Update 12/22/06: The rape charges have been dropped.
Update 05/15/06: Having been in North Carolina since last Wednesday (part of the time on the Duke campus, where I had a really nice visit), I am actually geographically closer to the situation than at any point since it all started. The whole thing is starting to sound really fishy and it’s certainly possible that a rape did not occur. Bad behavior, definitely, but not necessarily rape. I stand by my criticisms of Duke culture below, but the case is starting to seem muddy at the very least. It’s also theoretically possible that we’re seeing the effects of excellent legal and PR work by the attorneys of the accused. Whatever happens, I hope the guilty are punished severely, and that includes the accuser if false allegations were made. For now, I’m going to stand back and watch the proceedings and hope the situation hasn’t gotten so twisted that justice can’t be served either way. In the meantime, Duke continues to do an excellent job of providing information to the community.
Update 05/16/06: OK, folks, I’m not approving any more comments on this thread unless someone says something new and insightful on either side. I left some wretched stuff in the comments, but frankly, I’m not interesting in being in the top 10 search results for any more searches like “duke lacrosse accuser whore.” You’ve made your point.
Original post begins below, unedited from the original
The alleged incident in Durham involving the Duke lacrosse team is troubling (to its credit, Duke has done an excellent job of covering itself). I’ve been debating whether to write about it for days now, but it’s been occupying my thoughts a lot lately as I have reflected on my own Duke experience as a student there from fall 1990 until the end of 1993, when I finished my degree (a semester early). I can’t say whether or not the incident in question happened, but I can say one thing for certain: Duke continues to have a serious problem with arrogance and entitlement, and it’s nothing new, unfortunately. At the very least, anyone associated with Duke should be ashamed at how believable the whole situation is.
This is not just about the lacrosse team (though they have been a problem for years), it’s about the institutions and traditions that Duke holds most dear in its public image, like basketball. When I was at Duke, I remember hearing the celebrated “Cameron Crazies” chant smugly “That’s all right, that’s ok, I’m gonna be your boss one day” on the rare occasions when the Duke basketball team would lose. Even worse, taunting chants of “State school! State school!” would fill Cameron when the opposing team was a public school — and everyone thought this was funny. I thought it verged on sickening, and still do. To me, it insulted people like my dad, who took seven years alternating among working in tobacco fields, going to class, and generally doing whatever it took to pay for his engineering degree at NC State — a state school.
I commend Duke University President Richard Brodhead for taking swift action and clearly communicating his thoughts on the matter to Durham and the Duke community in this letter. President Brodhead is still fairly new to Duke, and no one can expect him to make fundamental changes overnight. The state of affairs at Duke is clearly something that he inherited (his presidency has had its share of crises already).
Before going on, I want to state that I really have nothing to gain personally by criticizing Duke at this point in my life. In lots of ways, though I didn’t come from a wealthy family, I have been the beneficiary of the privilege that an environment like Duke takes for granted. I learned a lot at Duke, graduated with honors, and I’ve had a great career. It seems entirely reasonable that I will be able to send my children to a university like Duke if I chose to do so without enduring the financial pain that my parents bore in sending me there. Life has been good to me.
But let’s be honest: no matter how you slice it, Duke is primarily an institution of privilege. President Brodhead tries to counter this notion somewhat in his letter:
Duke is not, as some have reported, just an institution for the children of wealthy families. This university admits undergraduates without regard to their family’s ability to pay, and we invest more than $50 million a year to enable the 40% of students who receive grant aid to afford a Duke education.
That’s true, but look at some of the raw numbers in a different way:
- The average full cost of attendance at Duke for 2005-06: $44,005 (Source: Duke Financial Aid)
- 42% of the entering Class of 2008 received need-based aid (Source: Duke Financial Aid)
I won’t go into all the factors that determine need-based aid, because Duke explains the process pretty well. The thing that strikes me is that when you look at the numbers above, 58% of the entering Class of 2008 were determined not to need aid. In other words, the families of those students could afford to fork out $44K for one year of college. Sure, Duke is not an institution “just” for wealthy families, but for whatever reason, a full 58% of the last incoming class was able to afford the $44K price tag for the first year. This paints a portrait of an astoundingly wealthy student body (or at least a massive gap between rich and poor within Duke).
Of course, wealth is as much an accident of birth as poverty, but it carries more responsibility, or at least some self-awareness. I knew wealthy kids at Duke who were both self-aware and responsible, and those stories of Duke good are being told. In my experience, though, the displays of mindless arrogance when I was there were shocking at times. One incident that I remember clearly is a fellow student from out-of-state asking me if I had gotten into Duke on an affirmative action program for people from North Carolina. Seriously. Another time, I had taken a summer job working on Duke’s Central Campus, painting student apartments and mowing grass. As I was mowing, I saw an acquaintance from a class the prior semester walk by and he motioned to me. I turned off my lawn mower and walked over to him. He asked me what I was doing. I said, “working.” He said, “Why?” I said, “Because I need the money.” He looked seriously puzzled. I had honestly never met people like that until I went to Duke. I could go on and on with stories like the ones above.
When I look at President Brodhead’s letter, the “Campus Culture Initiative” he describes jumps out at me:
The task of the Initiative is to evaluate and suggest improvements in the ways Duke educates students in the values of personal responsibility, consideration for others, and mutual respect in the face of difference and disagreement.
My freshman year (fall of 1990), we had a similar initiative called “Duke’s Vision.” I don’t remember the details or if there was any particular catalyst behind it, but I do remember that I invoked “Duke’s Vision” in a published letter to The Chronicle about some t-shirts that were surprisingly popular on campus. The t-shirts read: “Duke University: We’re not snobs, we’re just better than you.” Were these t-shirts just more zany “fun” from the same folks who brought you the “Cameron Crazies”? I didn’t think so then, and still don’t now. There’s something sinister and just plain nasty about it — why would the already over-privileged feel the need to rub it in? Again, this attitude certainly didn’t reflect everyone at Duke, but it was broad enough that an entrepreneur recognized it as a legitimate business opportunity, and that’s sad.
It’s deeply disturbing that some of the identical behaviors and attitudes I experienced (as one of the privileged!) are being echoed so clearly in events fifteen years later. I think the best thing I can do now is raise children who don’t take privilege for granted, or even worse, use it as a weapon against the less privileged. Whether the allegations against the Duke lacrosse team turn out to be true or not, the fact that it seems so plausible makes me less proud to be associated with Duke.