A few days ago in the Q+A post, I included a couple of questions from people suggesting that the case would negatively affect admissions. In response, I noted that the Trustees should have become more involved in ensuring a fair education environment for all students.
A correspondent, properly, took me to ask, noting that I also should have stated that this year’s application figures for Duke were strong. For 2007, Duke had 18,495 applicants, down about 4 percent compared from 2006, but up 10.4 percent from 2004.
It’s unclear from these statistics whether any internal demographic shifts occurred within this pool—i.e., did applications from Northeastern whites, especially white males, decline? Was the average SAT score of the applicant pool higher, lower, or about the same as in previous years? But despite such uncertainties, it is clear that the lacrosse case did not cause a significant drop in admissions applications for 2007. (Applications for early admission did drop sharply, for reasons that are uncertain.)
If, then, overall application figures are fairly healthy, why should Trustees concern themselves with this issue at all?
For most of last year, it seemed (appropriately) that Duke officials worried that the negative images from the scandal itself and from students’ behavior more generally could affect the application pool—items such as the Rolling Stone article, or the caricatured image of the lacrosse players in the national press, or the fact that Duke could have a campus culture that might tolerate or even encourage the kind of horrific act that the accuser alleged.
Yet by the fall, these concerns no longer seemed warranted. The lacrosse program was restored and has received generally good publicity; most people seem (correctly) to believe that the Rolling Stone article was more an example of bad journalism than an accurate portrayal of campus life; and it appears about the only people who continue to accept the “campus culture tolerates rape” argument are a (dwindling?) faction of the Group of 88 and their allies on the Campus Culture Initiative.
Moreover, in the weeks before the 2007 application deadline, President Brodhead forcefully demanded due process for Duke students by advocating Mike Nifong’s recusal, and by lifting the suspensions of Reade Seligmann and Collin Finnerty. Such actions, no doubt, left the impression to parents of potential applicants that Duke, as a whole, had approached the case in a fair-minded fashion.
For many who have followed the University’s response (and especially the response of the arts and sciences faculty) to the case more closely, however, a different attitude exists. For instance, some segment of the alumni community is clearly distressed with the University’s conduct. To take one example, earlier this week, Howard Mora (Engineering ’92) wrote to the Alumni Admissions Advisory Committee to say that he no longer could conduct alumni interviews of applicants. He wrote as someone “proud to be a representative of Duke,” someone who could “speak with pride when describing how the Duke faculty and administration support their students.”
Based on the rush to judgment by many in the arts and sciences, however, and their subsequently refusal to acknowledge their actions, Mora stated that he could “no longer look prospective students in the face and tell them that Duke is a place of opportunity and fairness. However, I do not wish to tell them that Duke may be a place where they will meet prejudice based on the color of their skin or their family’s economic status.”
In the end, as Mora’s letter suggested, no elite university, including Duke, can prosper if impressions develop that its faculty dislikes a sizable portion of the school’s student body. Three types of faculty misconduct appear to have occurred last spring.
The first and most blatant (but also rarest) was outright grade retaliation—the sort of issue that has appeared in the Kim Curtis scandal.
The second was a belief among some arts and sciences faculty—figures such as Karla Holloway, Anne Allison, Grant Farred, Peter Wood, Houston Baker, Wahneema Lubiano, and Alex Rosenberg, for example—that while all other Duke professors were required to adhere to the Faculty Handbook’s requirement that faculty treat Duke students with respect, the Handbook’s provisions did not apply to them.
The third was an issue raised by Physics Professor Emeritus Lawrence Evans in a letter to the Chronicle earlier this week. He wrote,
The real Duke issue is not being addressed, at least not publicly. It is not the ad from the Gang of 88, which mainly represents a missed opportunity to keep one's mouth shut-hardly unusual for academics. What matters is what went on in the classrooms during the weeks after the story broke.
I know for a fact that some faculty immediately wanted the whole lacrosse team expelled; if that opinion was kept privately it did little harm. However one hears stories, many with the ring of truth, about classroom discussions and even instructor’s lectures on the subject that clearly assumed the worst and suggested retribution against the players. There is even a case in which retribution may have been taken in terms of grades. It is these things that ought to be brought into the open and discussed, because if true they outweigh in importance to Duke anything that seems to have happened at the Party From Hell.
To my knowledge, Duke has never investigated this issue.
The question of overall faculty bias has received some national attention, chiefly through the work of David Horowitz. But many of Horowitz’s allegations are overblown, and his proposed solution is unworkable. (I should note I co-sponsored an American Historical Association amendment condemning both Horowitz’s idea and campus speech codes.)
The Duke faculty’s response to this incident, however, is much different than the sort of complaints that Horowitz has offered. The issue at Duke centers on attitudes and behavior toward the students, flowing from a “groupthink” atmosphere but focused very much on the campus, not broader political questions. This question, obviously, has received a good deal of attention in the blog. But until the group of articles that appeared after the ‘clarifying’ letter (Abrams, Podhoretz, Allen, Laney) it hadn’t really seeped into the mainstream. And all those articles came after the application deadline.
The administration’s response appears to be to ignore this issue and hope it goes away. I think most college administrations probably would respond in this fashion—now that the immediate crisis is passed, attempting to discipline professors who misbehaved risks a faculty revolt. This policy, however, is risky, because it assumes the issue of faculty misconduct won’t get much subsequent attention. The administration could very well be correct on this point—but if a public image subsequently emerges surfaces that the administration did nothing to address the problem, this almost certainly will have an impact on admissions.
It seems to me this is where the Trustees should have stepped in. With institutional leverage that Brodhead does not possess, they could have made clear that all who engaged in misconduct will be held accountable—even if only through a letter in the file or some form of professional wrist-slapping—to a standard that Duke, as an institution, will not tolerate faculty who disrespect the school's own students.
By not acting, the Trustees have essentially allowed a long-term problem to fester, and are gambling that it’s not going to come to light. Their gamble might pay off. But if it doesn’t, the result could be very costly.
[Slight delay in posting today; internet problems.]