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Dean McClain: Reflecting on George Floyd, and the Path Forward

The following was a message from Graduate School Dean Paula D. McClain to Graduate School students, staff, DGSs, and DGSAs.

June 4, 2020

SUBJECT: Reflecting on George Floyd, and the Path Forward

Dear Graduate School colleagues and students,

I have been writing this message for the past several days. As a child of the Civil Rights Movement from a family of fierce parents, relatives, and ancestors who actively used their voices against injustices; a proud graduate of an HBCU (Howard University); and a scholar of race, ethnicity, and politics, one might think that it would be easy for me to write a statement to our community about recent events. But it has not been so.

It is difficult enough to process the emotions that we are all feeling over the senseless killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Breonna Taylor in Louisville (my father’s hometown), Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia, and others before them; the resultant protests; and the unacceptable violence, injuries, deaths, and destruction in recent days. My own emotions and sense of connection to this moment are heightened by my membership in one of the communities of color that have been the target of many of these events, and by the interaction of my race and gender. The pain in my soul is intense. On top of that, we are all dealing with the pandemic, concerns for our health, and the loss of so many good things that had been a normal part of our lives just a few months ago.

What do we do? I find myself struggling with this continual question. As President Price said in his message to the Duke community last Saturday, it is not enough to merely recognize and grieve these circumstances; we as a university must work together to change them and to continue addressing the effects of structural racism.

Given my own research background, I understand the complexities of race in the United States and the difficulties of addressing the legacy of racism in the country. At Duke, when we have experienced incidents of racism, homophobia, anti-Semitism, and other forms of hate and bias, we have struggled to address those issues, and we have always come up short.

Can we do better this time? Can we, as a major educational institution, find a path that might lead to a better, fuller understanding of the country, of the world, and of each other? For the sake of our community, and the most vulnerable members in it, we must try. Here are a few things The Graduate School is doing toward that end. 

  • We will continue to play an active role in facilitating conversations around bias, inclusion, and community across our graduate programs. I want to thank those directors of graduate studies who have reached out to the school in response to our message last weekend, asking us for guidance on how they can provide space and opportunity for their graduate students to have those conversations. Our staff is working with DGSs and other faculty to facilitate those discussions. We are always happy to assist with such efforts, whether they are led by departments or students, so do not hesitate to reach out to us.
  • We will also continue to engage with graduate student groups on these issues. These dialogues serve an important role in helping us understand students’ concerns, which in turn helps guide The Graduate School’s programming and policies.
  • Implicit-bias training has been and will continue to be a key component of mandatory Responsible Conduct of Research training for all graduate students. We will also keep partnering with Vice Provost Abbas Benmamoun and his colleagues in Faculty Advancement to help develop training opportunities around issues of bias and inclusion, and to encourage graduate faculty and, where appropriate, our students to participate in those opportunities. 
  • The Graduate School is at its heart a community of scholars, and we should play to that strength. Many of our students and faculty are engaging in research on questions of the day around issues of bias and discrimination and how they affect our communities. I want to help highlight that scholarship and help members of the Duke community learn more about these topics. To that end, The Graduate School is planning to organize small-group discussions in the coming year on a variety of topics to address current events, their historical context, and their connection to our communities. We welcome suggestions for topics, as well as volunteers who want to share their research or moderate a session. We are working out the format and details for these events, and I will provide an update in the near future.

These efforts are only a beginning. We are heading toward a new academic year that will be different in structure from any in the past. I hope it will also be different from any in the past in how we address issues of racism, bias, and hate in our community. There will undoubtedly be challenges and moments of frustration, but I hope together we can start to change the circumstances that have led to the present moment.

Take care, and stay safe!


Paula D. McClain, Ph.D.
Dean of The Graduate School
Vice Provost for Graduate Education