State News

Duke won't negotiate with students until sit-in ends

Posted April 3, 2016 2:57 p.m. EDT
Updated April 4, 2016 10:32 p.m. EDT

— A student protest at Duke University continued through Monday afternoon, but Duke officials said that negotiations with students will cease until the group voluntarily leaves the building they have occupied since Friday.

Duke University President Richard Brodhead met Sunday afternoon with nine protesters in their second day occupying his office's waiting room to demand the firing of three administrators and a $15 per hour minimum wage for all campus workers.

Nine students have camped outside Brodhead's office in the Allen Building, the school's main administrative building, since Friday afternoon. The building has been closed to students and staff since then.

University officials initially told the students they could face criminal trespassing charges, academic sanctions or both if they didn't leave Sunday, Vice President for Public Affairs and Government Relations Michael Schoenfeld said. Officials reversed course on that threat late Sunday, saying they would not punish the students in an effort to "facilitate productive dialogue and move toward a peaceful resolution."

By Monday, officials appeared to tire of the sit-in and demanded that the students leave the Allen Building if they wish further negotiations.

"It has become clear that reaching agreement on all the remaining demands will require far more extensive conversation, likely to include other members of the Duke community, Duke spokesman Keith Lawrence said in a statement.

"The longer that building is closed down, the more people are going to be inconvenienced and the more disruptive it will be to their fellow students and to visitors and to guests and to faculty," Schoenfeld said Monday.

"The closing of the Allen Building ... for whatever reason was by Duke's administration and, in a way, served to galvanize this gathering outside as well," protester Mike DeVito said.

Monday night, students with the protest group released a statement saying that the sit-in did not need to impact use of the Allen Building as administrators and faculty members could easily access their offices and meeting space. They emphasized the fact that the group never suggested or demanded that the building be closed during the protest.

"Duke's administration is simply choosing to close the Allen Building in order to disrupt classes and cast our campaign in a negative light," the statement said. "Students are only occupying the administrative part of a single level of the Allen Building, and their presence does not disrupt classes or any other functions of the Allen Building."

Security guards have been posed at the entrance to the building as well as inside, according to protesters.

According to Duke's statement, the students have met with at least five Duke officials as well as faculty leaders during the sit-in.

Students said that although Duke administrators have met with students, they denied workers the opportunity to join in negotiaions.

Students said they were prepared to stay inside the Allen Building for as long as necessary, adding that, each time they face administrators, their answers are the same.

“[We’re] really sticking to the demands, making sure we’re emphasizing how incredibly important workers’ rights are,” said student protester Sydney Roberts.

It's been about a decade since the administration building was occupied by protesters, Schoenfeld said, but "protests at Duke are neither rare nor identical."

The administrators that protesters want fired include one top executive involved in a dispute with a parking attendant two years ago. A lawsuit filed last month by the contract traffic control officer accuses Duke Executive Vice President Tallman Trask III of using a racial slur against her.

Trask has said parking attendant Shelvia Underwood refused to let him park in his usual spot and stepped in front of his car. He denied making any racial comment.

On Monday, he issued a formal apology to Underwood.

"While the details of what happened are a matter of disagreement and subject of civil litigation, I recognize that my conduct fell short of the civility and respectful conduct each member of this community owes to every other," Trask said in the statement. "I express my apology to Ms. Underwood and to this community and re-commit myself to ensuring that these values are upheld for all."

Photos posted on the Twitter account of the Duke Chronicle show graffiti on signs and leaded-glass windows urging Trask's firing. Other photos posted by the campus newspaper show dozens of students chanting or seated on the lawn outside the administration building.

The occupying group said the incident involving Trask and Underwood is reflective of what they call a longstanding history of institutional racism, discrimination and abuse of workers.

"The current and former employees that I've talked to said it's so bad that they really all need to go; that there's no way that this can continue to be acceptable to them if those three are still in employment," said one student protester.

The group of protesters calls itself Duke Students and Workers in Solidarity and said their motivation concerns racism, discrimination, and abuse of workers that extends beyond the incident between Trask and Underwood.

“It’s a simple thing. It’s almost like a moral appeal that these workers deserve better conditions,” said Roberts.

Campus police investigated Underwood's allegations two years ago, but she "chose not to pursue her police complaint," the university said in a statement.

A campus institutional equity office separately investigated the allegation of an uttered racial comment. "This investigation also did not produce sufficient evidence to confirm the allegations," the statement said.

The university also said that Underwood has filed a civil lawsuit against Trask.

The statement from Duke University further stated that all employees have access to a four-step grievance process, including a review panel of peers from across the school and the use of an independent outside arbitrator, selected by the employee, to evaluate the merits of each case. Employees can also submit complains of discrimination to the Office of Institutional Equity or the federal Equal Opportunity Employment Commission. The university stated that former and current employees of Parking and Transportation services who have filed complaints or lawsuits against Duke have gone through these appeal processes.

Schoenfeld prepared to address reporters Sunday afternoon regarding the protesters and unyielding students followed him to the interview, shouting the entire time. After realizing he would not be granted a moment of silence, Schoenfeld gave the university’s side. He said he’s hopeful they’ll reach a compromise, but three administrators are staying put.

“We don’t fire people because somebody demands it,” he said. “We have a process for employment issues, for other kids of disciplinary issues and if there is a process to be followed, then the process will be followed.”

Duke's current minimum wage is $12 an hour, compared to the federal and state minimum of $7.50, the statement said. The school is pushing to require companies with which it contracts for campus services to also pay at least $12 an hour, the statement said.