Chairs were set up in a ring inside the Center for Documentary Studies’ auditorium Thursday as leadership delivered the news that the 34-year-old Duke University institution was getting a radical overhaul.
Seated at the front were five board members and the center’s director, Opeyemi Olukemi, who delivered a “State of the Union” depicting a financial crisis years in the making and an urgent need for dramatic reorganization.
Emotions were high at the five-hour meeting, especially among the staff members who learned this week that they are being laid off. At least seven staff have been cut, in addition to at least nine who have voluntarily departed in the last 18 months.
And while the meeting answered some questions, many were left unresolved – including the underlying causes of the financial crisis and what oversight the center’s board or Duke officials could or should have provided. The Assembly was provided recordings of the meeting, and talked with five people who were in the room.
Board co-chair Jon Jensen said the board had not been presented a program-by-program budget in recent years, and had on at least one occasion received a budget with errors. The current financial shortfall, he said, is because the center has been spending down its quasi-endowment to fund programs. As much as 55 percent of the center’s revenue in recent years has come from selling units from the quasi-endowment, not just its investment earnings as is typically the case with endowments.
It’s unclear exactly how much the endowment has declined. According to tax forms, center expenses were around $5 million in both 2020 and 2021. That means the center likely used up to $2.7M a year in endowment assets to fund itself – or around 7 percent of the endowment’s $41 million in assets.
That explanation did not sit well with some staff.
“It just feels like a breach of fiduciary responsibility,” said Xaris A. Martinez, the assistant to the executive director. Martinez was among those laid off this week who learned at the meeting that the board had only seen a budget for the total organization, and not its separate programs. “I’m a board officer on two different nonprofit boards. And if I only saw that, I would resign from the board immediately.”
Other attendees asked who should bear ultimate responsibility – the director, the board, or Duke officials.
“I’m seeing a little circular thing where the board says, ‘We just do what the [executive director] says they want to do,’” said John Biewen, who has served as the director of audio programs at the center. “Who’s working for who there?’
Others asked why more fundraising had not been done to address revenue shortfalls, and why staff had not been told sooner.
“You did tell me, personally, that you had all these fundraisers who couldn’t wait to just give you money for anything,” said Katie Hyde, the director of the Literacy through Photography program, addressing Olukemi directly about the suggestion the deficit is tied to a lack of fundraising.
While there was a lot of anger and frustration, other staff simply expressed disappointment.
“I think that sometimes the chemotherapy kills the patient,” said Alexa Dilworth, who has been the center’s awards and publications director and was among those laid off this week. “This has been a profoundly interesting place concerned with ethics…I mean, this seems like a corporate takeover.”
As The Assembly reported earlier this week, the Center for Documentary Studies had paused the majority of its programs for the last 18 months. There were no new exhibitions, the adult education courses went on hiatus, and the Full Frame film festival was canceled for the first time since 1998.
What was once a staff of 45 had fallen to 24, as of earlier this week – before the layoffs.
What’s left now appears to be development staff, some Full Frame employees, and a few administrative and support positions. During the meeting, a slide stated that Full Frame is “Returning in-person to Durham in 2024!”
The meeting was intended to describe director Olukemi’s vision for the future, but that part, too, left many attendees with more questions than answers.
Olukemi said the center would shift from traditional documentary to “applicable media” – a term that was not clearly defined in the meeting. The presentation suggested it would involve collaborations across Duke schools; one stated example was pairing documentarians with biomedical researchers.
“We’re trying to figure out the power of storytelling and documentary arts in every different facet of the world,” Olukemi said. “We’re trying to move away from digestion to activity and activation.”
Olukemi said the center needs to move beyond just studying the documentary arts, and that the curriculum must change. An independent advisory board that involves Ed Balleisen, the university’s provost of interdisciplinary studies, was listed as part of the restructuring. (Balleisen was invited to the meeting but was not present.)
Current staff have countered that its mission already includes presenting and producing documentary work – not just studying it.
And they said that while they have heard the term “applied research” over the last few months, they had not been given a clear sense of what that entails.
Dilworth noted that it was the first time they were hearing about the new academic direction.
“Really, this is the first real explanation of this,” Dilworth said. “And I don’t know how you don’t set programming, and how you possibly go forward with this.”
Pressed to provide concrete examples, Olukemi said she is working with the Nicholas School of the Environment to bring professors, students, and researchers together to do storytelling about the climate crisis. But when a staff member asked how the program would be applied “to the real world,” Olukemi replied, “We’re not there yet.”
Board co-chair Barb Lee gave an example from her own work on a documentary following children through anti-racism workshops, and how the documentary was broken into episodes for corporate training.
Staff pushed back, saying that they already do some of this work – citing the example of the “Seeing White” season of the center’s Peabody Award-nominated Scene on Radio podcast, which has been used in high school and college curriculum and community discussion groups.
A staff member also asked whether Olukemi planned to stay with the center through the transition; that question was left unanswered, though Olukemi said at another point in the meeting that she had tried to resign on three different occasions in the past 18 months.
“I think it’s really important to be clear that we need to work in lockstep with the majority of deans to get there,” Olukemi said. “This is a vision of what we want to do, we want to figure out how we can do more than just digest media and how we can push the field ahead.”
A number of questions about the center’s financial status remain unclear even after the meeting.
In response to Martinez’s questions about the board’s fiduciary responsibilities, Jensen, who assumed his role as board co-chair at the start of the year, suggested the board had not looked at detailed programmatic budgets for years.
If failure to look at programmatic budgets were grounds for resignation, Jensen said, “I think that we would have had to have a mass resignation for the last 15 years.”
Two board members have stepped down in recent weeks, leaving nine current members, four of whom were missing at Thursday’s meeting.
While the center’s quasi-endowment has fluctuated with the stock market, it has long maintained an eight-figure balance. According to the organization’s 990s, the endowment recovered from the 2009 financial crisis and was reported at $41 million as of June 2021.
Olukemi said in the spring of 2022, she realized she did not have important legal documents for the center. In past staff presentations, she said those documents included a master service agreement between the center and Duke, as well paperwork that detail ownership of one of the center’s buildings, a land lease, and the structure of the quasi-endowment.
Olukemi alleged that she has been told at her hire that the center is an independent 501(c)3 nonprofit, but that it has less autonomy than described. While the center is a nonprofit, it was set up as a support corporation of Duke University 34 years ago, meaning its employees are Duke employees and the center’s board members may be removed by the university’s board of trustees.
Lee, the board co-chair, said Olukemi and the board approved a new organizational chart in May 2022 that would eliminate certain positions and provide a larger severance “far above what is standard agreement.” But because the center is a support corporation, Duke needed to approve and did not, because the proposed severance packages were above the university’s standard policy. Lee said Olukemi tried to resign in the fall of 2022 in response to that denial.
Noticeably absent from the meeting were Wesley Hogan, the center’s past director, and Peter Lange, the former board chair whose term expired at the end of 2022. Many of Duke’s top brass who had been invited to attend were also missing.
Olukemi announced that the center intends to hire a cluster of faculty, but that is predicated on $5 million in new fundraising. She did not explain what those faculty would focus on, and because the center cannot directly hire faculty, Olukemi said she is working with other deans on the appointments.
She also floated shifting the structure to an institute – which would allow them to directly hire faculty and be involved in degree programs – as well as a name change. “But as of right now, we’re still a center,” she said.
The strengthened connection with Duke seems to contrast with earlier statements from Olukemi about the reputation of the university hurting her ability to secure funding.
“Our connection with Duke creates an additional burden. Why? Because it’s an $11 billion enterprise. Externally it is known as a white supremacist organization,” Olukemi said at a November staff meeting. “There’s no way I could go to any social justice funder with everything that I know, and say, please give me 5, 10, 15, 20 million. It’s not possible.”
At the end of Olukemi’s presentation, she shared a timeline for what’s to come: monthly staff and faculty meetings, “creative close-out” meetings with current program directors, and determining how to launch the search for a new Full Frame director. (The position is currently held by an interim director.) She said a six-person faculty committee will begin an organizational review on March 8 looking at how the center can move forward in partnership with Duke and the Durham community.
Asked what programs will continue, Olukemi told staff, “I can’t talk about that.” When pressed further, she cited “HR issues.”
Ren Larson is a staff reporter at The Assembly. She previously worked for The Texas Tribune and ProPublica’s investigative team, and as a data reporter with The Arizona Republic. She holds a master’s of public policy and an M.A. in international and area studies from the University of California, Berkeley.
Kate Medley is a photojournalist and filmmaker in the American South. Her work, which explores themes at the intersection of culture and social justice, regularly appears in publications including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and NPR. She lives in Durham, North Carolina.