College graduates often experience a vicarious thrill when they learn a fellow alum has made headlines. A professor wins a Nobel Prize in Chemistry. A senior is awarded a Rhodes Scholarship. The girl you sat next to in English class is recognized for her teaching in an underserved community. You probably never met the person in question and likely have a tangential connection (at best) to the field they’ve excelled in—nonetheless, the surge you feel is real. “I went there too,” you think to yourself.
But what happens when a fellow graduate is in the news for the wrong reasons? What if they’re responsible for actions that lay siege to your basic beliefs? Again, you don’t know this person, you’ve had no part in their despicable behavior, but regardless you experience an unshakable sense of shame, a nagging feeling of culpability.
Call it “alum nausea” — an illness that has become endemic over the past year. It has afflicted 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 Duke University. The cause of our particular queasiness is Stephen Miller, Class of 2007, who had a leading role in the race-to-the-bottom campaign of Republican candidate Donald J. Trump and is now, as senior advisor to the president, establishing himself as a primary promulgator of Trump’s most insidious impulses—Miller repeated the president’s voter fraud canard this month on ABC, he made vaguely authoritarian remarks about executive authority on CBS, and, worst of all, he has been revealed to be one of the chief architects of the executive order to ban all refugees and immigrants from seven majority-Muslim countries.
You don’t know this person, you’ve had no part in their despicable behavior, but regardless you experience an unshakable sense of shame, a nagging feeling of culpability.
In a sickeningly ironic twist, members of the Duke community have been directly impacted by the anti-immigrant zeal of an administration that is being led, in part, by a Duke graduate. Professor Sina Farsiu, an Iranian-born professor in Duke’s Engineering Department, was stranded in Austria for several days following the executive order, while another Iranian-born professor, Moshen Kadivar, was stranded in Germany. To know that Miller had an integral role in their pain and confusion is to feel a punch to the gut.
But the Duke alumni community has begun punching back. An alumni-founded initiative called #NotOurDuke has raised thousands of dollars for the Council on American-Islamic Relations since the ban was announced. Duke alums have participated in actions against the ban around the world, while still more continue their important work in sectors embattled by the Trump administration—alums working for refugee resettlement agencies, working as civil rights lawyers, working as journalists. Sharing our fellow alums’ sense of outrage, Carly Knight and I—two members of Miller’s graduating class—recently began circulating an open letter to Miller decrying his role in the ban. Our petition has already been signed by over 3,300 alums—some American-born and some immigrants, the oldest from the Class of 1949 and the youngest from the Class of 2016.
Many of the alums who signed have also sent emails to share stories about the havoc the ban is wreaking on America’s reputation abroad. A 2015 graduate who works in public health in Chad told us, “Last week I was traveling across the country on a back road—not paved, mostly without even basic cell network coverage. I stopped in at a roadside stall in the middle of nowhere to grab a sandwich and the owner asked me why the U.S. president was a racist. Questions like this pop up repeatedly, everywhere.”
As is to be expected, we have also received a smattering of emails cheering Miller on, while other alums have complained that our letter makes Duke out to seem a liberal monolith. Most surprising has been the blowback we’ve received from alumni furious with what they see as the besmirching of Duke’s good name. The line of thought here is that it’s unseemly of us, as members of the Duke community, to openly condemn a fellow alum, as if we were airing the family’s dirty laundry.
But it’s precisely because Miller’s actions implicate our university that we feel the urgent need to speak out. The Ninth Circuit Court found that Washington and Minnesota’s standing to sue the government was based partly on the executive order’s effect on those states’ public universities. Universities are some of our country’s greatest bastions of diversity, internationalism, and free discourse. The only way to ensure they remain so in the Trump Era is to simultaneously own and disavow alumni who attack their values. Fresh air, after all, is an excellent cure for nausea.