Duke mobilizes to shield its image

Staff WriterDecember 22, 2006 

— Dogged by months of damaging news stories about the lacrosse scandal, Duke University has launched a costly campaign of alumni dinners, national surveys and aggressive recruitment.

The effort -- which includes a 12-city tour by President Richard Brodhead and an entourage of faculty and students -- is part of a larger push to blunt publicity generated by gang-rape allegations involving lacrosse players. The charges resulted in an embarrassing examination of the school's social and academic culture.

Duke officials won't say how much the image makeover costs, but its reach is extensive.

Brodhead's tour, called "A Duke Conversation," invites hundreds of alumni for dinner and discussions in major cities from Los Angeles to New York. The admissions office has increased meet-and-greet sessions with prospective students while mailing tens of thousands of brochures that feature accomplished, impressive scholars and flattering descriptions of Durham.

An army of Duke students has volunteered to spread good news about Duke to their hometown high schools during fall and winter breaks. And Duke Vice President John Burness keeps 16 thick white binders on his desk, each stuffed with news clippings, strategy plans, consultants' reports and results from three national public opinion surveys.

Duke officials would like to see an immediate payoff for their efforts, but they say the recovery isn't a short-term proposition. A trial looms in 2007 for three former lacrosse players accused of rape.

"I've told trustees it's going to take two to five years to recover from this," Burness said.

Despite the players' denials and weaknesses in the district attorney's case, a seamy trial could create a media frenzy like the O.J. Simpson ordeal at the very time prospective students are deciding whether to come to Duke.

Applications dip

There are signs that Duke's recruitment efforts could take a hit from the lacrosse fallout. The university's early-decision applications dropped by nearly 20 percent this past fall, and officials concede the decrease was related partly to the scandal. The regular application deadline isn't until Jan. 2, so it remains to be seen whether Duke's final pool of possible students declines.

Steven Roy Goodman, a Duke alumnus and college admissions consultant in Washington, said some families are confused and are no longer certain about Duke.

"Some of the parents I consult with said, 'I'm not ready to throw my hat into the Duke ring yet,' " Goodman said.

Aside from lacrosse, Duke received more bad publicity in September with the release of a book by Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Golden, titled "The Price of Admission." It describes how rich and well-connected Americans buy their way in to elite universities, with one chapter detailing how Duke had for years admitted the children of wealthy non-alumni in hopes of fat donations. The descriptions seemed only to perpetuate the image of white privilege that pervaded the lacrosse media coverage.

"That didn't do Duke any favors," Goodman said. "How does this resonate with the middle-class kid in Greensboro or the middle-class kid in Chicago?"

The publicity hasn't fazed everyone. Justin Lopez, 17, a senior at Northern High School in Durham, sent his application to Duke last month. His twin brother, Adrian, also applied.

Justin said he loves the Gothic architecture, and he can see himself studying biology there on his way to medical school and a career as a cardiologist. "The whole lacrosse incident didn't catch my attention at all," he said.

But to reach potential students and families who are paying attention to the lacrosse case, the admissions office recruited 600 student ambassadors to polish the university's image. The ambassadors give tours, host visitors and return to their high schools to give pro-Duke talks.

"They're always the best salespeople you've got," Burness said.

Duke also mailed 70,000 glossy booklets titled "Senior Stories" with profiles of talented students who seem the very opposite of rude, sex-crazed partyers described in some magazine stories, such as one in the June issue of Rolling Stone.

"We wanted people to understand who Duke undergraduates were," said Christoph Guttentag, dean of undergraduate admissions.

Graduates also have been prepped by the the alumni association, which instructs members on its Web site about how to respond to uncomfortable questions. Hypothetical questions include, "Does Duke's culture revolve around rowdiness and alcohol?" and "Is there too much emphasis on athletics?"

Burness said Brodhead's national tour of alumni groups has been well received. Talks focus on topics such as medical ethics, environmental research and other Duke strengths. The alumni are usually a friendly crowd who don't want to see their degrees devalued, but there is often at least one question about lacrosse.

But one of Brodhead's most vocal critics is a group of alumni outraged by what they see as Duke's failure to stand up for the accused former players.

Jason Trumpbour, spokesman for Friends of Duke University, said he feels the administration's handling of the matter has made a bad situation worse.

Burness said the survey research indicates views such as Trumpbour's are in the minority. But Duke, a young institution that built itself into a top-10 academic power relatively quickly, cannot afford a major slide in its reputation. It does not have the long traditions or enormous endowments of some of the Ivy League schools.

So the image campaign must go forward to counteract what Google has rated as the top scandal-related Internet query of 2006.

Burness estimates 75,000 stories about Duke lacrosse appeared this year, and it wasn't unusual for him to get 1,000 e-mail messages some days. Last week, the national media flocked to Durham again for a hearing. Burness fears it could be another difficult spring.

"Even a good story is a bad story if it's about lacrosse," Burness said, "because it's a reminder."

Staff writer Jane Stancill can be reached at 956-2464 or janes@newsobserver.com

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