Embattled Duke fights 'wildly distorted image'

Staff WriterDecember 2, 2010 

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Duke University President Richard Brodhead wrote in a message that incidents created a "wildly distorted image of Duke" urging students to take more ownership of the university's image.

SARA D. DAVIS — AP file photo

  • Duke President Richard Brodhead's Nov. 15 letter to students:

    Dear Duke Students:

    Twenty-five years ago, President Terry Sanford sent a famous letter. At that time, Duke students were receiving heavy television coverage for shouting obscenities at basketball games. Writing with warm appreciation of students and their enthusiasms, "Uncle Terry" asked if Dukies really wanted to allow themselves to appear so lacking in class. He challenged them to create a picture of Duke that did them better justice, by joining their intelligence to their exercise of high spirits.

    It occurs to me that this might be time for a new letter from your uncle in the Allen Building. This fall we've had a series of incidents that, at least to a distant public, made the most boorish student conduct seem typical of Duke. Tailgate, a community celebration that regularly veered into excess and even danger, had to be canceled last week. Cartoonish images of gender relations have created offense and highlighted persistent discomforts. Like every other college in America, we have too much drinking on this campus. We've had our eyes opened to the serious costs of apparently harmless fun.

    As you know better than anyone, these episodes can create a wildly distorted image of Duke. Duke undergraduates are, to my certain knowledge, as intelligent, as thoughtful, as creative, and as concerned for others as any student body in the country. Every day you amaze us with your talents. Watching your high promise unfold is the deep pleasure of this place.

    But that doesn't mean things could not be made better here - and made better through your own acts. To the extent that there are features of student culture that strike you as less than ideal, I urge you to face up to them, speak openly about them, and have the courage to visualize a change. I myself and the members of my administration will cooperate with you fully. But we won't succeed in making Duke the best that it could be unless you make that your personal project, as you shape your own conduct and your collective life.

    I applaud the fact that students have already initiated such discussion.

    Duke's best tradition is that it's not stuck in traditions. You'll show yourselves true Duke students to the extent that you regard this university as yours to envision and yours to make. I challenge you to make it something great.

    President Richard Brodhead

— Mike Lefevre isn't as much the leader of Duke's student body these days as he is its apologist-in-chief.

That's what happens, he says, when your school keeps getting in the news for all the wrong reasons. Recent salacious, made-for-the-Internet tales of student misadventures have the student government president fighting to convince people that all Dukies aren't tactless, oversexed, drunken buffoons.

"I keep having to say 'it isn't us!' 'it isn't us!' " he said. "It gets very tiresome. I don't want to be the president who has to apologize for the student body."

Duke President Richard Brodhead also has weighed in, sending an e-mail message to students two weeks ago suggesting that they shape up.

Recent incidents of embarrassing behavior, which many students insist are isolated moments, include:

A mock thesis in which recent alumna Karen Owen detailed her sexual dalliances with 13 Duke athletes. It was detailed, specific and graphic. Not surprisingly, it proved quite popular when it surfaced on the Internet, prompting splashy coverage on NBC's "Today" show and other national news outlets.

An e-mail message from a Duke fraternity invited female students to a Halloween party - in crass terms. It implored female students to attend dressed as "a slutty nurse, a slutty doctor, a slutty schoolgirl, or just a total slut." Like the sex partner dissertation, the e-mail was forwarded to a national website that promoted it prominently. The mainstream media took notice, as well. A New York Daily News headline blared: "More controversy at Duke: Sexist Halloween invitations spark furor, debate at elite university."

The shutting down of Tailgate, a raucous, drunken outdoor student party that prefaced home football games. University officials did so after an underage sibling of a Duke student was discovered, passed out in a portable toilet.

Brodhead wrote in his message that the incidents created a "wildly distorted image of Duke." Still, he implored students to take more ownership of the university's image.

"To the extent that there are features of student culture that strike you as less than ideal, I urge you to face up to them, speak openly about them, and have the courage to visualize a change," he wrote.

'Lofty' message

The mass e-mail was out of character for Brodhead, who, students say, rarely communicates directly with them. Brodhead's message did a deft dance around the particulars of the sex list and the fraternity e-mail. He wrote that "Cartoonish images of gender relations have created offense and highlighted persistent discomforts."

Connor Southard, a Duke junior and columnist for the Duke Chronicle, the student newspaper, called Brodhead's message "extremely lofty and extremely vague."

"He was very careful not to mention specific examples of bad press," Southard said. "[But] I think it was a well-intentioned gesture. It has weight. It shows the university has acknowledged a trend."

Brodhead did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

Lefevre, the student government president, said he welcomed Brodhead's message but wished it weren't necessary. He agrees with Brodhead's assessment that these incidents feed a distorted perception of Duke students as morally suspect with feelings of entitlement.

"We know the way Duke has been portrayed is not what we are," said Lefevre, a senior from Philadelphia who recently helped organize a three-day "gender summit" on campus. "But for some reason, we are constantly singled out."

So what's that about? Is Duke the school people love to hate?

To many, Duke is known primarily for its men's basketball program, a juggernaut that sports fans seem to either adore or despise. That image spills over to the larger university - an elite, private institution tough to get into and costly to attend, said Robert Thompson, who directs the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University.

"It's a visible school," Thompson said. "When this stuff happens at Duke, it has a lot more voltage."

The lacrosse effect

But no Duke tempest would get as much attention as the recent incidents have if not for the lacrosse mess of 2006, argues Ben Edwards, a principal with Art & Science Group, a higher-education marketing firm with headquarters in Baltimore and Carrboro.

The allegation that three Duke lacrosse players raped a local exotic dancer prompted an explosion of media coverage and visceral reactions across the opinion spectrum. The players were eventually declared innocent, but not before being painted as rich and spoiled - a broad, overly general brushstroke that seemed to cover the entire student body.

"I don't think you can overlook the lacrosse scandal as the thing that makes subsequent things exacerbated," said Edwards, who worked in fundraising at Duke from 1983 to 1990.

Today's Duke undergraduates weren't on campus when the lacrosse case happened. Lefevre was a high school junior when the allegations surfaced. But it still affects his life.

"You can't say the name 'Duke' without someone mentioning the lacrosse thing," he said, adding that it makes him more aware of how outsiders view him. "Anytime we open ourselves up, we're going to get that comparison. We have to know we're under a microscope and because of our troubled past, we have to be aware of how we're perceived."

Perspective matters, said Craig Henriquez, an engineering professor and head of Duke's Academic Council. Henriquez knows well the hard-partying reputation of Duke students. But, he insists, they're also talented, promising and ambitious.

"It's important not to broadly characterize all Duke students as boorish," he said. "I just don't see it. I see students working really hard. It's not Animal House."

eric.ferreri@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4563

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