How Should Higher Ed React to Trumpism?

Eric Mlyn argues that higher education has been complacent in its reaction to Trumpism and “the time for faculty and university leaders to speak out is now. It is better late than never.”

Mlyn (Kenan Distinguished Faculty Fellow and Lecturer at Sanford School for Public Policy) is back on Duke’s campus this semester and is focusing some of his teaching, research and writing on a project to answer timely questions around higher education’s response to our current administration. Returning after a semester as a visiting scholar at the Tisch College for Civic Life at Tufts, Mlyn argues that the Trump presidency poses a threat to universities and more broadly liberal democracy and aims to launch an open discussion here at Duke.

In the classroom, Mlyn struggles with challenges associated with how to teach in this current climate. To this end, he says plainly to his students, “I’ve never done this before as a teacher – I want you to know that I think Trumpism is a threat to American democracy.” He describes “Trumpism” as a combination of right wing populism and anti-establishment beliefs, coupled with an assault on some of the core values of liberal democracy such as freedom of the press, freedom of speech, and open and fair elections.

With this transparency, he lets his students know exactly where he’s coming from and openly welcomes disagreement – even to the point of wanting students to invite friends with opposing points of view to sit in on the class. He stresses the importance of maintaining a respectful open, and civil conversation. Despite the fact Mlyn has a strong opinion that he feels an ethical obligation to express, he assigns contemporary readings with an alternative perspective and tells his students to come to class prepared to argue ways Trump is in fact deepening democracy rather than threatening it. He says, “In the academy, it’s our role to contextualize and historicize Trumpism – to put it in some perspective, which is what I’m trying to do in my classroom.” Mlyn teaches of Trumpism as having deep historical roots in our country and that it is likely to survive past this presidency given global trends.

Photo of Eric Mlyn

Mlyn will examine the actual policies that are coming out of the Trump administration, including endowment taxes, the executive order to squelch dissent on college campuses, trade wars with China, and immigration policies that threaten the global reach of our institutions. Mlyn recognizes some universities have spoken out directly about certain policies, but not as a general rule and not defending on the broader values of the university: science, fact, truth, multiculturalism, and open inquiry. “Everything we believe in as institutions is being threatened,” he asserts, “and we’re just not saying much or doing anything.” For Mlyn, “doing something” means faculty and university leaders speaking out as they did against the war in Vietnam and Apartheid in South Africa.

As this project develops, Mlyn’s goal is to provoke a conversation on Duke’s campus to a wide audience, opening the door to discussion with those who disagree. He would like to convene other faculty across the disciplines to talk about how this historical movement has impacted their work, likely through blogs, podcasts, and a series of interviews. Among these impacts, Mlyn wonders how faculty who teach about the environment dealing with about climate change denial and how faculty who are teaching about Eastern Europe and Russia deal with the constant stream of news about Russia and Ukraine?

Success would require that this campus engages this issue, with an open and vibrant conversation on the constraints and ethical and moral dilemmas faculty and leaders face. Mlyn stresses his approach will provide an open space for divergent viewpoints. “This is not partisan, this is about what I see as a threat to the nature of our regime, and that’s why we need to speak out.”

Watch the Kenan website for future updates on “Higher Ed in the Age of Trump.”

Kenan Expands Duke-Durham Collaborations

The Kenan Institute for Ethics is excited to announce it will be furthering its collaborative initiatives in Durham with two new Duke-Durham partnership projects this year. 

Professor Luke Bretherton (Divinity, Kenan Senior Fellow) will be collaborating with Durham CAN (Congregations, Associations, and Neighborhoods) alongside Duke University partners (Kenan, POLIS, Divinity) to bring together diverse congregations, neighborhood associations, and local institutions to capture and archive the wisdom of community organizers who have many years of successful experience enabling grassroots democratic politics and religious and non-religious public life.  Through a series of workshops, interviews, and interdisciplinary public scholarship, this project will provide the opportunity for existing key leaders and organizers in Durham CAN, along with faculty and students at Duke, to learn from and be challenged by very experienced community organizing practitioners.  Bretherton adds, “It is a platitude to say we live in a time of polarization when building coalitions across lines of class, race, and religion is becoming more difficult while at the same time, the need for coalition building as part of revitalizing grassroots democratic politics is as important now as ever, if not more so.”

In another initiative, Professor Charlie Thompson (Kenan Senior Fellow, Cultural Anthropology, Documentary Studies), will coordinate a team of farmworker advocates to bring to Durham an inclusive, educational art project crafted from a repurposed school bus.  This project will bring representatives of AMEXCAN and their bus to the Duke/Durham area in March for public events surrounding this exhibit.   Thompson says, “This farmworker bus project, curated by Sally Jacobs and Scott Temple, using a vehicle often repurposed for hauling farm laborers, turns a vehicle into an informative and inspiring art project, all just in time for Farmworker Awareness Week, which my class will be promoting with Student Action with Farmworkers, a national organization headquartered at Duke.   Getting on the bus will be an act of learning and solidarity for all who participate.”  Through this collaboration, local farmworker families will be given a voice through interactive storytelling while Thompson’s team of advocates and students will organize and host a shared meal with farmworkers and other local labor groups.  This project will also include documenting the entire experience to produce an original creative response to the exhibit to be displayed on campus.   “I’m honored to be part of Kenan’s Duke/Durham collaboration,” says Thompson, “This grant helps unify into a single initiative many of my deepest commitments that have have been part of my teaching and community engagement at Duke — food justice, farmworkers, storytelling, and art.

duke-durham kenan cover art

Ada Gregory, Associate Director of the Kenan Institute for Ethics says, “We’re thrilled to seed these two exciting new partnership projects that are continually being shaped and reshaped by the specific needs and questions raised by community partners and community members themselves. These projects are part of our broader efforts to make more substantial commitments to our work in and with Durham – and that requires us to rethink how we do our work. We’re imaging a more integrated presence with the community that requires moving away from the confines of Duke in just the ways that these projects begin to do.”


This summer, Kenan Insider Andrew Carlins (T’21) and recent graduate Grant Besner (T’19) spent 10 weeks together in Tel Aviv producing a podcast series entitled “Is(that)raeli?” Funded through the Sanford School of Public Policy (SOL) and the Duke Center for Jewish Studies, their podcast explores the nuances of Israeli identity through personal narratives in order to discover how macroscopic forces such as race, ethnicity, religion, nationality, and citizenship affect the lived experience of members Israel’s multiple micro-communities.

is(that)raeli flag
“Is(that)raeli has been a joy to produce… an incredible excuse to talk to amazing individuals and hear their stories. It’s added a level of intellectual curiosity to our lives, showed us the value of storytelling and reminded us of the importance of listening.”
–  Carlins and Besner

Episodes include interviews with investigative journalists, a Eritrean asylum seeker, NGO workers, the former International Advisor to the Israeli Prime Minister, and university professors. Grant and Andrew explain that “in doing this project, we hoped to gain a better understanding for ourselves, of what it means to be ‘Israeli’…really, as well as share our findings with those in the English speaking world trying to better understand this complex, tiny nation in the Middle East.”

You can check their podcast out here: Isthatraeli.com

The Secret Weapons of Launch Lab

Behind the success of Launch Lab, Kenan’s weekly refugee youth mentoring program, is a tight-knit group of four undergrads.  At first impression, these young men might seem an unlikely band of heroes to the 100 or so 4th-8th graders who occupy the West Duke Building each week.  However, these leaders offer the program’s youth much more than the average Duke student tutor.  Far beyond their jovial and approachable demeanor, these friends and colleagues are also migrants to the US,  and fully-epitomize hope and aspiration.

Meet classroom coordinators Diwas Gautam, Anshu Jonnalagadda, Rehan Khan, and Mishek Thapa. Since their first year at Duke, these four juniors have been an active part of Launch Lab, beginning as mentors and now in leadership roles. Drawing upon their own experiences learning to navigate language, life and achievement in the US, each of these student leaders have developed their own unique gifts of sharing, mentoring, and community building. 

During his first semester, Mishek Thapa (Statistics) signed up for Ethics 215 with his roommate. After working with the refugee community in his hometown of High Point, NC, he wanted to continue serving the same population at Duke. Though not a refugee, Mishek and his family are immigrants from Nepal and he found many similarities with the Launch Lab youth, particularly around adjusting to the education system in America. As I entered school, like many Launch lab students, I struggled with my English and reading skills. What frustrated me was that I was in the ESL classes for multiple years and made efforts outside of class to read, but I was still behind in reading every year.”  Differentiating the experience of a traditional American student, Mishek adds, “Each of our students has a particular nature, struggle, or quality that sets them apart from the students of families with multiple generations in America. Their background as refugees and the cultural legacy that comes with that experience along with the process of immigrating and resettling in America is that distinction.”  Mishek sees in the refugee youth a strong desire to collaborate and a commitment to persevere.   As a result, Launch Lab provides close mentoring relationships that help each student realize their capabilities and academic goals.

launch lab leadership
from left to right: Mishek Thapa, Rehan Khan, Diwas Gautam, Anshu Jonnalagadda
launch lab leadership
Rehan Khan (Neuroscience) has always been passionate about teaching youth and wanted to work with a program mentoring kids as a Duke student. He considers Launch Lab a perfect fit as he can closely relate to the students.  “When I first came to America, it was not only difficult to learn English, but especially difficult to keep up with my peers who had been taught in English their whole lives. I wanted to help children who were in a similar situation as me as a child.”  Among his successes at Launch Lab, Rehan recounts tutoring one refugee youth who was seriously struggling with math concepts and by the end of the semester was even exceeding in his grade-level math. 

Anshu Jonnalagadda (Neuroscience) also had experience mentoring kids in high school and was excited about having an opportunity at Duke to continue to change kids’ lives for the better.  One particularly rewarding outcome was when one of his students met their academic goal of being accepted into a magnet school.  For Anshu, “the success of Launch Lab is a result of it being filled with dedicated volunteers who not only help refugee children academically, but also mentor them in life – making sure they are comfortable living in a new country.”


Born in a Nepalese refugee camp, Diwas Gautam (Neuroscience) knew he wanted to do something big with his life even though the options to him there were limited.   He took an opportunity to immigrate to Salt Lake City when he was 12 years old, and due to language barriers faced a host of academic and social difficulties.  In a program similar to Launch Lab, Diwas was mentored by college students and was able to build confidence, gain a sense of community, successfully navigate the education system, excel academically, and was encouraged to apply to Duke.  He joined Launch Lab in his second semester, where he built bonding friendships with Mishek, Rehan, and Anshu.  Diwas points out that one of the main strengths of Launch Lab is its one-on-one formula of mentors to mentees, which differentiates the program from most, including the one in Salt Lake City.  He says, “In any program you can’t guarantee that every kid is going to go through the program and do well, but I feel like in this structure of one-on-one academic time and opportunities to have fun and socialize, that maximizes the amount of impact we can have on an individual kid.”   Diwas credits his ability to meaningfully connect with the students through sharing his similar childhood and his love for soccer. He sees the program more about mentorship than tutoring, and as a Launch Lab leader he offers this advice: “A lot of these kids do have gaps in their academics and we try our best to fill those gaps – but, we realistically have once a week with them for an hour and half. I tell my tutors that I have accepted the fact we can’t bridge all academic gaps, but if we concentrate on the mentorship part, be a positive role model as someone they can look up to – that’s where we can have a lasting impact.”

launch lab leadership

Together, these four friends have managed to turn the tables on what it means to truly mentor the youth of Launch Lab.  As migrants, successful students, and future top scientists in their fields, they have written a new narrative for those newcomers who arrive with a sense that the cards are stacked against them and the road to achievement might be too daunting to travel.


Launch Lab at the Kenan Institute for Ethics is a weekly mentoring program for refugee youth ages 4th to 8th grade. Each Tuesday night, more than 100 young people from Afghanistan, Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Iran, Iraq, Mexico, Rwanda, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Vietnam come to the Kenan Institute to work with Duke students on honing their language skills, striving for academic success, and building community. Each evening includes a mix of outdoor, homework, and group-projects time.

2020 Kenan Summer Fellowship Applications Open

What does it mean to live an ethical life?

Kenan Summer Fellows spend a summer exploring—in a variety of ways—the answers to that question. Between five and six fellows receive up to $5,000 and their faculty mentors will receive $500 to support their project and spend eight consecutive weeks between mid-May and mid-August, 2020 exclusively on the project..


  • The Program is open to Duke undergraduates who are in their first or second year of study at the time of application; preference given to Ethics & Society Certificate students.
  • Student with ALL backgrounds, experience and interests are encouraged to apply.

Application Information

  • Applicants must submit a three-page proposal (12 point Times Roman maximum, single spaced, 1 in. margins) outlining their summer project.  Proposals should include what they mean by living an ethical life, a detailed explanation of the project and how it addresses the issue of living an ethical life, the overall project significance, in what ways they are prepared for this project, dates of project and a detailed budget. Here is a sample proposal outline.
  • Proposals must include a cover page indicating the student’s graduation year and project title.
  • Applicants must have their faculty mentor write a one-page reference (maximum) indicating the faculty member’s willingness to mentor the project as well as the applicants preparedness and likelihood of successfully completing the project. This letter should also include a plan for interaction over the summer (e.g. weekly phone calls or check-ins via Skype).
  • DEADLINE: Applications are due February 14th, 2020 at 5pm.  Applications must be hand delivered to the front desk of the Kenan Institute (102 West Duke Building) with the faculty member’s letter in a sealed/signed envelope. No late applications or separate references accepted.
  • A final decision will be made by February 21st, 2020.
  • Note that funds from KSF cannot be combined with any other Duke summer research or fellowship resources.
  • If you are conducting research, you are required to go through the Campus IRB. We encourage you to start this process as soon as possible to avoid any delays in receiving your funds should you receive the fellowship.


Check out some past Kenan Summer Fellows blogs and more information about the program here.

APPLY NOW! Reimagine Medicine 2020

Reimagine Medicine (ReMed) is an innovative, humanities-based summer fellowship offered by the Kenan Institute for Ethics for rising juniors and seniors preparing for health professions.

ReMed seeks to foster the character, imagination, and practices needed to work effectively in contexts of human suffering and healing. Leaders in many disciplines — history, ethics, visual and performing arts, spirituality, expressive writing, and more—help students explore themes often absent in traditional medical education.

During the summer intensive, students live, eat, and learn together on campus. The fellowship includes housing and a stipend for living expenses. With a full schedule of classes, hospital shadowing, and enrichment activities, participants are not permitted to accept other summer research or fellowship opportunities that overlap with ReMed. Fellows also take a half-credit course in the fall (ETHICS 216), where themes and questions from the summer are explored further.

The program includes a summer intensive (June 28-July 25, 2020) and half-credit course in the fall (day/time TBD). Applications for ReMed 2020 are currently available and will be accepted until Friday, January 31, at 5:00 pm

For more information and to apply, visit DukeReMed.org