Duke University parking attendant Shelvia Underwood allegedly became the target of a racial slur following an altercation with Duke Vice President Tallman Trask III on Aug. 30, 2014, according to The Chronicle. Though Underwood and Trask did not know it at the time, the brief interaction before the university’s football game that day would be the spark of a sit-in protest more than a year later.
Beginning on Thursday, March 31, eight Duke students began a sit-in movement inside the Allen Building on campus. The demands for their protest included the firing of three members of administration — including Vice President Trask — and a $15 minimum wage for on-campus jobs. Students engaged in a peaceable protest in order to gain the rights they felt were owed to them and their campus.
When anyone who is moderately well versed in history hears the term “sit-in,” their mind immediately jumps back to the famous 1960 Greensboro sit-ins led by college students in North Carolina during the civil rights movement. Duke students are following in the footsteps of their forerunners on behalf of racial equality, and it’s shameful that this process has to begin again. History is repeating itself. When will we finally learn?
By we, of course, I don’t mean the youthful minds of the courageous Duke students leading the protest, nor do I mean students throughout the nation who agree with them. I’m talking about college administration. When issues arise, universities rush to pull the rug over the misconduct they’ve committed. They’re setting quite the example for their students.
And yet, while Duke administrators disagreed with their demands, the fact remains that students — and young adults in general — can only be as influential and informed as those they learn from. In this case, they learn from the university. If you give students the tools to learn from history by making informed decisions in the face of injustice, we will create a community that can handle such a protest and the will to make a difference.
According to a Friday article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Duke President Richard Brodhead said that, “Though we have disagreed about the specifics in their demands and their choice of means, I respect their underlying passion for making Duke and the world a better place.”
So, we’ll give President Brodhead the benefit of the doubt here. He understands that despite the bad publicity surrounding his university, he’s fostering the growth of leaders. While the circumstances weren’t preferable for the administration’s reputations (particularly Trask’s), the point of the protest was important and crucial to the moral health of the university and the example it sets for its students. As a result, Brodhead conceded on some issues and agreed to marginally increase the minimum wage.
The eight students, who slept on the floor, skipped classes and went without showering for eight days while living in the Allen Building, finally reemerged to the rest of Duke’s campus on Friday. But they claim their fight has just begun. While the minimum wage was raised to $12 and Trask formally apologized for the issue (though he still denies his use of the slur), Duke students are still demanding a raise of minimum wage to $15.
The most common form of college protest seems to be a rally. Hold it in a prominent part of campus, bring posters, cameras and a megaphone and make your cause known. While these rallies increase student morale and raise awareness, they don’t have much impact in their communities. Maybe the age of the sit-in is back. Maybe it’s time for peaceable protests to reemerge from its pages in history textbooks.
Here at Boston University, we have a good example to follow. Just as the Greensboro Four did, we can follow in the footsteps of a BU alum who also happens to be a nonviolent protestor, Martin Luther King, Jr. His policies are far from outdated and it’s time we put them to good use.
On Tuesday, The Boston Globe wrote about the sexual harassment accusations aimed at a BU College of Fine Arts professor. According to the Globe, the plaintiffs said that charges weren’t being taken seriously because that was “just his personality.” Why hire him, then? University scandals never seem to end, and now they’re hitting close to home. It will be interesting to see how the events unfold following this article and accusation.
Time for another protest? Will BU follow in Duke’s footsteps and revive the sit-in? I guess we’ll find out.