What Duke has done to itself

Michael Skube:


... the university's problems are different, and they won't evaporate soon, even if Nifong were to drop the remaining charges of kidnapping and sexual assault against the students. (He dropped a rape charge earlier this month.) Duke saw nearly a 20% decline this fall in applications for early admission, and university officials acknowledge that one of the reasons is the publicity resulting from the case. In response, the university has undertaken a 12-city nationwide public relations campaign, called "A Duke Conversation," involving not only Brodhead but also hundreds of alumni and Duke students. Their message: What you read and hear about Duke — drunken parties, out-of-control athletes, pervasive arrogance and privilege — is far from the truth.

"I've told trustees it's going to take two to five years to recover from this [the legal case]," Duke public relations chief and Vice President John Burness said in an interview with the Raleigh News & Observer. Mention the name "Duke," and parents and donors once thought basketball. What comes first to their mind now is the lacrosse team. "Even a good story is a bad story if it's about lacrosse," Burness says, "because it's a reminder."

Surely no other top-tier university has found itself so recurrently the butt of criticism, even ridicule. Several years ago, Duke's English department, once a hotbed of cutting-edge literary theory, imploded in a blaze of backbiting and backstabbing and had to be put in the temporary care of a botanist.

The university's problems now are far more serious. It wants to continue competing with the Ivies and with Stanford, schools with longer traditions, bigger endowments and no black eyes. None like the lacrosse case, anyway.

In arguing that the episode is unrepresentative, the university's defenders have a legitimate case. But so too does its growing chorus of critics, which includes Duke faculty, alumni and students, Durham residents and the artless opinionators on the Internet. If anything can be said to bind this odd assemblage, it's a reaction to the group-think that immediately took hold once the story came to light.

One who has come to understand the critics' distemper is Ned Kennington, who last March was among those calling for justice swift and certain. "I am outraged," he said back then, "that 40 Duke students know what happened and won't come forward."

Today, he speaks in tones measured and a little rueful. "I'll be frank with you," says Kennington, a former faculty member who lives near the campus. "I trusted that Mike Nifong was talking in a careful, judicious way when he called the lacrosse players hooligans. It wasn't long after that that I felt betrayed, and I regret what I said at the time."

Few of the candle holders or pot bangers of last spring are taking phone calls. Jennifer Minnelli, who attended a candlelight vigil in March and lambasted the lacrosse team for a "wall of silence," said last week, "I have no comment. Good luck with your research," and hung up. The husband of a woman who organized the candlelight vigil in March said last week, "Your chances of getting a comment from her or from anyone in this house are exactly zero."

Duke has been caught with its prejudice hanging out. It is a prejudice it put above the interest of the students and indeed it is one that it tried to pass on to its students. They trusted Nifong because he reinforced their prejudice by buying into a story that was just not credible. This vignette of liberal prejudice on campus usually goes unnoticed and unreported, but the Duke administration and faculty have certainly given Thomas Wolfe some great material for a sequal to I am Charlotte Simmons.


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