“The Crisis Year” is how the The Chronicle of Higher Education described 2020 in higher education. The Covid-19 pandemic forced schools to implement operational changes of unprecedented scope and to do so on the fly. “Covid-19 touched off a financial wildfire for colleges,” the Chronicle of Higher Education wrote, pushing many “to the edge.”

At the same time, the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, together with the worldwide protests that followed, forced these same institutions to confront a racial reckoning. Schools across the country promised radical racial change. At colleges and universities around the country, leaders committed their institutions to taking transformative action toward eliminating the systems of racism and inequality that have shaped the lived experiences of too many members of their university communities.” At Duke University, as at other schools, senior leaders cautioned that change would take time. “I don’t for a moment think [eliminating systems of racism] will be rapid or easy,” Duke President Vincent Price told The Duke Chronicle in November of 2020, “because these are systemic challenges that were centuries in the making.” Duke’s problems of “basic decency, and our legacies of racism, intolerance and xenophobia . . . do not lend themselves to easy answers or quick fixes,” he wrote in 2019.

While college presidents are correct that eliminating systemic racism will be difficult, even immediate change in 2021 would not be a “quick fix.” In fact, the racial issues colleges confront are largely the same as those Black student activists demanded they address in the Sixties. It’s easy to illustrate with a well-endowed HWCU like Duke soon reaching its centennial year. “Duke has been here before,” Trina Jones, Jerome M. Culp Distinguished Professor of Law at Duke, observed in June 2020. “Duke is scrambling, acting as if it is new, as if the sources of racism are new.” Jones cited the “long list of symposiums, committees, and task forces” addressing racial issues at Duke over the years and said that “the narratives of personal discrimination we’ve heard today have echoes across the decades.”

Why is racial change so slow? The simple answer is that leaders at universities nationwide do not view systemic racism as an existential threat. Although “inclusion” is often identified as a “core value,” it is not a priority. At Duke, there is “a commitment on paper and in words to [the idea of] inclusion,” Black Duke activist and 2019 graduate Trey Walk commented just before graduating, but “Duke’s money [and reputational] interests [are] at the forefront, beyond those things.” Creating a culture of inclusion on campus is viewed by administrators, according to Walk, as “something that would be good to do” but is not “essential for Duke’s identity.”

What would happen if university leaders determined that systemic racism represented an existential threat to their universities? Change would happen quickly. Existing committees working on anti-racism initiatives would be energized, their recommendations promptly implemented. Every university function would be scrutinized through an anti-racism lens with needed changes executed immediately. Student codes of conduct would be amended to add a “zero-tolerance” policy for racist and other hate incidents with severe penalties imposed for violations. Courses would be reviewed and, where necessary, revised to align with anti-racist goals. Selective housing – the source of much student self-segregation on many campuses – would be eliminated with steps taken to promote cross-cultural exchange. Universities with significant financial resources would not flinch at the cost of these changes. They would be seen as non-negotiable.

Are Price and other leaders in higher education correct that rapid change on this scale is impossible? The response to Covid-19 provides insight into what is possible. Let’s use Duke as a case study.

Faced with the threat posed by Covid-19, Duke was transformed in a matter of weeks. A Duke-wide task force consisting of both senior administrators and senior clinicians was convened immediately. Task force recommendations were not “studied” – they were implemented. Every university function was carefully analyzed to determine how (and if) it could function with Covid-19 spreading rapidly. Changes occurred immediately. Most university facilities were closed and the vast majority of Duke administrators and faculty directed to work from home. Many classes were moved online. Courses were adapted and professors taught how to use new technology required for online teaching. Residential living arrangements were modified to protect students from Covid-19. The Duke Compact was amended to address mask-wearing, social distancing, and other safety measures. Strict penalties for violations were enforced. An extensive Covid-19 testing and tracing program was established. A role model for the nation – the program administered not fewer than 178,000 Covid-19 tests during the fall 2020 semester.

The financial impact of this was immense. In August 2020, Duke administrators projected a potential revenue loss of up to $350 million from Covid-related developments with the number expected to grow. Cost-saving measures were implemented but widespread furloughs were avoided. “Philanthropy to Duke remained steady,” one administrator observed “and the market rebounded.” There was never any doubt that Duke would survive as a viable financial entity.

Duke’s response to Covid-19 shows that institutions are capable of rapid, transformative action when faced with an existential threat. As long as universities choose to see diversity, inclusion, and racial equity as “good to do” but not “essential,” there will be no “quick fixes.” Racial change at universities will remain grindingly slow.

Ted Segal is a Duke graduate (A.B. 1977), retired lawyer, and a board member of the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke. He is the author of, POINT OF RECKONING: The Fight for Racial Justice at Duke University which goes on sale today. You can find him on Twitter @theodoresegal.

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