The walls of the Center for Documentary Studies’ exhibition galleries are bare, with only a few nails, holes, and strokes of mismatched paint to hint at the art that previously hung here.
The center’s digital presence is just as spare; the webpage for the last exhibit, which was scheduled through May 2020, still states that it is “closed temporarily.”
Undergraduate students stream in and out of the center’s buildings on Duke University’s campus, and daily business operations have continued. But little of the activity that helped the center earn a national reputation in documentary arts has happened in the last 18 months.
The summertime Audio Under the Stars program? Now under the auspices of Duke Arts.
The Oscar-qualifying Full Frame documentary film festival? Canceled for the first time since its start in 1998.
A program that trains teachers to use photography to develop literacy skills in Durham Public Schools? Paused.
The evening and summer continuing education courses? “On hiatus,” according to a staff briefing last fall.
There have been no new episodes or even teasers for the center’s Peabody-nominated podcast Scene on Radio in more than a year.
The center did not distribute its most prestigious financial awards in 2022. There are no photography exhibitions planned for the immediate horizon. Students pursuing a certificate are unable to take classes. Applications to the center’s Hine Fellow program, which supports early career documentarians, are “suspended.”
Exactly why nearly everything seems to be on indefinite hiatus has been hard to pin down.
Center for Documentary Studies Director Opeyemi Olukemi, who joined full-time in September 2021, told staff and board members at a meeting last November that “legally and publicly,” only the center’s continuing education program is on hiatus. She said the other programs, like literacy through photography, exhibitions, audio, awards, and publishing, are in “a limbo period.”
It’s not just programs that have disappeared. In the last year and a half, at least nine staff members have voluntarily left. In interviews with The Assembly, almost as many current staff said they feel like their heads are on the chopping block after hearing that the center is “sunsetting,” “releveling” and “restructuring” its programs for over a year. Others questioned if they want to continue working there even if they’re not let go, and blame Olukemi for creating an atmosphere where they are demeaned and demoralized.
What was once a staff of 45 is now a staff of 24. Staffers say no one has been hired in the last 18 months, either—leaving no employees in the adult education program, and no director of operations, business manager, or operations manager. While a board statement shared with staff last fall suggested that there are financial problems that “will require changes to practices, procedures, and, sadly, personnel,” the source of those problems and why the center cannot use its endowment in ways it did previously have not been made clear.
The Assembly spoke with more than 20 current and former staff members. Eleven spoke on the record, while most currently employed there requested anonymity for fear it would impact continued employment, severance, or relationships in the Duke community. Several employees declined to speak for the same reasons.
The answer of what is on the horizon is expected to come on March 2, when Olukemi is slated to hold a “State of the Union” meeting with staff, board members, some of Duke’s top brass, and representatives from university human relations where they will discuss changes and what comes next.
Some staff learned they were being laid off on Tuesday morning. Others have HR meetings scheduled ahead of the larger meeting.
Olukemi did not respond to multiple requests for an interview and did not respond to written questions, but sent a brief email on February 17 stating that the center “is amidst a restructure resulting from a comprehensive review” and that “we look forward to introducing a renewed slate of sustainable programming in the months to come.” Statements she has previously made in internal meetings were provided to The Assembly by a staff member.
None of the current board members would agree to speak for this article; a co-chair directed questions to the university’s interim vice president of public affairs and government relations. That person directed questions to CDS.
Multiple employees described the center under Olukemi’s leadership as “toxic”; another described her management style as “authoritarian, top-down, chaotic.” They said Olukemi has directed staff and faculty not to speak with board members, and that the former board chair had chastised staff for raising concerns about the work stoppage, lack of communication, and the impact to the center’s image and reach in a letter to the board last fall.
What may have started as an internal matter has started trickling out, as documentarians, Durham residents, a funder, and Duke faculty have raised questions about what is happening at a major North Carolina cultural institution that, as of June 2021, had $43.6 million in net assets.
An Evolving Medium
The center’s 34-year history in Durham has not been without debate over the kinds of questions that plague the documentary genre more broadly.
Unlike the fields of anthropology and oral history, there isn’t a standard code of ethics for documentary. At its best, the field has influenced public policies, aided in the release of the wrongfully incarcerated, recorded history, and educated generations. At worst, it has perpetuated harmful stereotypes, exploited hardship, ignored systemic issues, and benefited the people behind the camera more than their subjects. Questions about ethics and who gets to document whose story have long lingered over the center.
When Charlie Thompson joined the center as its education director in 2000, he had been one of its critics. Thompson, a former farmer who had done political organizing with farmworkers, has a Ph.D. in anthropology. Part of his directive was to better connect the center with university and professional standards.
One of Thompson’s early encounters with the center was via its former magazine, DoubleTake. The coffee-table-book presentation of people living difficult lives without much context or questioning made him uncomfortable. He planned an ethics discussion series shortly after joining.
“How do you—when you’re a practitioner of an art—know if your work is ethical or meets standards?” Thompson said about the general concern within the field. “You have a film festival, you submit your work there? But how do you know it doesn’t cross some boundaries that shouldn’t be crossed?”
While academics in other fields face peer or institutional review board critiques, there is not a similar requirement in documentary, Thompson said.
“The center has never been a perfect place,” Thompson said. “We have an institution that we’re talking about that isn’t bound by any particular ideology.”
A group of artists, scholars, and a publisher launched the center in 1989 to “support, promote, and further develop the discipline of documentary studies in connection with academic programs at Duke University” through research, teaching, and dissemination of documentary work, according to the articles of incorporation.
It was created as a nonprofit, free-standing center within Duke—a model advantageous to the mission, but distinct from an academic department or an institute. While its staff are Duke employees, it can’t hire faculty, and doesn’t offer tenure-track employment. Its board of directors has near-total control of its massive quasi-endowment, a term that means there is not a restriction on how much of the endowment can be spent.
“We had to be independent of the university because we weren’t bringing in Ph.D.s.,” said Iris Tillman Hill, the center’s founding director. “And we might be bringing in people who were making films, they weren’t people who would be at the university in those days.”
The Lyndhurst Foundation, a family philanthropy that has historically funded arts and cultural organizations, gave the center $5 million in seed money. In 1989, Duke agreed to contribute $150,000 a year toward salaries and initial space costs, an amount that would increase with inflation. In recent years Duke has financially supported undergraduate education costs, including some salary expenses for the undergraduate program’s director and adjunct instructors.
In the center’s first year, it offered undergraduate courses, hosted exhibits, screened films, conducted oral histories, and announced the Lange-Taylor prize, its marquee award given to a photographer and writer working together. Its primary output was in print—first books and, starting in 1995, through DoubleTake, a National Magazine Award-winning literary photo magazine. In 1996, Lyndhurst made a $10 million grant to support the magazine. Circulation peaked at 90,000, according to a founder, but the magazine bled millions from the endowment each year.
It was amid this first financial crisis that a new director, Tom Rankin, was brought in. Rankin spun the magazine off as its own nonprofit in 1999; it eventually died in 2004. The Center launched the documentary festival that would become Full Frame, a film festival that had been financially self-sustaining through tickets and sponsorships and attracted internationally known filmmakers like Martin Scorcese and Ken Burns, in 1998.
Under Rankin, the center added its continuing education courses, a traveling photo and audio exhibition, an audio program, a theater and gallery at Durham’s American Tobacco Campus, and a visiting scholar program.
In 2009, the broader financial crisis also hit the center and the quasi-endowment fell from about $36 million to $24 million. While it had grants from philanthropies like the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Mellon Foundation, and Pew Charitable Trusts, the endowment’s investment earnings had funded an average 65 percent of the center’s work over the prior decade. Rankin said he secured a low-interest line of credit from Duke—up to $4 million, according to a proposal at the time—to allow work to continue and avoid layoffs. According to the most recent IRS disclosure, investment income funded roughly $2 million of the center’s $4.6 million in expenses in 2021.
At the same time, the center was facing more pressure to diversify its staff and educators. Fellowships brought many scholars of color to teach at the center, but without the ability to secure faculty appointments and low staff turnover, full-time employees remained largely white.
Rankin stepped down in 2013 to direct the university’s MFA program in experimental and documentary arts, and Wesley Hogan took the helm. During her tenure, Hogan instituted a three-year pilot to increase paid opportunities for early career artists who are typically underrepresented in the field, continued support for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee legacy project, and began antiracist training for staff.
Full Frame also launched a series of panel discussions in 2016 called #DocsSoWhite, confronting issues like who controls access for people trying to break into the industry, lack of mentorship, and questions about who can tell whose story.
In the first annual #DocsSoWhite panel, Roger Ross Williams, an award-winning director, producer, and writer and the first African American director to win an Academy Award, spoke about how decision-makers only come to him if they have a Black story to tell. Another filmmaker, Sabrina Schmidt Gordon, called on funders to question and challenge the privilege of filmmakers.
These questions of privilege, benefit, and harm have prompted a larger industry-wide reflection, said Natalie Bullock Brown, a North Carolina State University professor who helped to spearhead the Documentary Accountability Working Group, launched in 2020.
“We’re trying to get people to be thoughtful of the potential harm and ways that they can use values-based filmmaking to collectively not harm,” said Bullock Brown.
It was amid this backdrop that the center began its search for a new director in spring 2021. It was the year after Breonna Taylor and George Floyd were murdered by police, when the COVID-19 pandemic was disproportionately killing people of color, and when corporations, nonprofits, and media were affirming a commitment to addressing systemic inequality.
Olukemi had addressed the need to fund stories from people who have not been able to tell their stories in her previous position leading POV Spark, the interactive arm of the storied documentary series that airs on PBS. That included helping launch an African Artists Residency and the Instagram documentary series Otherly, which “amplifies perspectives from a group of underexposed creators, namely women, non-binary, and genderqueer identifying folx.”
The October 2021 announcement of her hire said that she was drawn to the center for its transformative power at a crucial moment in history.
“The Center for Documentary Studies is uniquely positioned to lead not just in nonfiction media creation, but in determining the power of documentary and its impact on our culture, and in critiquing, challenging, and altering the systemic forces that bind us,” Olukemi said in the announcement.
‘I’ve Never Been Treated Like This Before’
Michelle Seymour joined the Center as its business manager in October 2020, to handle duties like payroll, expenses, and budget. It was similar to work she’d done in other offices on campus over a decade of working for Duke.
But within a month of the new executive director starting, Seymour says she was told by Olukemi the board wanted her fired. (Requests to multiple board members to confirm this were unanswered.) Seymour said she immediately began looking for jobs.
She said the feedback she received from Olukemi was highly critical, and that she was asked to monitor fundraising, which was not part of the job she’d been hired to do.
“I’ve never been treated like this before. This was unreal,” Seymour said in an interview. “Belittled—I was made to feel like I didn’t know what I was doing.”
Seymour felt like she was made to question her every decision, and said that Olukemi told her she couldn’t directly reach out to other CDS staff to ask questions about their expenses, something she felt was sabotaging her ability to do her job.
“I still have PTSD when it comes to certain things,” said Seymour, who left in August 2022 and took a job managing contracts and grants at Duke School of Medicine. “I’m still feeling the effects of the job of working under her.”
Michael Betts II, who was the director of the center’s continuing studies program, also left last August.
Betts was one of two Black program directors at the center, and served on the faculty-staff hiring committee for the new executive director in the spring of 2021. Olukemi had stood out in the candidate pool, he said.
“When she was given an opportunity to ask questions, she asked the staff how we were doing. Everybody else had wanted to talk about the board and talk about big visions,” Betts said. He took Olukemi’s interest in the staff’s well-being as characteristic of a servant-leader.
Betts said he felt like “a breath of fresh air” had blown through the center when Olukemi introduced herself to staff at an October 2021 meeting and spoke about equity. But a comment from that meeting stayed with him. After Olukemi spoke about growing up in Africa and working in anti-Black spaces, a colleague asked how they could support Olukemi. “You can’t,” he recalled her saying.
Betts said he didn’t know what to do with that answer. “If we’re going to do this thing together we have to all go together,” Betts said. “Just because you’re the leader doesn’t mean you need to fall on somebody’s sword.”
He’d supported her hire, and she was his favored candidate in the pool of three.
“In this moment I admit fully that I was wrong,” Betts said. He said he thinks his fellow staff members who served on the committee, all of whom still currently work for the center, would agree. Another staff member who was on the hiring committee agreed with the statement.
Betts’ said his perspective of the new executive director soured over time. While other programs ramped down in the pandemic’s early months, CDS’s continuing studies program had offered online classes for nearly two decades and rose to meet the demands of students stuck at home.
Its adult education courses in photography, video, audio, writing, creative media, ethics, and theory were in full swing despite losing one of its three employees, a program coordinator, in August 2021. Betts, who interacted with as many as 1,000 students a year and had a newborn at the time, was exhausted.
In late November 2021, he said Olukemi asked him what it would cost financially to take a hiatus. Betts took it as a sign he had her support for him to rest and get the program in order: hiring, and developing a strategic plan. He and the program’s other remaining employee calculated what they’d lose by taking a year off—in fees for instructors no longer teaching classes, staff salaries, and lost revenue from tuition and lab fees. But when the board formally approved the hiatus, Olukemi asked him to not preview the decision to students and instructors. The lack of transparency, and feeling like he had to lie to students, made him uncomfortable.
He’d also been asking to hire for the vacant program coordinator job. After he got approval to post the position, reviewed candidates, held interview panels, and offered the job to the top candidate in spring 2022, he said Olukemi asked him to withdraw the offer, citing budget concerns.
To Betts, making him rescind the offer felt personal. He had set up the budget and knew that there was money for the position for that year. He said Olukemi had also denied his request for accommodations after a return-to-office date was set for staff; Betts was caring for both an infant and a grandmother with terminal cancer, and felt being in the office was too much of a risk. After taking family medical leave, he decided not to return.
Seymour and Betts are among at least nine staffers who have left in the last 18 months. The Assembly has spoken to six others, and most said they are now in a financially and emotionally better place. Several sought out jobs after not getting requested raises or promotions. Others described trouble getting the center to pay them for work they were promised.
Vitoria Motta, a Duke MFA student, said the center offered her a position as a graduate assistant for this academic year. She quit one of her other campus jobs to take it.
But on February 23, Olukemi emailed her to say that her funding would no longer include the $6,100 she had been promised, and that Motta would either have to do work without pay, or also lose the $25,000 in tuition remission she’d received as part of the fellowship. Motta was given until March 3 to decide how to proceed.
Today, all positions in the continuing studies program are vacant; Betts’ other colleague, Dorian Gomez Pestaña, has also quit. Both current and former staff members who spoke to The Assembly, including Betts, allege that Olukemi forced many of them out, and that the vacancies are part of an intentional effort to reorient the center.
“She wanted to tear everything down and rebuild it from the ground up,” Seymour said.
In the November staff meeting, Olukemi said the only reason the organization didn’t have a deficit that year was that she had not hired any staff, saving the organization $800,000 in salary expenses. That fiscal year, which ran from July 2020 to June of 2021, she said, the revenue the organization budgeted for was off by $1.1 million.
In a December staff meeting, she clarified that this was due to revenue lost during the pandemic, like rental income from venues, a drop in grants and individual contributions, and Full Frame being entirely online from 2020 to 2022.
An Imminent Overhaul
The November board statement sent to the center’s staff, faculty, and former directors said that it “acknowledges the challenges that have arisen over the past year” and “must take the necessary steps to ensure CDS’ future success.”
Olukemi, the statement said, had been given a directive to review current operations, and that the review had “uncovered concerns” including “substantial operational issues, budgetary shortfalls, and fundamental lapses in the legal documentation of CDS and its relationship to Duke University. These discoveries will require changes to practices, procedures, and, sadly, personnel.”
The board also “reaffirms its support of Opeyemi Olukemi as our Executive Director and looks forward to assisting her in her efforts to build CDS into a national leader in the practice and production of documentary arts,” said the statement, which board co-chair Barb Lee distributed by email.
The board “sympathizes with the hardship these changes have had, and likely will continue to have on many,” and stated that “these conditions were years in the making, did not occur under Opeyemi’s leadership, and are ultimately the board’s responsibility to resolve.”
It stated that the board will also “conduct a comprehensive review of the events that have transpired under Opeyemi’s direction to ensure that all voices are heard, and to gain valuable insight from what has transpired.”
Whatever changes are in store now seem imminent.
Since the center’s employees are Duke employees, the board and director have to adhere to the university’s HR policies requiring review and approval as well as written notice. At least ten employees have HR meetings scheduled the week of February 27.
Typically, employees need to have an unsatisfactory performance evaluation—something at least three employees of the center received for the first time in their career during 2022, they told The Assembly—to have grounds to be fired. But the board and director can terminate programs, and thus their employees, no performance evaluation necessary.
Rankin, the former center director, said he has wondered why employees have been essentially unable to work for more than a year, while still being paid. But that’s not his biggest concern.
“The bigger issue to me is how an institution that takes an extended pause, how injurious that can be to the institution, the momentum of the institution, the name,” Rankin said. “It’s not so much about individual people. It’s not good for a museum to go dark, for the center to take a pause.”
The board has said that the cancellation of Full Frame was a unanimous decision, and a draft agenda for the state of the center meeting says ending sales of endowment assets to fund operations is a united decision between them, Olukemi and “Duke Corporate.” Of the board’s current directors, five have served for at least five years.
At the November staff meeting, exiting Board Chair Peter Lange, whose term expired at the end of the year, gave a speech affirming the board’s desire for the center to change and for Olukemi to be the director driving the change.
“It was a recognition that CDS had to change and could become a leader, perhaps the leader in the field combining all the strengths that come with bringing together documentary work in numerous modes in media and already established and perhaps under recognized national reputation,” Lange said.
But those familiar with the center struggle to see why that has been at the cost of successful programs.
Nancy Buirski, a filmmaker who founded what is now Full Frame, said she received an email from Olukemi on November 22, minutes before the film festival’s cancellation was publicly announced. In it, Olukemi said she would “evolve CDS into a world class doc-arts institution,” a process that required pausing Full Frame for a year to bring it back “with a new vision.”
This disturbed Buirski, who was not aware of any structural or financial problems with the festival, and felt its thematic program and emphasis on filmmakers offered something unique in the industry. Buirski worried the cancellation would injure the festival’s reputation and relationships with filmmakers, distributors, and the community.
The festival is “one of the best connectors that the university has to the community.”
To Rankin, holding an in-person festival for the first time since the pandemic should have been a top priority. It makes him question what is taking place at the center.
“A festival coming back from COVID is not simple even if you have an ideal director or budget but it should have been a priority to come back with something,” Rankin said. “The concern of what it means to take a really vital essential institution that’s connected to Duke and to a larger world and just turn it off.”
Others worry about the loss of programs like the center’s work in Durham Public Schools through the center’s Literacy Through Photography program, which hasn’t been taught since fall 2021.
Denise Baynham, a Durham primary school teacher, was first introduced to the program over two decades ago. Because the program trains teachers, Baynham has continued to use what she learned, but she worries that other educators and students won’t have that resource.
“We’re not equipping future teachers to navigate this very visual-heavy world,” Baynham said. “How do we help students read images? Whether it is a video on TikTok or YouTube, or an advertisement in a street, or looking at art, looking at graphs, and knowing how to look at something closely?”
Duke’s engagement with the anticipated changes at the center is unclear.
A number of Duke officials are on the invite list for this week’s meeting, including three vice presidents, a vice provost, an assistant general counsel, the director of communications and marketing, multiple people from the auditing team, and three HR reps. Chris Simmons, Duke’s interim vice president for public affairs and government relations, declined a request for comment, instead saying the center is better suited to address The Assembly’s questions “in detail.”
“The university has also convened a faculty committee which will soon seek broad stakeholder input and feedback as they consider the opportunities and challenges ahead for CDS,” Simmons wrote in an email.
Many longtime participants and fans of the center are watching its next steps with great interest.
“The ship doesn’t have to go down entirely,” Buirksi said. “There are too many things that are working and are important.”
Staff still at the center expressed complicated feelings heading into the March 2 meeting.
“We all expect to learn that we’re being laid off in those meetings,” a staff member wrote.
“I have a pit in my stomach about the whole thing,” wrote another who has an HR meeting scheduled for Tuesday. “It’s so cold and ugly.”
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.