20131113 – Email to Dean of Students

*This email was sent to the then Dean of Students, who was voluntarily assuming responsibility (without pay or oversight) for all things related to veterans at Duke. It was sent the day before a meeting of community stakeholders, to which I refer a few times. 

Thank you for initiating contact once again with the folks I remember from that meeting back in April. I hope that those receiving this email will be able to be there on such short notice, and I know there are a couple additional community stakeholders (students, veteran alumni, employees, etc.) who are hoping to make it as well. I’ve CCed those contacted earlier as well as those I know to have a stake in the discussion about and treatment of veterans at Duke University. In the interest of full disclosure, I should reiterate that I am not a student or an employee and the views expressed below are mine alone.

At least as far as tomorrow is concerned, I think it will be important to focus on communication amongst veterans and how to stream line it for the benefit of the university and the students it is responsible for. Communication is so important since things can get mixed up so easily. For example, you make mention in your earlier email that I think that the university isn’t making enough effort to support veterans at Duke. I do not think that is the case; I think the efforts being made do not correspond to the stated interests of student groups that have made it a point to make themselves known over the three years I was active on campus. You will remember, for example, in a meeting in April, I suggested an email to every and all personnel with an active duke.edu email from a titled person of responsibility (I mentioned President Brodhead or Dr. Moneta as possibilities) to proactively and deliberately communicate to all people at Duke that veterans are a valued and integral part of the institution. Communication, after all, is crucial. But it did not come to pass.

It is troubling to me that open communication is not a priority for you and/or Student Affairs, and I cannot disagree more strongly with the position stated to me over the phone. By and large, veterans trust one another more than they do others and the default policy of any and all institutions large and small should reflect that self-evident truth. Whereas privacy is certainly an understandable concern, obstructing the productive use of peer information by officially sanctioned student groups, in support of a population that is verifiably and exponentially at greater risk of social distress than others, contravenes the very existence of any programming or services in place to protect them, provide for them, and promote their needs.

For example, the vast majority of those I know did not get the email you sent last night, to the list of veterans that you have, and did not know about the Monday event until ___ or myself told them. In another example, [another student veteran] and myself were not in touch before last night, and the Graduate and Professional School Committee never communicated with me as president of Duke Vets during the five months before I graduated while I was serving after Bill Hunt left. What could have happened is for the incoming leadership to pro-actively coordinate and learn from the outgoing leadership elements so as to connect and collaborate effectively, and to carry over the needs identified before their stint into the discussions as they moved forward. In the military this is called a “right seat, left seat ride” and it would improve communication and dissemination of information if instituted formally by GPSC, Student Affairs, etc. should it be adopted (and I think it should).

Furthermore, the veteran who handles our Twitter and Facbook accounts similarly did not know about it and did not receive an email and therefore could not alert the community about the event until last night. We have many veterans and supporters who want to be in the loop, but who are not able to connect because information has to be pulled (instead of being pushed) from the institution. For student leaders and members of groups engaged in rigorous academic work, they can and should have easy and immediate access to this kind of information. Sharon Logan looked for nearly three minutes for the flyer you eventually sent out to a limited number of students. A community stakeholder without any administrative training and experience certainly would have an even more difficult time finding that kind of information, and that is a problem. It keeps veterans disconnected, isolated, and without adequate support from their peers.

Finally, while perhaps outside the scope of conversation tomorrow, the issue of Duke failing to provide funding for yourself or to create a similar position that can more effectively respond to the fastest growing student population on campus is another matter that I will advocate for strongly as an alumni and community stakeholder. I encourage everyone in this email to do the same, as veteran after veteran has stated explicitly to me that a center or a position is necessary to care properly for veterans on campus. Duke has enormous sums of money and prides itself on the prestige of its programs, but has failed to allocate resources (and therefore tangible support) to the communities that display growth and potential. While allocating money may understandably require certain hurdles to be over come, Duke has also displayed disinterest in accepting money to support veterans. The Trinity College Dean of Undergraduate Admissions, for example, has for three years failed to respond to the United States Marine Corps in their attempts to provide funding and highly qualified students through its Leadership Scholar Program (LSP) despite the explicit support of two field grade Marine officers who are also Duke alumni. Again, perhaps there are mitigating factors, but Marine Corps personnel have stated their frustration at Duke’s lack of responsiveness to the community produced by military service – veterans.

Far from being isolated incidents, the reality at Duke is systemic and veterans often learn quickly that there are latent “anti-military” subtleties across campus that communicate a disregard for veterans. Take the example of the war memorial, between Duke and Goodson chapel, which includes zero mention of the longest war in our nation’s history. When asked why no Afghanistan panel was present, the custodian of memorials cited lack of funds, not names of the fallen that would adorn such a needed tribute. It is not that Duke alumni have not died, but that money has not been allocated to honor their ultimate sacrifice. If money is speech, as Citizens v. United suggests, then Duke has been deafeningly silent. This reflects poorly upon the implied priorities of the university. Whether veteran alumni (and we have many, including the Secretary of the VA himself, Retired General Eric Shinseki [and former Chair of the Joint Chiefs, Martin Dempsey]) have ever been approached to consider filling in this monetary gap the institution has left is unclear, though Sterly Wilder and Bill Shepherd may be able to reflect more decisively on such an approach.

For Duke to withhold resources internally, and simultaneously fail to accept them from external sources, contradicts the values of an otherwise proud institution of higher education. I will from this point forward continue to advocate for such institutional attention and funding from the school with the 15th largest endowment in the country (which also has found it fitting to borrow its mascot from a decorated WWII infantry division). The silence and breakdown of communication speaks loud and clear to veterans. To a generation that went to war funded by the phrase “we will never forget,” what does Duke have to say? The names of those who gave their lives in Afghanistan and those who did so in Iraq since the dedication of the memorial in 2005 await an answer. Their names deserve to be known, their lives deserve to be recognized and appreciated. Alex Ney’s name deserves to be known as much as those who commit themselves to self-improvement by higher education every day, like Jon Andrews, Natasha Schoonover, Andrew Filauro, Alexis Arzuaga, Laura Zeimer, Paul Escajadillo, Will Fisher, Andy Bell, and countless others.

My name is Logan Mehl-Laituri, and I am not alone.

 

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