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Duke students call for better climate for blacks

A group of about two dozen Duke University students urged administrators Tuesday to create a better climate and provide more financial support for black students, saying they've been disappointed so far in how top officials have reacted to their viewpoints.

The students, almost all of whom were black, unsuccessfully sought a meeting with university President Richard Brodhead at his campus office in hopes of explaining a document they describe as a call to action for the prestigious, private southern school.

Concerns range from the future location of a black culture center to the lack of support for a black student group's annual event and a recent study that suggested African-American students switched to less-difficult majors.

"The university has affirmed through media outlets that it has a commitment to meeting the needs of all its students, including black students," said Nana Asante, a senior psychology major and president of the Black Student Alliance, who led the procession Tuesday. "We have yet to witness any action that reflects this supposed truth."

The most immediate cause for students' anger is an as-yet unpublished study by Duke researchers saying black students match the GPA of whites over time in part because they switch to majors that require less study time and have less-stringent grading standards. Opponents of affirmative action are citing the study in a case they want the U.S. Supreme Court to consider.

But the students say the research is just one example of an environment in which many black students feel uncomfortable. The document they gave to administrators cites concerns over the future location of the Mary Lou Williams Center for Black Culture and the status of the Black Student Alliance invitational weekend, an annual event the students say is in jeopardy because of the administration's lack of support.

"These are really just symptoms of a contentious and strained racial climate here," Asante said.

Some of the students' recommendations include establishing an endowment to create a stable funding source for cultural events and academic programs involving black students, and for the creation of a special university working group to assess whether blacks feel the climate at Duke is unwelcoming.

Brodhead was not in his office Tuesday morning, but an administrator came out to shake each student's hand and promised to pass the document to the president.

"We welcome their call to action and we welcome their recommendations," university spokesman Mike Schoenfeld said. Administrators plan to discuss the issues with students, he said.

"These are not new issues at Duke," Schoenfeld said. "Many people have been working for a long time to create a positive environment for African-American students at Duke."

The Durham university has about 6,500 undergraduate students, about 47 percent of them white and 10 percent black. The largest group of non-whites is Asian-American, representing 21 percent of the undergraduate population. The university community has been embroiled in racially charged debates before, as during the fallout over accusations of rape — later found to be false — leveled at white Duke lacrosse players by a black woman six years ago. Bad feelings over that case linger in Durham to this day.

Asante said the students will wait to hear the university's response to their call to action before deciding on what steps to take next.

"We will do what is necessary to ensure that our voices are heard," she said.