5 problematic ways admin justify the Women’s Center move

Guest Column | Louise Kendaru | April 25, 2016

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When I learned about the proposal to move the Women’s Center to the basement of Crowell building on East, I was devastated. I knew it would displace the community I had come to love and would impact the way I would interact with the Center and its essential services. Many students felt the same way, but with admin being unresponsive to our concerns, it became clear that friends of the Women’s Center needed step up to lead the student opposition. I, along with Annie Lo, Alex Bressler, and many others, came together to organise the Women’s Center appreciation event, SHOW THE LOVE to STOP THE MOVE.

The afternoon of the event I met with Dr. Zoila Airall, Associate Vice President of Student Affairs for Campus Life. The meeting was disheartening and revealing, and here are my biggest takeaways from it. Just to be clear, they are not meant to personally point at Dr. Airall herself, but to a wider pattern of how Duke admin continues to interact with students who express concern with their decisions.


1. They said Duke is like a pie and student groups have to compete for a slice


Photo Credit: Sarah Darwiche

Dr. Airall began by explaining that knock-on effects of the expansion of the Center for Multicultural Affairs (CMA) resulted in the decision to move the Women’s Center as well as the Office for Fraternity and Sorority Life. Dr. Airall recounted a conversation with an alum of the Interfraternity Council (IFC) who protested that the IFC shouldn’t move because nearly 30% of Duke men participate in Greek life. She countered that since the alum’s time at Duke, the student population has increased in diversity. She argued that Duke is like a pie and now it’s time for IFC give up some of their slice for the burgeoning multicultural student community at Duke.

While the pie metaphor is compelling here, what does it mean when applied to the Women’s Center? At its most fundamental level, the Women’s Center serves female-identifying students. That means that the bare minimum percentage of students it serves is 50%. When you take into account that the Center also seeks to serve men and gender-nonconforming students, this percentage is likely to be higher. If Duke is a pie and admin are pitting student organisations against each other based on the number of students they serve, then shouldn’t the Women’s Center get one large slice of that pie?

But let’s be honest, the pie metaphor is rubbish, anyway. The Women’s Center is important. The CMA is important. The Center for Sexual and Gender Diversity is important. They all seek to enrich the lives of students and should be working together towards this end. They should not be competing for any kind of slice of a metaphorical pie.


2. They have lots of conversation, but it’s not “productive”


Photo Credit: Delaney Dryfoos and Kara Fox

I was warned that admin’s go-to line for problem students is “We appreciate all the work you’ve done. Your work is very important”; a phrase that simultaneously placates angry students while not addressing any of their concerns. While this platitude has become somewhat of a joke among students who interact with admin, it couldn’t feel more true to my experience. When I told Dr. Airall that I wanted to have a productive conversation, she stopped me to say that “productive” for concerned students meant working towards their goals, and that she wasn’t going to do that. She left the conversation at a stand-still, and me at a loss. If we are not going to have a productive conversation then what kind of conversation are we going to have? Leaving the meeting, I was acutely aware that Dr. Airall could check off “engage with students” from her to-do list that day without actually having done much to engage with our concerns.


3. They misunderstood the way an identity center works


Image Credit: Annie Lo

When I said that I’d developed ties with the Women’s Center this semester, Dr. Airall made a joke that I’m a sophomore and I’d only just found the Center now, jesting that the current location of the Women’s Center is not as effective as I had claimed. Her remark revealed a fundamental misunderstanding about a place like the Women’s Center. The wonderful and unique thing about the Women’s Center (and the CMA and the CSGD) is that they are identity centers and students do not need to interact with them often (or ever, for that matter) for their significance to be felt. Students overwhelmingly demonstrated this; over 1000 people have signed our online petition and the SHOW THE LOVE event drew in over 100 attendees who turned out to celebrate the Center’s space and demonstrate how much they value it, even if they don’t use it every day. Admin’s proposal to obscure the Women’s Center coincides not only with a time when 1 in 4 college women are sexually assaulted, but also as Duke is under investigation for Title IX violations. This means that when students need the Center most, admin’s displacement of the Center to the basement of Crowell building is the literal and symbolic equivalent of Duke burying women’s issues on campus.


4. They used platitudes to oversimplify the conversation


Photo Credit: Delaney Dryfoos and Kara Fox

During the meeting, there were points where we were at a standstill. During those moments, Dr. Airall would say a reductive phrase in an attempt to conclude the conversation. Here are a few of the those phrases and my interpretations of them:

“Change is ultimately a good thing”

Translation: … except when students try to change admin’s decisions.


“Student voices are important to me”

Translation: Saying that “student voices are important to me” is important to me.


“You should try to see the glass half full”

Translation: Let’s pretend that this is not a terrible decision.


“People are always going to be upset”

Translation: Your being upset doesn’t matter to me.


5. They argued that students don’t know about the student experience


Photo Credit: Delaney Dryfoos and Kara Fox

… because administrators have been administrators longer than students have been students. When I brought up student concerns that the inconvenient and unknown proposed location would undermine the Women’s Center’s ability to be a community space for students, Dr. Airall claimed that the space used to be “buzzing” before we got here. A vague and untestable claim that ignores our experiences and patronises us by assuming that we can’t predict how the move will impact our own behaviour.

In a less subtle attempt to claim that students don’t know what is best for themselves, Dr. Airall also brought up that students overwhelmingly opposed the transformation of East campus to the first-year housing campus, and now it is a hallmark of the DukeTM experience. Ignoring that this detail is wholly irrelevant, does this mean that admin wants the cover-up of women’s issues to be a hallmark of our university?


I came out of the meeting bemused; I couldn’t tell if admin are terrible or brilliant at their job because I’m not entirely sure what their job is. If their job is to engage with student concerns effectively, they are struggling at best. If their job is to placate students, then they are brilliant. Needless to say, concerned students are still committed to opposing the move. Our opposition is rooted in our love for the Women’s Center and our vision of a campus without gender violence and gender inequity. But for that to happen, admin need to show a commitment to the cause and that starts with demonstrating that they take Women’s issues, and the Women’s Center, seriously.


Cover Photo Credit: Delaney Dryfoos and Kara Fox