On August 30, 2014, before a football game against Elon, the executive vice president of Duke University hit a parking attendant with his car—and, she says, called her a “stupid nigger” as he drove away. Following an investigative report by the Duke Chronicle, nine students have occupied an administrative building and are demanding the resignation of three senior university officials.
A few days after the August incident, Shelvia Underwood, of McLaurin Parking and Transportation, filed a police report with the Duke University Police Department, alleging that Executive Vice President Tallman Trask hit her with his car. Under pressure from her boss and fearing that she would lose her job if she filed a lawsuit, Underwood told the Chronicle that she communicated to Trask that a “sincere apology” would be sufficient.
Three weeks later, Vice President for Administration Kyle Cavanaugh delivered a note to Underwood. “A tall guy comes up behind me and says, ‘Um, I don’t know exactly what happened out here, but whatever, here you go.’ And he hands me a card,” she told the Chronicle.
The note, signed, was from Trask. It read: “Dear Ms. Underwood, I very much regret the incident before the Elon football game. I should have been more patient and I apologize.”
Trask had originally denied hitting Underwood and using a racial epithet, the Chronicle reports. Only after being shown a copy of the note did he admit to hitting Underwood with his car. (He still denied using the slur.) From the News & Observer:
A statement released by the university said its police department investigated the incident and Underwood “chose not to pursue her police complaint.” A second investigation by Duke’s Office of Institutional Equity, “did not produce sufficient evidence to confirm” the racial epithet.
Last month, Underwood filed a $100,000 lawsuit in Durham County Superior Court against Trask—Duke’s primary financial and administrative officer—accusing him of battery, negligence, civil conspiracy and obstruction of justice. The complaint lists the University as a second defendant,” and seeks compensatory damages as a result of “pain and suffering as a result of the intentional and malicious conduct by defendants,” as well as punitive damages for the “willful and wanton conduct of the defendants.”
According to the Chronicle, however, this incident did not happen in a vacuum, but is rather part of a larger pattern of racism in the Duke administration generally and the Parking and Transportation Services department specifically. From the Chronicle’s follow-up report:
The Chronicle spoke with 12 current and former members of PTS, who described the environment within the department as hostile and its current leadership as discriminatory.
Renee Adkins, former special events manager for PTS, wrote an email to President Richard Brodhead Jan. 15 describing a culture of “racism, harassment, retaliation and bullying” in the department fostered by PTS Director Carl DePinto and Vice President for Administration Kyle Cavanaugh. Several employees noted that in the parking division of PTS in particular, a disproportionate number of black employees have been terminated since DePinto arrived in October 2014.
Adkins wrote in the email to Brodhead that after Trask hit Shelvia Underwood, there was neither a public administrative response nor a thorough investigation by Duke University Police Department. DUPD is overseen by Cavanaugh, who reports to Trask.
Adkins added that the event was one of “innumerable incidents” in which she and members of her staff were called “n*****, coon, porch monkey, bull dagger and dyke while working Duke special events.” These occurrences were all “swept under the rug” by administrators, Adkins wrote.
Nine students—members of the Students and Workers in Solidarity coalition group—occupied the Allen Building on Friday afternoon, following a protest organized calling for the resignations of Trask, Cavanaugh, and PTS director Carl DePinto.
Protestors outline demands for admin removals, also call for apology, reparations and investigation pic.twitter.com/h8btkEGjPr— The (Duke) Chronicle (@DukeChronicle) April 1, 2016
One of the students, Lara Haft, told the Chronicle that administration officials had described the disciplinary actions that the university could pursue against them. “It’s going to be a warning, a citation, another warning and they’re going to be move into the Duke disciplinary process. There are two things in that, both taking us to Student Conduct and a judicial board, and then after that another warning and possibly arrest,” she said. “That could all be tonight, before tomorrow morning, but it also could be over a couple of days.”
The occupiers are asking the administration amnesty before negotiating an outcome, but Michael Schoenfeld, Duke’s vice president for public affairs and government relations, confirmed to the News & Observer that the university had told the students that action would be taken if they still occupied the building on Sunday night. However, he was not specific about what that action would constitute.
“It’s not in Duke’s interest to arrest us and it’s not in Duke’s interest to have us in here for several months. There are thousands of supporters. All of Durham is on our side and the whole country will be on our side,” Haft said. “We don’t anticipate going anywhere.”