Report divides Duke's campus

A proposal challenges key areas of university life, but some say not much will or even needs to change

Staff WritersMarch 4, 2007 

— The campus culture report released last week at Duke University diagnosed an environment often dominated by white men, fraternities, sports and an alcohol-drenched social scene that promotes casual sex.

To some, though, the report was a politically correct treatise by leftists intent on social engineering and a top-to-bottom remake of a great university.

Like the Duke lacrosse case itself, the report has stirred strong and conflicting emotions. After nine months of study, a two-dozen member campus committee has recommended 28 changes covering a wide range of topics: dorm space, dining halls, social life, athletics and what types of students are admitted. President Richard Brodhead has said the recommendations will be considered but aren't a done deal. The debate is on.

Whatever the outcome of the lacrosse sexual-offense case, what will come of the report's indictment of campus culture?

For some the question is: Does Duke need fixing?

Not really, said Jason Trumpbour, who last year joined four other Duke alumni to create Friends of Duke University, a group critical of the university's handling of the lacrosse case. The report appears to have a faulty premise, Trumpbour said, because the committee began its work when the lacrosse team was in the cross hairs of so much outrage. The sexual assault accusation against three former Duke lacrosse players touched off a trauma that played out on the national stage. The accuser is black; the players are white.

"The committee report assumes all sorts of pervasive problems with class, race and gender," he said. "I don't think that reflects the common experience of most people."

Duke, warts and all

Alumni who post anonymously to the Web site of the campus newspaper, the Chronicle, say the proposed reforms would ruin Duke. Many students worry that their party life would suffer; others want to see a more varied social scene.

Some observers shake their heads as Duke continues to examine itself even as the case against the players has weakened.

"As long as these recommendations are on the table, these divisions are going to fester, and in fact, they're just going to get worse," said KC Johnson, a history professor at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center who writes a popular blog about the Duke lacrosse case.

Johnson, who is writing a book about the case, has been relentless in his criticism of the so-called "Group of 88" -- professors who endorsed an ad in the Chronicle in April that has been characterized as a rush to judgment against the players.

The professors have said that the ad was misunderstood and refused to apologize for it.

One of the endorsers, Paula McClain, will take office in July as chairwoman of Duke's Academic Council, the faculty governing body. She said she thinks the recent report was a careful study, and she gives Duke credit for undertaking it.

"It says, 'Here we are, warts and all. What do we do about those warts?' " said McClain, a political science professor.

"The reality is the world is changing, the country is changing, and we have to change," she said. "If Duke wants to remain competitive and remain a top-notch institution, it's got to change with the times. Change is very difficult, especially for people who came through Duke years ago."

A campus polarized

The problems identified are endemic to many college campuses. But there was evidence, the panel said, that the situation is worse at Duke. Among the committee's findings:

* Duke students report higher levels of drinking and less time studying than their peers at comparable universities.

* Forty-four percent of black students in their second year reported discrimination by faculty, staff, students or others at Duke.

* White Duke students and fraternity and sorority members are less likely to interact with a diverse group of people than students at comparable universities.

At the heart of the report are the elements that drew the national media to the lacrosse story. Race and gender. Class and privilege. Athletics and academics. Duke's educational vision was at risk, the report said, because it has an "alternative unfriendly" environment regarding race, ethnicity, gender and sexuality.

Simone Randolph, vice president of the Black Student Alliance, said she thinks there have long been class and race problems on campus.

"In some ways it's pervasive, and in some ways it's less overt," said Randolph, a junior from Cleveland. "Lacrosse kind of shook us up and got us to look at those polarizations within our community."

Randolph is encouraged by the focus on more diversity in the classroom and recruiting more minority faculty, especially in math and science. "It's disappointing and disheartening because you would like to see some faces [of color] in those fields," she said.

She also supports the proposal for a required course about diversity in the United States.

Johnson, the blogger, has jokingly called that idea the "Group of 88 Enrollment Initiative," referring to faculty who tend to teach courses related to race and gender.

Favoring flocks

Another recommendation takes aim at Duke's long-held custom of giving priority to "selective living groups" -- essentially groups of students in fraternities or other formal or informal organizations who want to live together in dormitories.

"Access to real estate means setting the rules of social engagement, and the university must face the fact that residential space, and control of it, continues to be experienced as gender and alternative unfriendly because of the way it favors certain groups," the report said.

David Melton, a junior from Florida and president of Duke's Interfraternity Council, bristles at the suggestion that fraternities improperly benefit from the system.

"The report sort of makes it out that fraternities are trying to set up these inequities," he said. "It's just this system that's been handed down over the years. We don't have any control over it."

Student government President Elliott Wolf, who served on the campus culture group, doesn't agree with some of the recommendations, especially the ban on large group living. He said he thinks student opposition will kill the idea.

And Wolf, a math major on a full merit scholarship, doesn't want to see the university dilute its athletic prowess. He said Duke basketball is a powerful recruiting tool for top students.

"It has a great deal to do with my total experience as a Duke student," he said.

Alumnus Steven Roy Goodman, a college admissions consultant from Washington D.C., said the debate at Duke reflects polarization in American society. "Somehow the lacrosse case has moved from the lacrosse case to a condemnation of all athletes and all fraternity members," he said.

The outcome is not likely to be a radically different Duke, he said. "It's almost impossible to change the campus culture. Students are attracted to students like them."

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

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