Olivia Vaughn, a housekeeper in the Gilbert-Addoms dorm on Duke University's East Campus, was fired just before Christmas on the 89th day of her 90-day probationary period for reasons the university said it couldn't discuss.
But once the dorm's freshmen--who call themselves "Vaughn's kids" because of the relationship they'd developed with her--learned of her dismissal, they went into action, drawing petitions, making placards and protesting briefly in the university president's office. In the end, administrators agreed to give Vaughn her job back.
"We were protesting the idea of firing someone without any explanation," said Romand Coles, a Duke political science professor. He's also a member of Durham Congregations, Associations and Neighborhoods (CAN), a grassroots organizing group that's working to build coalitions between churches, political action committees and neighborhood groups by addressing issues such as housing, education and jobs.
Coles, with the help of CAN, gave the students a real-world lesson in political science.
Vaughn was well liked in Gilbert-Addoms. "She treated us like her own children," says Lia Haro, a graduate assistant in the dorm. "She would always ask us how our day was going, and she would always tell students to study instead of playing video games."
Students appreciated the work that Vaughn did--so much that every time they had a party or were making a mess in the hallways, they cleaned it up so she wouldn't have to. A few trash cans were overturned after the Duke-Virginia Tech game, and residents came out to clean them up and make sure the bathrooms were decent so Vaughn didn't have to do any unnecessary dirty work.
When they learned that Vaughn had been fired, Coles, other members of the Duke faculty and student activists met Friday, Dec. 16, with Jeanne Duncan, who's in charge of the East Campus dorms. She listened to the group's concerns but was not able to disclose any personnel information about Vaughn or the reason she was fired. Duncan said she'd schedule a meeting with Duke President Richard Brodhead and Tallman Trask, Duke's executive vice president, for Monday, Dec. 19.
But when Monday came and the group hadn't been contacted about a meeting, they took matters into their own hands. "We went to Brodhead's office and we were told that he was not able to meet with us," Coles said. "So all 40 of us sat down with our signs and petition and waited for him to get done so we could meet with him. He came out in about 10 minutes."
After the peaceful protest, demonstrators were able to voice their concerns. "We just wanted to state our demands and say that you cannot arbitrarily fire people," Haro says.
Brodhead and the university's labor relations office set up a meeting with Vaughn later that afternoon. Vaughn emerged rehired but on a 30-day probationary period.
"This was a very big eye-opener for students and a great victory for Olivia," Coles says. "There is now a buzz on campus that is saying, 'Wow, you can speak your mind and not get fired.' I am deeply happy, though, that the administration responded as they did."
There is still discussion as to the reason why Vaughn was fired. Some think it was because she was talking to the housekeepers' union about becoming a shop steward, Coles says. But Duke administrators denied that, saying they didn't know about her union activity. Coles says they later told the group she was fired because of a problem with her references from previous employers.
Vaughn declined to discuss why she was told she was fired, but said she was thrilled with the outcome.
"I am glad to have my job back--it's great," she says. "I love my G-A kids; they are great kids. I am very thankful for everyone in the community--the professors, and the kids--for helping me get my job back."