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Duke University mirrors national trend with troubling retreat on DEI


Duke University mirrors national trend with troubling retreat on DEI

Jun 13, 2024 | 12:45 pm ET
By Nadia Bey
Duke University mirrors national trend with troubling retreat on DEI
Image: Adobe Stock

Former Duke University provost Sally Kornbluth said that while 68% of admitted white students decided to attend Duke, only 39% of Black admitted students did the same, pointing to a need to create a more welcoming environment. The statement was made at the virtual “Living While Black” symposium in July 2020 following the death of George Floyd and Duke’s announced commitment to anti-racism, although they later abandoned that language in favor of “racial equity.” Four years later, Duke has undermined its own stated commitment by cutting race-conscious scholarships and changing the notification timeline for merit-based aid.

I am a recent alumna of Duke. I followed my interest in health policy to Washington, D.C., where I enrolled at The George Washington University and accepted a research position with the Social Mission Alliance. The Alliance focuses on research and advocacy surrounding equitable conditions in health professions schools and ensuring those schools adequately serve the needs of the communities they are part of. A few weeks into my position, I learned that the Alliance would be hosting a conference in partnership with the Duke University School of Nursing in April 2024. I was excited to return to my alma mater to share what we had been working on and learn about others’ health equity work. 

On April 9, the second-to-last day of the conference, I finished giving a presentation and opened my inbox to see an email announcing the end of Duke’s Reginaldo Howard Memorial Scholarship for Black students. The decision cited the legal landscape after the Supreme Court decision on race-conscious admissions. The irony of celebrating Duke’s equity efforts in one area — the School of Nursing — while another area suffered was not lost on me. 

The announcement sparked national coverage, and students, faculty, alumni, and non-affiliated individuals have expressed concerns. The loss of the Reggie scholarship is foreboding for existing diversity scholarships managed by alumni associations as well as student activist efforts to implement scholarships for other marginalized students, such as Native American and indigenous students.

While the end of the “Reggie” scholarship was surprising, it wasn’t the only change — a few months prior, the university decided to change all merit scholarships to a “post-matriculation” model, in which students would only be notified of their nomination for a scholarship after the final enrollment deadline. Both of these changes stand to have a detrimental impact on Black students and students from other underrepresented backgrounds because financial aid plays a large role in where these students choose to enroll.

After Kornbluth’s address at the 2020 symposium, I wrote an article in the Duke Chronicle exploring why Black students seemed less likely to attend Duke when offered acceptance compared to white students. I talked to Black students who had gotten into Duke and chosen to go elsewhere. One person told me the school she chose had offered her a scholarship while Duke had not. The then-director of Duke’s Black culture center reiterated to me that financial aid and campus climate were big factors in where Black students chose to go to school. 

These answers aligned with what I experienced firsthand as a high school senior choosing a college. In my case, Duke’s University Scholarship was ultimately what brought me to the university, and being part of this program largely shaped my undergraduate experience. With the exception of the application-based Robertson Scholarship, all merit scholarship candidates are identified by admissions and referred to their respective scholarship programs, who then select recipients. The Reggie scholarship was included in this process. Until the 2023-2024 academic year, scholarship finalists were notified before the May 1 commitment deadline and invited to campus for interviews and admitted student events. I had visited campus on my own before being selected as a scholarship finalist, but returning for finalist weekend (and the Black Student Alliance Invitational, which was the same weekend) in 2019 made me feel more immersed within the campus community and ultimately commit to attending Duke. 

In November 2023, current and former merit scholars signed a letter in opposition to removing the “pre-matriculation” selection process that was sent to the university in April 2024. Current scholars also verbalized their disapproval to the student newspaper, speculating the change was due to legal concerns and expressing worries about socioeconomic diversity. Most merit scholarships do not require proof of financial need, but many first generation and low-income students have been merit scholars in recent years, and two scholarships in particular — the Rubenstein Scholarship and the University Scholarship – are intended for students with financial need. Merit scholars also have access to community and dedicated enrichment funding for internships and research. For this reason, merit scholarships are about more than just the financial aid, and students have to meet specific standards to keep them. 

The changes at Duke occur within the greater context of the wider social justice backlash in North Carolina. The University of North Carolina System, which oversees 16 public universities and the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics for 11th and 12th graders, recently repealed its diversity, equity and inclusion policy. A trustee at UNC Chapel Hill recently expressed that North Carolina would “follow Florida’s path as it relates to DEI”; that state as well as Texas saw universities fire DEI staff. Student employees at UNC Chapel Hill’s Office for Diversity & Inclusion have resigned. North Carolina also banned certain discussions around racism, sexism and politics in state workplaces in 2023. 

Duke has defended against the criticism of its scholarship changes by pointing to recent initiatives to cover the cost of attendance for students from North and South Carolina and its involvement with QuestBridge, a program that helps high-achieving low-income students apply to top universities. Students who match with Duke through QuestBridge are meant to have 100% of their demonstrated financial need covered by the university for four years. Jenny Wood Crowley, assistant vice provost for undergraduate education, also told the Duke Chronicle the post-matriculation model would allow the university to more fully review students’ financial situations before awarding scholarships.

In place of the Reggie scholarship, the university will redirect funds to need-based aid and a non-selective leadership program focused on “enrichment opportunities.” In a May 6 email to alumni, Provost Alec Gallimore said directing funds to need-based aid would be more beneficial for Duke’s Black students, with between 85% and 92% of enrolling Black students receiving financial aid each year and over half being Pell-eligible. 

Despite this, the changes to scholarships may still have a negative impact on recruiting diverse students. The elimination of the Reggie scholarship will not inspire confidence in campus climate for students of color, and making students commit before they’re offered a scholarship could lead to students opting to go elsewhere for financial reasons. 

I also want to reiterate how valuable these programs are to students. My scholarship director became someone I could rely on for academic and emotional support. My program in particular was the only merit scholar program that included undergraduate, graduate and professional students, so we were able to form relationships with people at all levels of education. Undergrads were paired with mentors with similar interests; I was paired with people that shared my interest in scientific research, and people interested in health professions were paired with medical and nursing students. We partook in academic enrichment and volunteering together. Having a merit scholarship felt more secure than having the university redetermine my financial need each year. Additionally, it eliminated my need to do work-study, which freed up time for me to pursue more on-campus opportunities –- research points to employment being a barrier to campus involvement for about a third of college students. The scholarship also allowed me to graduate debt-free, which is immensely helpful now that I’ve taken out loans for my MPH.

The situation at Duke is still evolving, with students and alumni actively engaging in conversations about next steps. In the year that I’ve been working as a researcher for the Alliance, I’ve spent time reviewing strategies that schools use to implement the social mission. Research has suggested that colleges are less likely to advertise in areas with high concentrations of low-income individuals or high concentrations of individuals identifying as racial or ethnic minorities other than Black people.

It also suggests that college recruiters tend to visit whiter, wealthier schools. This needs to change; targeted recruitment is still permitted by the Supreme Court’s affirmative action decision, and these efforts can make a difference. Latine student activists at Duke have demanded targeted recruitment in diverse areas in recent years, and given student concerns about socioeconomic diversity with the post-matriculation timeline, it’s imperative for Duke to reach out to low-income areas and racially diverse areas. Other universities have already started down this path. After these students arrive, support services are crucial in ensuring they feel supported in completing their programs.

While I have primarily focused on Duke here, these lessons apply to all universities. With race-conscious admissions and now scholarship programs at risk, it is important for schools and programs to double down on targeted recruitment and provide supportive communities for marginalized students.