Dear Duke, Please Stop Embarrassing Duke

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Duke University has enjoyed a steady rise in status since it was converted from Trinity College by a huge bequest in 1924. But then, every once in awhile, something goes terribly wrong and people start to hate Duke again.

There was that whole lacrosse trouble back in 2006. Earlier this year a medical researcher at the school was fired after accusations of plagiarism. Richard Nixon went to law school there! Also the school was totally founded by a cigarette company. Sometimes an institution with a $5 billion endowment just can’t catch a break.

And then this fall Duke just seemed to do one awful, douchebaggy thing after another, prompting Forbes’s Kashmir Hill to observe that “Thanks to a series of stories this fall, Duke is increasingly perceived as a place where sex and alcohol trump scholarly pursuits.” That’s putting it mildly.

Last week, on November 15, Duke’s president, Richard Brodhead, sent the following email to the entire Duke community:

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 [Brigham Young? Houghton College? Wheaton?], 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.

This comes after Duke students found a 15-year-old boy passed out in a portable toilet at a campus event on November 6, two Duke fraternity houses sent out party invitations consisting of slut references and Helen Keller jokes on October 30, and a recent Duke graduate’s Power Point of her entire sexual history at the school made its way around the Internet in September.

Whoa, that’s trouble. The president concludes, “You’ll show yourselves true Duke students to the extent that you regard this university as yours to envision and yours to make.” That’s college administer-speak for “please be less stupid.” [Image via]

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer