Conversation on Race and Difference - April 2012

April 25, 2012

April 25, 2012 - Duke Chronicle
Laurie Patton, Dean of Arts and Sciences

Creating an ongoing conversation on race and difference at Duke

As we conclude the semester, I have the occasion to reflect on the challenges of my first year at Duke. Most days have been exhilarating; I have been able to build more creatively here at Duke than I ever dreamed possible, even in the first months. And other days have reminded me that there is much more we can and should accomplish as a University, and within Arts & Sciences. One of the most challenging months of my first year had to do with a controversy about race and difference, major choice and academic freedom. That controversy raised crucial questions about how we understand academic pathways in college, particularly analyzed by categories of race, gender and legacy identity at Duke. As provocative and unfinished as that conversation was, it is valuable to Duke as an institution, to current students and to future students of all racial and gender backgrounds. Our discussions over the course of this Spring focused on the nature of higher education, how we measure achievement, how we understand and use categories in the social sciences and what we mean by diversity in the 21st century. Our dialogues have had educational content. I value this conversation and view it as a starting point for continued progress.

Looking ahead to next year, as we commemorate the first black students enrolled at Duke, I believe we should take advantage of our experience to develop a different set of practices concerning questions of race and difference at Duke University. We should take the opportunity to build a non-episodic, ongoing conversation around these difficult questions, conversations that involve faculty, staff and students, liberals and conservatives, social scientists, natural scientists, humanists and artists. One way to start is by highlighting some of the most creative and innovative thinking. In March, Arts & Sciences hosted Professor Leslie Harris of Emory’s Transforming Community Project to help us think through ways in which every sector of the University can be mobilized in a “reflective, fact-driven engagement around race, gender, sexuality and other forms of human difference.” Like The Transforming Community Project, our goal is “to develop new dialogue and research experiences to effect change in the community that has greater racial, ethnic, gender, class and international diversity than ever before, and yet has not fully developed ways to address the real and perceived disparities that come from such diversity.”

How can we create such a productive conversation around race and difference at Duke? Let me offer some observations on how we can make it part of everyday life, one in which, like all parts of daily life, we might make mistakes and yet keep moving forward.

1) There are real generational differences in how we experience racial and ethnic identity. Demographics suggest that many students and staff live and work in a more diverse culture than faculty. While many people are working hard to make the faculty more diverse, this generational difference is non-trivial. Discussion of race and difference looks different in the 21st century than it does in the 20th century. And we have barely begun to explore what this might mean, and we should take the opportunity to do so.

2) Discussions about race and difference should be owned by everyone. We need to take the burden off of each identity group to be the only visible leaders on diversity on campus. We should do so by collectively pursuing larger research, pedagogical and cultural conversations around race and difference. Such conversations can and should involve radically different points of view, but they should be collectively owned project whose leadership itself is diverse.

3) Freedom of academic inquiry and discussion of race and difference should go hand in hand. This means, among other things, that individual scholars and departments, faculty, staff and students, should develop the skills to vigorously discuss their intellectual differences in an open manner. While I am not sure any university has yet to strike this balance in the right way, we should take this opportunity to do better.

4) The many smaller, everyday stories about race and difference at Duke—positive and negative—need to be uncovered and told. We could work with many under-utilized archives and conduct long-overdue oral histories that should also be part of our struggle to address institutional inequities, both past and present.

5) In addition to faculty, we need graduate students, undergraduates and staff from all fields to be part of the rigorous research projects on these questions. This approach is a part of developing a deeper knowledge, whereby past and present members of a community can participate in the recovery of collective memory. Developing such a collective memory can deepen our skills in dealing with difference in the present.

6) We need to build skills in creating and maintaining hospitable learning climates in our classrooms where dynamics and demographics are constantly shifting. As we live with different levels of diversity in the University, our challenge is to continue to be aware of such changes and respond to them. Speaker series and workshops, in addition to small group discussions, can help with this commitment.

7) We have to pay rigorous attention to diversity in hiring every year. Many departments and programs are working with an appallingly small pool of candidates from around the world, so we need to understand that creating real diversity will take decades. Nonetheless, we must be thoughtful in establishing pipeline and strong mentoring relationships. Even though we do not stop with only small or token changes, such improvements, both small and large, should be noted and celebrated. Every change should be a window onto the next thing that we have to do.

8) Conversations about race and difference need to be integrated into our everyday lives, not just during a time of controversy. We should be thinking about race and difference as a matter of what we do every day at Duke, through both formal and informal mechanisms that tackle head on the intellectual and social questions that challenge us as a University community.

As Dean of Arts & Sciences, and in honor of the first students whose very presence helped make us more diverse, I have committed to providing resources to help with all of these endeavors.

I have been in close conversation with faculty, graduate students, undergraduates and staff on how we might implement these commitments beginning in the Fall of 2012. Such changes will take the hard work of many people in many areas; they will involve collaborative studies, regular meetings of new working groups and new oral histories. Many of the changes will be incremental and not dramatic, but this should not diminish the intensity of our effort. With constant focus on how our experience of race and difference can be integrated into academic culture on a daily basis, we can continue the legacy of change that our Duke foremothers and forefathers have left us. This kind of discussion, reflection and evaluation helps us all consciously choose and become who we want to be at Duke University.