College graduates often experience indirect emotion when they learn that a fellow alumnus has made headlines. A professor wins a Nobel Prize in Chemistry. A senior receives a Rhodes Scholarship. The girl he sat with in English class is renowned for her teaching in an underserved community. You have probably never met the person in question and you probably have a tangential connection (at best) to the field in which you have excelled; however, the increase you feel is real. "I went there too," he thinks to himself.
But what happens when a fellow graduate appears in the news for the wrong reasons? What if they are responsible for actions that haunt their basic beliefs? Once again, you do not know this person, you have not participated in his despicable behavior, but despite everything, you experience an unwavering sense of shame, a persistent feeling of guilt.
Call it "alum nausea," a disease that has become endemic in the last year. It has affected graduates of the University of Pennsylvania (Donald Trump, '68), Harvard University (Jared Kushner, '03 and Steve Bannon, MBA'85), and is perhaps most virulent now among graduates of the University of Duke. The cause of our particular malaise is Stephen Miller, Class of 2007, who played a leading role in Republican candidate Donald J. Trump's race to the bottom campaign and is now establishing himself as one of the President's top advisers. Top enactors of Trump's most insidious impulses: Miller repeated the president's election hoax this month on ABC, made vaguely authoritarian comments about executive authority at CBS, and worst of all, he's been revealed to be one of the main architects of the executive order to ban all refugees and immigrants from seven Muslim-majority countries.
You do not know this person, you have not participated in his despicable behavior, but despite everything, you experience an unwavering sense of shame, a persistent feeling of guilt.
In a disgustingly ironic twist, members of the Duke community have been directly affected by the anti-immigrant zeal of an administration that is run, in part, by a graduate of Duke. Professor Sina Farsiu, an Iranian-born professor in Duke's Engineering Department, was stranded in Austria for several days after the executive order, while another Iranian-born professor, Moshen Kadivar, was stranded in Germany. To know that Miller played an integral role in her pain and confusion is to feel a punch in the stomach.
But the Duke alumni community has begun to respond. An alumni-founded initiative called #NotOurDuke has raised thousands of dollars for the Council on American-Islamic Relations since the ban was announced. Duke alumni have participated in anti-ban actions around the world, while even more continue their important work in sectors besieged by the Trump administration: alumni who work for refugee resettlement agencies, work as civil rights lawyers, work as journalists. Sharing the outraged sentiment of our peers, Carly Knight and I, two members of Miller's graduating class, recently began circulating an open letter to Miller denouncing his role in the ban. Our petition has already been signed by more than 3,300 alumni, some born in the United States and some immigrants, the oldest from the class of 1949 and the youngest from the class of 2016.
Many of the alumni who signed also sent emails to share stories about the havoc the ban is wreaking on America's reputation abroad. A 2015 graduate working in public health in Chad told us: “Last week I was traveling across the country on a secondary, unpaved highway, mostly without basic cellular network coverage. I stopped at a roadside stall in the middle of nowhere to buy a sandwich and the owner asked me why the President of the United States was a racist. Questions like this come up repeatedly, everywhere. ”
Unsurprisingly, we've also received a few emails encouraging Miller, while other students have complained that our letter makes Duke look like a liberal monolith. Most surprising has been the backlash we've received from alumni enraged with what they see as the stain of Duke's good name. The line of thought here is that it is unseemly for us, as members of the Duke community, to openly condemn a fellow alumnus, as if we are airing the family's dirty laundry.
But it is precisely because Miller's actions implicate our university that we feel an urgent need to speak up. The Ninth Circuit Court found that Washington and Minnesota's position to sue the government was based in part on the effect of the executive order on public universities in those states. Universities are some of the greatest bastions of diversity, internationalism, and free speech in our country. The only way to ensure that they remain so in the Trump era is to simultaneously own and reject alumni who attack their values. After all, fresh air is an excellent cure for nausea.
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