Black Students Seeking Action on Racial Climate at Duke

A group of Black students at Duke University are continuing their push to force college administrators to improve the racial climate on campus, calling on university officials to allocate more financial resources and support to improving the plight of students of color.

About two dozen students in the Black Student Alliance recently met with top university officials to present a document—the Black Culture Initiative—which they say is aimed at encouraging reform at the private research school in Durham, North Carolina.

Included in the group’s demands is the establishment of an endowment to support cultural events and programming, academic enrichment efforts and personal and professional development. They are also demanding that the university’s Mary Lou Williams Center for Black Culture, which is currently undergoing renovations, be returned to its original location after the renovations are completed. There has been speculation that the university was planning to relocate the center in another part of campus. Finally, they want the university to continue its support of the Black Student Alliance Invitational weekend for high school seniors, which they say “provides a highly visible annual opportunity for the university to reaffirm its commitment to diversity and to celebrate the contributions of Black people to Duke University.”

According to college officials, Blacks constitute about 10 percent of the 6,664 undergraduate students. 

“There are larger ongoing issues that have not been addressed and seem perpetual,” says Nana Asante, 21, a senior psychology major and president of the Black Student Alliance. “What is going on is not unique; it is symptomatic of the issues being improperly addressed to date and is something that we have been concerned about for sometime.”

At issue is an unpublished study conducted by Duke researchers that was cited several weeks ago in the Chronicle of Higher Education. The study concluded that Black students or children of alumni are more likely to switch to easier majors, an explanation for why the grade point averages of Black students have dramatically increased over the past decade. 

The Black Student Alliance want university officials to denounce the study, which they say is racist and demeaning, but college officials assert that academic freedom should be protected within higher education and have remained mum. 

Three weeks ago, about three dozen students in the BSA staged a silent protest at the university’s annual Martin Luther King Jr. observance where political commentator Donna Brazile delivered the keynote address. They linked arms and held signs that read: “What is an easy major?” and “I’m Black and a neuroscience major. My major is not easy.”

Their fight has drawn national media attention and has attracted the support of local groups like the NAACP.

What concerns Asante even more is that the unpublished manuscript, which has not been accepted via peer review, was used recently in legal proceedings as part of an amicus brief filed by opponents of affirmative action.

“There are salient questions regarding data conclusion, the ethics and legitimacy of the analysis and conclusion,” she says.

Duke officials say they have entered into dialogue with the students.

“We welcome their call to action and we welcome their recommendations,” says university spokesman Mike Schoenfeld, adding that discussions between the students and the administration are ongoing. “These are not new issues at Duke,” says Schoenfeld.  “Many people have been working for a long time to create a positive environment for African-American students at Duke.”

For now, Asante says that she remains “cautiously optimistic” but skeptical that the university will respond to their requests. What’s more alarming, she says, is that some Blacks have remained on the sidelines refusing to agitate for social change.

“To see Black students who are not supportive, aware or conscious that these issues affect them is most painful,” says Asante.