My Two Cents on Duke Tomorrow Demands

I attended the Duke Tomorrow event Friday and think there are a lot of good ideas that should be acted on in the demands that were presented to President Brodhead, Provost Kornbluth and Dean Ashby. Even where I might disagree with the demands, I give the students credit for raising issues they think will improve Duke in a forceful and thoughtful manner. Here are my thoughts, organized around the 10 points of the original document they issued. These are not meant to be a last word, but just a point in a conversation and I am happy to try and clarify if desired by anyone, especially students.

Point 1 “Bias Reporting Policy and University Standard” and Point 4 “Cultural Climate Consultations.”

  • Training in implicit bias, racism, cultural awareness and related topics that is grounded in historical reality and that focuses on societal, institutional and individual levels of change is needed and should be routinized. I learned a great deal from three types of training of this type in which I have participated at Duke in the past 2 years. All 3 events were conducted in the context of a team that was joined together for a task (Executive Committee of the Academic Council on which I served; a faculty search committee that I chaired; and a School of Public Policy retreat). These events were structured differently and each taught me things about myself, while producing a shared experience that raised awareness of these issues that could be referred back to as the teams I was on tried to do its respective job.
  • Students, Faculty and staff need to be a part of such training, education and discussion. Faculty/Staff interactions especially need to be improved on many levels–we faculty often miss the key role that staff play in running Duke. If all the staff disappeared and only the faculty were left, the University would cease to function.
  • I think we need a variety of approaches, including those developed and run by outside consultant organizations, as well as by internal units of Duke. Developing some of this from an outside assessment of cultural climate is a reasonable idea. We likely need many approaches to this task/topic.

Point 2. “Protocol for Hate Speech and Racial Incidents”

  • I am not a fan of hate speech codes of any type because I think it is impossible to precisely define all that speech that is objectionable and harmful, as well as the centrality of free speech principles to a university. I do think that speech that I would recognize as hateful is asymmetric in the sense that it disproportionately harms and excludes groups that have been and are marginalized from full membership in the free speech discussions that represent the University at its best. So, I am stuck here and unsure what we should do, but am willing to listen and want to give students who have been excluded the benefit of the doubt in figuring out how to rectify this situation (and make them full members in the University conversation).

Point 3 “Increased Diversity in High-Ranking Faculty and Administration”

  • This is a priority. The most important fact of the Diversity Task Force  (full disclosure, I served on the committee) that reported in May, 2015 to the Academic Council is that it was created by the faculty, birthed out of the Academic Council, and not started by the Administration. The faculty have a collective responsibility here and we will live into our aspirations or fail 3-4 of us at a time (on job searches, tenure review committees, at the like). The Administration has a role in resource allocation here, but the faculty have to do this, and own responsibility for success in how those resources are used in continually regenerating the faculty.

Point 5 “Increased Socioeconomic Diversity”

  • There has already been a discussion of altering our need-based financial aid structure this academic year in the normal functioning of the Duke budget review process. I chair the University Priorities Committee (UPC) this year, and have been a member for 3 years. UPC defines priorities in financial terms, and there are two long run unsustainable aspects of the existing Duke financial model as I see them. One* is that Duke cannot afford its existing need-based financial aid approach; at the same time, we cannot afford to not have it. The first use of “afford” above means that we don’t have endowment specifically allocated to produce the flows necessary to pay for our program, so we have to spend fungible dollars to make good on our program and will have to do so for the foreseeable future. We cannot afford not to do it because it is crucial to producing a student body that is more economically diverse than it otherwise would be, which is a key Duke priority.
  • The cost of Duke’s need based financial aid program rose rapidly during the financial downturn (students can re-apply if family situations change, as they should be able to do) in 2008 until about 2 years ago, when it stabilized and roughly returned to pre-2008 levels in real terms. This Fall there has already been discussion of whether we should increase our need-based financial aid spending, both in response to what other Universities have done as  well as due to our commitment to maintain economic diversity of the student body.
  • I am uncertain of the exact family income that now requires no family contribution (the demands ask that $75,000 be the cut point) as I tend to think in terms of the aggregate dollars spent on financial aid, but a change that increases this cut point has already been discussed and this is an active discussion.
  • On SAT/ACT scores, I am fine with these tests being optional for applicants. Other Universities have done this. We would be the highest ranked University to do it, but that sounds like an opportunity to lead to me, and I know from my days directing the Benjamin N. Duke Scholarship (when I reviewed many admission applications and worked with admissions on student selection) that the admissions office already has quite a holistic application review process.

Point 7 “Representation of Distinguished Black Individuals on Buildings and Monuments on Campus”

  • Naming the renovated West Union Building for West Campus architect Julian Abele and/or a statue erected in his honor seems like a good, reasonable and overdue thing to do. I concur with President Brodhead’s words on Friday that there was discussion (with President Brodhead at Executive Committee of Academic Council last year when I served) of renaming Aycock Dorm Abele Dorm last year, but that was not seen as a good idea because (1) he didn’t design that dorm and (2) it is viewed as an ugly building by many and likely to be torn down within the next 10-20 years and replaced by a new dorm.

Point 8 “An administrative position with the sole purpose of addressing institutional inequities and working with students of color to improve their experiences on campus.”

  • On this position, I would like to suggest a slight revision. What if we had a faculty member who took an “internal sabbatical” of sorts and focused on this post, in conjunction with whatever set of administrative positions were needed? The faculty need to lead in this area of seeing to it that all our students are full members of the University community, and having professors who work with undergrads take a focused period of time to do this might work better. Over time you would have a group of faculty who had done this post and they would take these experiences back with them to the various Departments at Duke.
  • Diverse students should be included on the Task Force on Bias and Hate that has just been created, I agree.
  • I served for three years on the President’s Council on Black Affairs (PCOBA) and did not find it to be the most meaningful service. If Black students don’t feel this structure is useful, maybe it should be ended and energies put elsewhere. From my perspective, a committee that meets once/semester doesn’t have much chance to be productive. I missed half the meetings during my tenure because they conflicted with a class I taught, so others may think this committee is valuable.

Point 9 “Living Wages and Rights for Staff and Adjunct Faculty”

  • One of my children has some interest in being a faculty member, and I think of these issues in that frame–this child of mine could have an adjunct faculty post somewhere. And that worries me. These issues were discussed in the Diversity Task Force and in Academic Council generally last year. I am unsure if a union is the best way to protect adjunct faculty, but the regular rank faculty at Duke need to step up here and help determine the Duke approach to hiring and employing these faculty who are key in running Duke, especially in some departments. I suggest we faculty use the thought experiment of how we would want our children who might be an adjunct faculty some day to be treated to figure this out.
  • Duke faculty don’t have any problem speaking out. Staff are members of the Duke community and they should be able to say what they wish about their views of how to make the community better.
  • It would surprise me if Duke is working with contractors that do not meet N.C. Dept of Labor standards. If we are doing so, we should stop.

I appreciate the Duke Tomorrow students being clear about what they want. There were other groups that spoke at Friday’s meeting and also issued demands, and I suspect there will be further groups of students coming forth with ideas. My responses are just my thoughts, meant to try and engage in dialogue and no one else has seen these ideas/responses–they are mine alone. If there are any students who want to talk, let me know and I am happy to meet with you.

*the other long run unsustainable feature of Duke’s financial model is the cost structure of our current biomedical research enterprise, due to the long run funding outlook (that is bad) of the NIH.

About Don Taylor
Professor of Public Policy (with appointments in Business, Nursing, Community and Family Medicine, and the Duke Clinical Research Institute), and Chair of the Academic Council at Duke University . I am one of the founding faculty of the Margolis Center for Health Policy. My research focuses on improving care for persons who are dying, and I am co-PI of a CMMI award in Community Based Palliative Care. I teach both undergrads and grad students at Duke. On twitter @donaldhtaylorjr

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