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Noose on Duke's campus brings race to forefront of higher education

Posted April 1, 2015 8:06 p.m. EDT
Updated April 2, 2015 6:15 a.m. EDT

— Messages of inclusion and diversity once again flowed from a Triangle school on Wednesday after a noose was found hanging from a tree at Duke University.

The incident is the latest in a series of race-related incidents on college campuses nationwide that have catapulted race and higher education into the national conversation.

Hundreds silently marched from Duke’s West Campus to the school’s Bryan Center plaza, then held a forum in front of Duke Chapel after the noose was found hanging on a tree at the plaza earlier that morning.

"To whomever committed this hateful and stupid act, I just want to say that, if your intent was to create fear, it will have the opposite effect," Larry Moneta, vice president for student affairs, said in a statement. "In time, each of these cowardly acts of bias and hatred will strengthen our resolve to love and support each other."

Authorities have not identified who placed the noose. Anyone with information about the incident is asked to call Duke University Police at 919-684-2444.

“I wanted to say, and wish I could say that this isn’t us,” said Duke Student Government President Lavanya Sunder during the forum. “But to do that is to deny the racial tension that has manifested on this campus over the past few weeks.”

Incidents away from Duke, including the killings of black men by police officers in Ferguson, Mo. and New York City, along with racist chants from fraternity members at the University of Oklahoma that went viral, have increased racial tensions on campus, Sunder said afterwards.

While more minority Duke students are becoming student leaders and joining traditionally white Greek organizations, Sunder said it is difficult for any school to completely eliminate racism.

“Clearly there’s a lot more work to be done, but this work can only be done with a slow and sustained dialogue,” she said.

Noose a ‘macro aggression’

The noose’s discovery comes just days after 100 prospective black students visited Duke, said Jason Ross, president of Duke’s National Pan-Hellenic Council.

“And now they’re really going to have to think of their decision,” he said during Wednesday’s forum. “This does not seem like a safe campus. It’s not a safe campus.”

Changing perceptions on race must start on a more personalized level, Duke Provost Sally Kornbluth said.

“This is a macro aggression, and it’s the micro aggressions that happen every single day that matter,” she said. “Many of you may look at yourselves and say ‘I would never say anything racist, I would never do anything racist.’ But the truth of the matter is there’s no standard here. We’re all complicit if we hear these things, see these things and don’t say it.”

It will also come down to people finding each other’s common ground, said Linda Marie Burton, Duke’s dean of social sciences.

“We will not tolerate this kind of behavior on this campus,” she said at the forum. “Duke, in our eyes, is a place where tolerance and stability should thrive, and I believe that we are so much more than what is likely a smaller group of people with little minds, no courage and even less integrity.”

Increased racial tensions, social media

Recent incidents involving race have impacted college campuses across the country, from the aforementioned chant at the University of Oklahoma to the suspension of the Pi Kappa Phi fraternity at North Carolina State University after the discovery of a pledge book containing racially and sexually offensive language.

Such incidents have become more common due to the debate on immigration, police brutality and an African-American president in the White House, said Marybeth Gasman, an expert on diversity and higher education at the University of Pennsylvania.

“All of those things are building up among a certain segment of the population and that segment doesn’t know what to do,” she said. “They’ve been harboring these racist ideas for a good long time and they’re coming out.”

Their ideas have reached a wider audience, and widespread scrutiny, due to social media, Gasman added.

“Once it’s out there, almost anyone can get it,” she said.

In order for a university to become more inclusive of race and diversity, it must understand where it stands on diversity, said Mark Anthony Neal, an African-American studies professor at Duke.

“An institution has to be clear on where its values are,” he said. “Whether we talk about the University of Oklahoma or Duke or other southern institutions, if the institution isn’t clear about its values around diversity, there are students that will find gaps in the university’s policy on this issue.”