Protest and Power at Duke

Anger over the fallout from a powerful administrator hitting an employee with his car leads to takeover of administration building and debate over treatment of workers. University makes concessions, but sit-in continues. At Ohio State, a sit-in starts and ends.

April 7, 2016
Protest at Duke's administration building

A month ago, Duke University’s student newspaper surprised many by publishing an article revealing a parking attendant had accused Tallman Trask, the university’s executive vice president, of hitting her with his car and using a racial slur. Many students newspaper articles are quickly forgotten. Not this one.

Eight protesters have been occupying Duke’s central administrative building for five days. The president, provost and other top officials have been forced to relocate. The students issued demands. Outside, more student protesters are camped out in tents in solidarity with the eight occupiers. (There were initially nine of them, but one left for the weekend to participate in a national poetry slam.)

The university, after negotiations broke down, has said it will not resume discussions until the students leave. But late Wednesday, Duke announced a series of concessions on issues raised by the protest. The university pledged to "engage a recognized, independent expert to review the grievance and complaint procedures for Duke staff in order to assess their fairness and effectiveness," to "review the guidelines for contractors and their employees to ensure they reflect Duke’s core values of civility, fairness and respect" and to "raise awareness of processes for the recruitment and review of senior administrators."

While these measures did not go as far as the protesters demanded, the announcement represents a shift from the university saying it had sound procedures in place for anyone to raise concerns about employees. Still, the protest is continuing and the students didn't leave, but held a press conference to say they were not satisfied with Duke's concessions.

What the Students Want

The Duke protesters’ demands are not as long or involved as others have been, but they include “the immediate termination” of Trask and two other university officials -- Kyle Cavanaugh, vice president of administration, who, among other things, oversees campus police and parking, and Carl DePinto, director of parking and transportation services.

Also among their demands are an external investigation into the incident with Trask, a revision of employment guidelines for subcontracted campus workers, more transparency in administrative recruitment and a $15 minimum wage for all employees on campus. Duke's Wednesday night announcement said the university would start the process of raising the minimum wage beyond the current $12.

In light of the alleged slur, which Trask denies, and the demographics of Duke's lowest-paid employees, there is a racial element to the discussion. The hashtag for the protest is #DismantleDukePlantation. But the primary emphasis of the Duke protest is on economics and the pay and working conditions of nonfaculty contract employees at the low end of the pay scale.

“One thing that’s been pretty clear in this entire process is the influence of money,” said Alice Reed, a sophomore who has helped organize the protests and building occupation (but isn’t one of the nine occupiers, who declined via Reed to comment for this article). “I think that’s a lot of the reason Duke students have been frustrated. They see Trask is one of our highest-paid administrators, and because he has that much money and is so high powered in the university, he’s been able to get away with a lot.”

Trask has apologized directly to the parking attendant, Shelvia Underwood, and four days into the protest he made a public apology. "I recognize that my conduct fell short of the civility and respectful conduct each member of this community owes to every other,” he wrote. “I express my apology to Ms. Underwood and to this community and recommit myself to ensuring that these values are upheld for all.” Underwood has filed civil a civil suit against Trask, which remains open.

Students say the university did not do enough to investigate the incident and that working conditions for contract workers on campus, particularly nonwhite workers, are poor. "Workers are the ones most affected by the persistent racism and harassment embedded in Duke’s administration and management," the students said in a statement published online. "The seven demands that [the protesters have] made reflect the needs of workers in Parking and Transportation Services (PTS) as well as workers across Duke’s campus."

Broad Demands at Ohio State

Ohio State students occupy an administration building Wednesday, April 6.A sit-in started Wednesday in Ohio State's administration building, where between six and 70 students have remained in the lobby despite being told that the building closes at 5:30 p.m.

As at Duke, many of the demands at Ohio State are economic and relate to university employees. ReclaimOSU, as the group is called, demands enhanced access to budget information about the university and for the university to provide "qualified personnel" to help students understand the information. Further, the group demands that Ohio State stop outsourcing jobs to private contractors, increase the production and use of locally produced food, and sell holdings in companies that the students believe participate in the denial of human rights to Palestinians.

Students have take to social media to complain about authorities not letting them bring in food and more supporters.

Update: This morning, Ohio State announced that the sit-in ended.

A statement from the university said: "This was a group that included mostly students and also unknown people who may not be affiliated with the university, and their occupation of this building was illegal. After repeated discussions and warnings, the group chose to disperse on their own volition. They were not removed. Ohio State has a vibrant community of students, faculty and staff who work together through an active and effective structure of shared governance. The methods employed by this group were outside the scope of permitted practices....  As a society and as a university we have rules that are in place to protect the very freedoms these individuals were exercising, and these protections and rights also extend to our staff as they work on the important business of the university. Bricker Hall closes every day at 5:30 p.m. We made accommodations for this group to peacefully assemble, and they were free to leave at any time. Our Ohio State community enjoys incredible privileges, and dialogue must be conducted in a constructive way."

Duke Administration’s Response

At Duke, a number of officials, including President Richard Brodhead, have met with the occupiers, but the short-lived negotiations broke down Monday after the students demanded campus workers be allowed in the building to participate in the discussion.

“The students added that in the middle of dialogue, after the initial demands were presented,” said Michael Schoenfeld, vice president for public affairs and government relations, in an email to Inside Higher Ed. Now the university says it will only continue discussions after the students voluntarily leave the building.

The occupiers say they have no such plans, which leaves the university in something of a bind because it promised that the students “will not be subject to student conduct sanctions and legal penalties for their actions.”

So, what happens if no one budges and the occupation continues? “Life goes on,” Schoenfeld said. “The essential work of the university continues despite the disruption in this one building.”

Part of the building reopened for Duke employees on Wednesday, though classes that take place there are still being rescheduled.

Response From Everyone Else

Many students and faculty are backing the protest, said Reed. They come and hang out around the tents, which are known as Abele-ville after the quad they occupy. Professors have held teach-ins about, for example, the history of protests at Duke, and others have donated tents, tarps and blankets (which are particularly valuable in light of recent cold nights and a low Wednesday morning of 30 degrees).

Local restaurants have also donated food, which protesters outside hand to the campus police guarding the building doors to give to the occupiers within.

Several campus organizations, like the Asian Students Association and the local chapter of the Phi Beta Sigma fraternity, have also declared their support.

Some alumni have chimed in with their support online, but many others have criticized both the students protesting and the administration for going easy on them. “Negotiate with students who are disrupting campus operations? Demands? Duke administration needs to get a backbone,” one posted on Facebook. "I may have to reconsider sending charitable donations," wrote another. "Those nine occupiers should be evicted and suspended from school."


Back to Top