How Talking to Undergraduates Changed My Mind

What I learned from attending a town-hall meeting and listening to students’ concerns

Danny Fowler / Flickr

Sometimes it takes a group of young people to set you straight.

For months now, I’ve been reading about college students who’ve been seeking “safe spaces.” They’ve often been met by derision—even the highest ranked Urban Dictionary definition is mired in sarcasm, describing them as having “pillows” and “soothing music” that “allows them to recover from the trauma... of exposure to ideas that conflict with their leftist professors.”

I also had some mid-life skepticism about teenage hyperbole, that is, until I attended a town hall meeting at Duke University (my alma mater) earlier this month. The “community conversation,” as it was called, had been hastily convened to discuss the rash of racist and homophobic incidents on campus. Listening to those students—and watching their expressions—I realized that what’s been happening at Duke is serious, and no amount of sarcasm can disguise the pain and anger on campus, or cover up the real dangers lurking there.

The problems that exist on the Durham, North Carolina, campus are also found beyond its borders. Add to the list: Bucknell (racial slurs and threats were made on a radio broadcast), Georgia Tech (a black female student was the target of racial epithets by white fraternity members), UCLA (students wore offensive blackface at a “Kanye Western” party), Miami University in Ohio (students defaced a residence hall with anti-Semitic, racist, homophobic, and sexist graffiti), and many others.

But there’s a difference between reading headlines and sitting in an auditorium overflowing with frustrated and angry students. Back on the campus that James Duke built, emotions boiled over quickly at the town hall, with a group of nearly 100 students taking the stage with a call-and-response chat even before university officials took their seats.

“You have created a space for us to fear for our lives, and you continue to maintain that space,” the students said in unison. “Duke, you are guilty.”

One by one the students, mostly undergrads, addressed the university’s president, Richard Brodhead, who was accompanied by Provost Sally Kornbluth and Dean Valerie Ashby. “I do not feel safe as a black female at Duke,” Katrina Miller told him. A female Asian American student, weeping, said, “If everything had gone according to plan...I would have been another suicide because I don’t feel safe here. I don’t feel that I belong here.”

As an alumnus, and a member of the Duke Alumni Association board of directors, I’d been following the highly disturbing series of events on campus: In April, an undergraduate hung a noose from a tree near the student union; in October, a Black Lives Matter poster was defaced with the “N” word; students of Asian ancestry have been repeatedly ridiculed and stereotyped. Then, in November, while Jack Donahue slept in his dorm, he told me, an individual entered and scrawled on a corridor wall with a black sharpie: “Death to all fags @Jack.” Donahue is gay.

The university didn’t address the incident publicly for two days, and then dismissed the incident as “defamatory speech.” LGBT students saw it differently. “No, it was a hate crime against an individual, as well as a community, and should have been named as such,” said Tyler Nelson, the president of Blue Devils United, the student LGBT organization. Christopher Brook, the legal director of the ACLU of North Carolina agreed, “It certainly sounds like this event meets the Hate Crime Prevention Act definition of a hate crime.”

Donahue missed the town hall  to attend IvyQ, an activist conference of LGBT students, but I had spoken to him a few days earlier. I asked him if LGBT students felt safe at Duke. “No,” he replied without hesitation. Donahue had earlier told The Chronicle “hatred like this is exactly what keeps innocent victims of circumstance in the closet and queer people living in a constant state of fear.”

Duke students living in a constant state of fear? Was this an exaggeration or a frightening new reality for many? Listening to them speak up one after another, I sadly came to realize it was the latter.

“I shouldn’t have to feel obligated to call my mother every night to tell her that I survived another day at Duke,” Miller told Brodhead at the town hall. “There’s no space for me at Duke.”

Imari Smith, a pre-med senior who is African American, started her question by pointedly asking Brodhead: “Can you see me?” She went on to remind the president that the undergrad who hung the noose was not expelled. Students wonder every day whether the person sitting next to them in class is the one who placed the noose or defaced the Black Lives Matter poster, Smith said. Donahue goes to sleep every night knowing the scrawled death threat came from someone who still has access to his dorm. “These students are feeling the lack of responsibility that you all take on their behalf,” Miller told Brodhead. “And to be frank, I don’t have faith in you all...I don’t trust you because I have a reason not to.”

At that meeting, university officials announced that they plan to create a “hate-bias” task force and a new website to notify students about incidents, as well as launch new efforts to recruit a more diversity faculty. Students convened a follow-up forum a week later to present a list of demands to administrators, accusing them of moving too slowly on issues of inclusion and diversity. Brodhead agreed “to look at these things seriously” while urging patience. He added: “In a university, you have to actually think things through and work them through to find out what can be done, and we will not skip that process.”

But students who say they are afraid for their lives need protection and a plan, not patience or promises. Donahue put it starkly: “I would like for issues of my safety to be addressed. I would like tighter security in my dorm.” Michael Schoenfeld, a university vice president, told me there were “no new developments in the investigation” in the three weeks since the graffiti incident.

With exams approaching, talk on campus is now focused on when the next racist or homophobic incident will take place—not if. I’m left thinking about how much these students’ issues mirror those of previous generations at Duke, dating back to at least 1969 when the The Chronicle reported on harassment of black students by campus police and the takeover of the administration’s office by 50 students in protest. And yet I’m unable to shake the question Miller posed to Brodhead: “What are you going to do about it now?”