However, sixteen days after being hit, the only thing she got was a card delivered by Vice President for Administration Kyle Cavanaugh – who also oversees the DUPD – from Trask that read “I very much regret the incident before the Elon football game. I should have been more patient and I apologize.”
The disgustingly tepid nature of the apology and the complete and utter lack of disregard for the well-being of an employee should be reason enough to be concerned about the current Duke administration – but that’s not even all of it. An investigation by reporters from the Duke Chronicle confirmed the suspicions of many that this incident is only part of a larger thread of discrimination and dehumanization that seems to make up the fabric of Duke University. 12 former employees of the Parking and Transportation Services department interviewed by the Chronicle stated that they had been subjected to extreme hostility by Cavanaugh and PTS Director Carl Pinto. Renee Adkins, PTS former special events manager, told the Chronicle how she and her staff had been called “n_____, coon, porch monkey, bull dagger and dyke while working Duke special events,” on multiple occasions, in addition to being targeted unfairly by certain cell phone policies that did not appear to apply to white employees, among other offenses. Again, it appears that no one in Duke’s administration has responded adequately to these complaints, and that “specific complaints against Mr. DePinto, filed through Duke Human Resources, the Office of Institutional Equity and the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, have not been meaningfully addressed.”
These are, of course, only the complaints that have been filed, bearing in mind that numerous employees did not formally complain about their maltreatment due to fear of retaliation.
More than 20 days after the Chronicle originally broke these two stories, the administration still had not formally addressed them, prompting a student protest led by the newly-formed Duke Students and Workers in Solidarity. The group marched to the Allen Building, where the nine students began their sit-in.
The blatant disrespect for the black and brown bodies that the university is built up and run on is not unique to Duke.
The precedent was set by the Concerned Student 1950 movement at the University of Missouri earlier this academic year – we have seen proof of how powerful a tool student protest can be in demanding universities right the wrongs of their administrators (and take the at times even harder step of demanding universities acknowledge that they have been in the wrong to start with).
Muslim solidarity with these nine students and similar movements across the country is crucial. If we are not at the forefront of protests that affect our black and brown brothers and sisters, and if we do not stand up for our own interests, no one will. Even more importantly, we have a moral imperative to act in these situations: It is our Islamic duty to demand the humane treatment and respect of basic decency of our fellow human beings – Muslim and non-Muslim, blue-collar worker or upper-level administrator.
It is now Duke University’s turn to change history and make progress, but the direction this progress will take – whether forwards or backwards – remains up to the administrators in question.