Keeping an Eye on Cultural Consciousness

January 31, 2004

 

Responding to a student-faculty group's demands for additional attention and resources for Latino, Asian-American, and Native-American cultures, university administrators pledged to provide regular progress reports and emphasized that many of the group's requests could be met through existing efforts. The concerns, formally presented to President Nannerl O. Keohane on October 1, arose in the wake of a September 13 party sponsored by the Sigma Chi fraternity that some found offensive in its depiction of Mexican culture. The fraternity apologized, but some students took the incident to be indicative of wider cultural misunderstandings on campus.

The demands presented by the group included regular meetings with administrators; the creation of new cultural programs for students; new scholarship programs for minorities; initiatives to hire more minority faculty members and administrators; and focused efforts to eliminate "hate crimes" and offensive theme parties on campus. In a memorandum, President Keohane, Provost Peter Lange, Vice President for Student

Affairs Larry Moneta, and Vice Provost for Undergraduate Affairs William Chafe affirmed that they share the group's goals of "an inclusive community at Duke" and strong communication among community members.

The memo stated, however, that existing programs already covered many of the requests. For example, the university's new faculty diversity initiative is aimed at strengthening the recruiting and retention of minorities and women. A similar initiative is ongoing for the hiring of senior administrators. And several academic programs or centers already oversee Latino, Asian-American, and Native-American issues.

It is not possible to fulfill all of the group's requests, the memo stated. For instance, a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling in a case involving the University of Michigan discourages the establishment of scholarship programs targeted at minorities.

The administrators said the university does not have rules concerning "hate crimes." Harmful behaviors are punishable, they noted, but "verbal expressions and other forms of expression, however offensive, are not likely to be actionable under our Community Standard nor our published Rules and Regulations." However, they agreed to clarify language in the Community Standard--the university's honor code--to emphasize respect for others. And a group of administrative and student leaders will issue progress reports on these issues twice a semester.

While acknowledging the administration's commitment to discussing the issues raised, senior Sandra Sanchez says she is frustrated with the university's slow pace of change. "If they are going forward with these initiatives, then where are the results?" Sanchez was one of the students who helped draft the list of concerns. In particular, she pointed to the university's Latino studies program, which she says is understaffed.