Changing Duke's Culture

For Duke University's lacrosse team, some semblance of normalcy -- if not closure -- came last weekend, when the team whose previous season had been canceled amid the now-infamous rape case that roiled the campus returned to action for the first time. Thousands of fans cheered and few (if anyone) jeered, according to published reports. 

February 28, 2007

For Duke University's lacrosse team, some semblance of normalcy -- if not closure -- came last weekend, when the team whose previous season had been canceled amid the now-infamous rape case that roiled the campus returned to action for the first time. Thousands of fans cheered and few (if anyone) jeered, according to published reports. 

In the meantime, the district attorney's office in Duke's hometown of Durham, N.C., having already dropped rape charges against three former players, is still pursuing kidnapping and sexual assault charges. Richard H. Brodhead, Duke's president, has  called into question the validity of the remaining charges and called for the investigation to be turned over to an independent party.  

From the outset of the case, there was little doubt that the off-campus episode would lead to a discussion of changes on the Duke campus, and that the university would publicly air what it had learned and how it might respond.

Within weeks of the incident, Brodhead set up five committees to gauge the academic and cultural environment at Duke. On Tuesday, one of those panels, charged with assessing the undergraduate culture, released its report, which calls on Duke to adopt a series of changes aimed at encouraging more interaction -- between faculty and students, and between different subgroups of students.

“The idea is that in many ways, our campus can de defined as functioning in silos,” said Bob Thompson, chair of the initiative’s steering committee, vice provost for undergraduate education and dean of Trinity College. "If students stay in their comfort zones, if faculty stay in their comfort zones, we're not achieving our goals as an institution."

In its overview, the 24-member Campus Culture Initiative committee, a group of professors, administrators, alumni and students assembled at Brodhead's request, says that “last spring’s lacrosse event and its ensuing controversies evoked strong emotions and discussions about issues of race and gender, class and privilege, difference and respect, athletics and academics, and town and gown."

Race and Space

Race figured prominently in the lacrosse case because the team was almost entirely white and the accuser, who is black, attended a historically black institution. The report says that the student body is polarized around race, ethnicity and gender, and that some women and members of minority groups feel "devalued by the university community."

White, heterosexual males dominate the social space on campus, the report concludes. The committee is asking Duke to "challenge the purported norms for social behavior" by adding new gathering spaces for all students and by changing a longstanding housing model in which space is allocated in second-year residence halls to self-selected "living groups." Thompson says the current policy promotes homogeneous living arrangements.

Thompson said he wants to replace the current policy with one that limits the number of students who can request to live together. "You would never design the housing system [in one part of campus] the way it is now," he said. "It's not right to superimpose the social structure on the residential system if you are trying to be equitable with the distribution of space."

In a statement, Brodhead said that “while there is nothing magic about the status quo system of housing assignment ... Duke’s selective housing system is quite varied, with a complex array of benefits and challenges." He added that he wants more space for student activities on campus.

Ivan Mothershead, a Duke senior and outgoing president of the Interfraternity Council, said that if the administration does away with selective living, it will become harder to pinpoint which groups are responsible for disruptive parties or events.

The lacrosse party took place off campus, and Peter Lange, Duke's provost, said the university has already taken over housing in an area where problems had been reported. He said Duke's new center section of campus is intended to increase residential options for upperclassmen. "We want to make it as attractive to live on campus as possible," Lange said.

Drinking at Duke

Last spring, simultaneous reports produced by committees assembled by Brodhead reprimanded the lacrosse team for being “socially irresponsible when under the influence of alcohol" and reported that the conduct has "not been different in character than the conduct of the typical Duke student who abuses alcohol.”

Thompson said his committee didn't find drinking among sports teams at Duke to be of particular concern. Instead, the report says the entire campus is rooted in a culture of heavy drinking. It points to institutional data showing that students at Duke reported higher levels of drinking in college and more binge drinking than students at peer institutions. And the committee cites a clear culprit:

"It is ... Duke students in Greek letter organizations, not independents, who set Duke apart from its comparison schools," the report says.

Thompson said that while the group wanted to call attention to the Greek system, "there's no effort to single out fraternities and sororities." Lange, the provost, who will be asked to carry out the committee's recommendations, said the problem goes beyond students in the Greek system.

Mothershead, the outgoing fraternity council president, said because such a high proportion of Duke's undergraduates are in the Greek system, it skews the survey results.

“[The report] makes our campus seem like we have drinking problems that other campuses don’t, when I think these are general issues that many colleges deal with," he said.

The committee wants Duke to re-orient social life to reduce the centrality of alcohol. It also recommends clearer university policies for dealing with alcohol, better prevention and treatment services, and improved tracking and accountability.

Faculty-Student Interaction and More

Thompson said that in order to promote more faculty-student interaction, Duke should take measures to emphasize the importance of teaching during faculty review processes and allow instructors more leave time to take part in teaching and service projects.

Lange said the university needs to offer incentives to stoke the faculty's desire to be more active with students. He said decreasing some faculty members' class load is a possibility.

The commission also recommends that Duke:

  • Consider adding required courses that cover issues of race, ethnicity, gender and international study.
  • Hire more minority faculty and increase scholarships for top minority students. (The report points out that 41 percent of the members of Duke's 2010 graduating class are either black, Asian, Hispanic or Native American).
  • Promote service learning (Brodhead pointed to the recent DukeEngage program to promote civic engagement).
  • Increase the faculty's role in athletics oversight (Brodhead said faculty should provide advice to administration and to trustees, who have final oversight of athletics policy).
  • Decrease practice and travel time demands on its athletes and ensure they receive appropriate academic support.
  • Reduce the number of athletes admitted near the low end of Duke’s academic standards.

In his statement, Brodhead said none of the committee's recommendations is a "done deal," nor should any of its suggestions "be off the table." He wrote that the suggestions regarding curriculum, admissions and faculty culture will be referred to standing committees for consideration, and that the provost's office will deliver a response to this report in the fall.

KC Johnson, a professor of history at Brooklyn College who writes the blog  Durham-in-Wonderland, described Brodhead's response to the recommendations as "tepid," which he said is a sign of the president's sagging support for the review. Johnson said the committee's leaders have been overwhelmingly and unfairly critical of the athletes throughout the process and have lost momentum as the lacrosse investigation faltered.


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