Duke students say officials 'traumatizing' them for threatening discipline after crashing speech

A group of student protesters who stormed the stage of an alumni event last week to demand Duke University adhere to their manifesto – and then accused administrators of “traumatizing” them after being threatened with discipline – have found allies in more than 60 faculty members.

Dozens of professors signed a letter addressed to the North Carolina school’s administrators Thursday asking them not to punish the protesters who interrupted the State of the University speech April 14.

Around 25 students that Saturday, who were reported to have chanted “President Price, get off the stage,” called for institutional change, according to The Chronicle.

The protesters, who came from various organizations on campus, said they had met for weeks to hash out a manifesto that demanded increased worker pay, greater mental health support, and more transparency in Board of Trustees meetings.

“What this document represents is an accumulation of a lot of work that students across the campus in different identity groups and within different marginalized communities have been working on with the administration for many years now,” Bryce Cracknell, one of the organizers, told the student newspaper.

But the protesters didn’t expect some of the audience at the Page Auditorium – which included alumni who, 50 years ago, called for change while occupying Duke’s Quad for days in a silent protest following Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s death – to boo loudly and turn their backs to the stage.

Some of the students claimed they heard racial epithets shouted at them, while Cracknell told The Chronicle he was upset that administrators paid more attention to stopping them than the apparently hostile reaction they were getting.

“Instead of actually going to the alumni and saying 'that's not appropriate' or removing them from the space, they were more worried about us,” he said.

The newspaper said administrators knew about the planned protest before it happened and spoke to the students and warned them that it would be against university policy. They had also handed out leaflets with the same message on that day.

The students, however, decided to push on and only left the stage after the associate vice president for alumni affairs said the event would be canceled.

“I disagree deeply that this was an appropriate way to handle these issues,” Price said after he eventually finished his speech, although he had decided to let the students talk on stage.

And now, the students, whose behavior is being reviewed by administrators for possible disciplinary action, claim they are victims.

“I think we are particularly concerned that the University knows that by sending these conduct letters out that they will be concerning the students and that they will be exacerbating any preexisting mental health conditions and, like Bryce said, traumatizing and starting new ones, especially after Saturday's issues,” Gino Nuzzolillo, another protest organizer, told The Chronicle.

He added: “I think that among the many things that we share in common with the administration, the number one thing is that we all want to see this University be better and be more accommodating and make changes."

As of Friday, the school is still weighing a response.

“What was not expected was for us to feel like we were back in the 1960s, to have people shouting racial epithets at us, people telling us that we don't belong here, that we don't deserve a Duke degree,” Cracknell also said to The Chronicle. "That "f you' was unexpected. What also wasn't expected was for Student Conduct to be the first people to reach out."