Several weeks ago on Veterans Day, I watched as Duke University held its annual ceremony to honor members of “the next greatest generation.” Every year on November 11th, Duke Chapel rings its magnificent bells 11 times in remembrance of the Armistice signed in 1918, ending WWI. In the century that has followed, the bell tolls have come to represent a moment of ceremonial silence to remember all veterans that have followed. The tradition of maintaining one minute of silence in recognition of the sacrifices made by this courageous group of people has been, for many veterans, a necessary and cathartic ritual. For many veterans and their loved ones, violating this one yearly moment of silent reflection is on par with sacrilege.
As I watched from the bottom of the Chapel steps, I was therefore outraged that organizers this past year had a handful of veterans-to-be, the Duke ROTC Color Guard, plow right through the solemn occasion. The young cadets began stepping in time just as the first, somber toll sounded, which prompted the National Anthem to be blared loudly all the way through the remaining ten. This insensitive oversight is only one of many recent events to besmirch Duke’s otherwise seemingly spotless brand.
Prior to the ceremony, I had drafted (and later published) an article about some of the ways in which veterans at Duke have been fighting against institutional policies and habits that impede their successful and holistic pursuit of higher education. In the weeks since Veterans Day, a small group of students, alumni, and community allies have received numerous offers of support and pro-bono services to fill the gap left by Duke. Larry Moneta, Vice President of Student Affairs, met with me back in April, after which I was left with the impression that peer to peer communication was a mutual concern and priority, since vets process best with other vets by providing one another a place in which our most painful experiences can surface without judgment. Keeping these memories out of public view is our way of protecting those we love, but we all must eventually process them with one another or risk bottling up volatile emotions associated therewith. However, in a recent phone call with Duke administrators, I was told that helping student and alumni veterans connect with each other was “the last thing [Duke is] attempting to do.”
“Keeping these memories out of public view is our way of protecting those we love, but we all must eventually process them with one another”
Besides peer-to-peer communication, reliable sources like the American Council on Education (PDF) suggest that a dedicated office and staff are highly effective in helping student veterans excel in higher education. Despite this, Moneta has insisted that there will not be a center for veterans at Duke any time soon. In fact, not one dollar at Duke is dedicated to permanent programming, staff, or space to consolidate information and resources for this next greatest generation despite having the 15th largest endowment in the nation. Had one been in place, when Congressional representatives visited last month in conjunction with a visit from the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey (a Duke alumnus), the University could have communicated better with various
silos graduate and professional schools in search of veterans with whom our elected officials could meet. If Duke had a center for veterans and military students, there would be more than three undergraduate student veterans, because calls from the Marine Corps Leadership Scholar Program and the Pat Tillman Foundation would more likely be returned in a timely manner.
Had there been a space in which even community volunteers could work and meet with veterans, many of the difficulties related to veterans matriculating at Duke could be avoided. After all, Duke has relied upon free labor before; a webpage that has recently appeared was constructed by staff with no such explicit responsibility to student veterans. To this day, there is not a single job description at Duke that makes reference to veterans programming. Had Duke allocated funds and resources specifically to the unique and overwhelming challenges of their own fastest growing student population, perhaps the crippling academic ambition and subsequent depression would not afflict anyone, much less student veterans like Alex Ney, whose 2009 suicide was the catalyst for the student group Duke Veterans.
Dedicated centers, of course, are resource intensive, and I understand Moneta’s hesitancy to tackle this complex issue. But complexity and limited resources have not kept Duke from ensuring there are centers serving their African American, female, LGBTQ, or other minority student populations. These centers have positively enriched the Duke community and insure that the university sees their constituents as integral to the Duke name. For example, African American students were able to critique a January 2012 study that undermined their academic strength and reinforced marginalization. At the time, Duke spokesperson Mike Schoenfeld called the Mary Lou Williams Center for Black Culture “a gem.”
Student veterans, however, are left to fend for themselves. Were this an article about a more recognizable and statistically significant group, I wonder if political will would allow the situation at Duke to continue. If it were the case that veterans made up more than four percent of the American populace, numbers might prove an adequate inducement of change. Providing adequate and attentive care to this subgroup will never succeed as a numbers game. Places like Duke will only ever offer services like these because it is the right thing to do in the wake of two devastating wars (or maybe in recognition of the institution’s gains from military related research and funding).
Student veterans, however, are left to fend for themselves.
It is time for Duke to stop paying lip service to my generation of veterans. A perfunctory webpage is window dressing at best and insultingly superficial at worst. Those who were instrumental in setting it up obviously failed to provide the kind of attention and insight recent veterans could have provided back on November 11. Had Duke put their money where there mouth is by funding a veterans center in which student, staff, and faculty veteran voices are honored and collected, organizers would not have been so callous. Until Duke can see my generation of veterans as human beings in need, warranting no less concern and respect as others, the university recklessly endangers its coveted reputation. Duke must do everything in its power to pro-actively recruit, respect, and retain this next greatest generation… or slip away into mediocrity.