Duke students launch Open Campus Coalition

The Duke Chronicle published this week an interesting open letter to university President Richard Brodhead.

Dear President Brodhead,

With this letter, we—a group of Duke University’s student leaders—come together in forming the Duke Open Campus Coalition. We seek to invigorate the Duke community’s commitment to supporting an open intellectual climate on campus. During our time here at Duke, we have encountered a community that values identity politics over reasoned discussion and debate when confronting real—and at times misperceived—instances of injustice. Actions taken that emphasize identity politics create a climate of fear on campus whereby people who publicly dissent from the policies being proposed are afraid of being personally attacked and slandered. In this climate, fewer students feel able to speak their mind, and we are concerned that this undermines Duke’s integrity as an institution of open exchange and learning. Many of the challenges we face are not unique to Duke, and we are inspired by the Princeton Open Campus Coalition, which blazed a path for students around the nation committed to preserving academic freedom at our universities.

While we recognize that this climate of fear is part of a broader trend across the country at American universities, we also note that it has a particular character on Duke’s campus. Today, some students consider it morally acceptable to remove copies of The Chronicle from campus when they disagree with its content. Select members of Duke Student Government’s Executive Board have taken to intimidating first-year student government representatives to affirm “politically correct” views regardless of whether they agree with them. The student body has also disrespected you, President Brodhead. Those who disagree with the methods protesters use or the policies they push are afraid to publicly announce their position for fear of being ostracized. We believe that our concerns resonate with a large portion of Duke’s student body and faculty. With grave concern about the tactics of some protestors and the substantive demands they are making, we call for an open and inclusive campus—a campus where all members of the Duke community can communicate openly as Blue Devils without fear that they will be censored if their views differ from, or even offend, other people.

First, while we are disturbed by acts of racism, homophobia and bigotry on this campus, and agree that more can be done to combat intolerance, we do not believe that acts of bigotry committed by individuals implicate Duke as an institution. We applaud the quick and passionate response of Duke students to acts of bigotry on campus. We share the goals of increasing tolerance and punishing individual students who engage in behavior that harms other people, but we do not think these goals are best served by the policies some protesters have prescribed to advance them. Good intentions do not necessarily translate into good policy.

Second, we oppose the methods many protesters have used to advance their agenda. Students from across the political spectrum were unsettled that protesters would vandalize Duke property, refuse to allow Duke administrators to ask questions during a community conversation and seek to remove students on the Chronicle staff with whom they disagree politically. These tactics deface property without consequence and allow dialogue only among people who already agree with those leading the conversation. This is not how universities foster intellectual growth; it creates an echo chamber that leads to groupthink and unfairly privileges certain positions in the marketplace of ideas.

The letter continues, then concludes with signatures of a dozen current students.

Mitch Kokai / Senior Political Analyst

Mitch Kokai is senior political analyst for the John Locke Foundation. He joined JLF in December 2005 as director of communications. That followed more than four years as chie...