Duke University Calls for an Attitude Adjustment

It's been more than a year since Duke University's lacrosse team held an infamous Spring Break party, where an exotic dancer claimed she was sexually assaulted by a group of players.

North Carolina's Attorney General says he's close to concluding his criminal investigation, but a committee appointed by Duke's president is expressing concern about the school's social environment.

Even before the lacrosse team put Duke in the national spotlight, the school had something of a reputation for an untamed party scene. There's a cliche on campus that Duke students "work hard and play hard," attending rigorous classes by day, but spending nights and weekends obsessed with sports and parties.

In reality, it's debatable whether Duke's parties are wilder than those at other colleges, and it's clear that not all students attend them. Still, the reputation worries campus leaders — especially after the lacrosse party, where students drank, hired strippers, and, according to Duke officials, used racial slurs.

A report by a committee of faculty, students, and alumni criticized parts of Duke's culture, and raised concerns about racial and gender attitudes on campus. University Vice President Bob Thompson says the committee found Duke's "work hard, play hard" mantra has become alarmingly pervasive.

"The pressure that this is what it means to be a Duke student is very strong," Thompson says. "And it's not clearly communicated that other ways of being... are affirmed and valued and possible on this campus, and you can still have a good time."

While the report praises Duke's academic achievements, it takes aim at sacred parts of campus life. It calls for tougher academic standards for athletes and a campus-wide effort to discourage excessive partying and alcohol use. It says Duke should require a class in racial, ethnic and gender differences. And it criticizes the unusual housing system, where members of fraternities and other preferred groups get the best dorm rooms.

Student Daniel Bowes, who worked on the report, says those so-called "select living groups" tend to divide the university by race and class.

"You have these fraternities that are the center of the social scene at Duke, and they're predominantly white and wealthy, so that puts other facets of the student body at a disadvantage," Bowes says.

Released last month, the committee's report is drawing a mixed response. On a campus that's grown weary of what's referred to here as "the lacrosse incident," many people are skeptical about the proposed changes.

Student Government President Elliot Wolf was part of the committee, but worries that the report paints an incomplete picture of the university.

"Duke students are a very intense group in whatever they do, and we do dedicate ourselves to our extracurricular time, whatever that happens to entail," Wolf says. "But it's not always dominated by alcohol and race and whatnot and these different issues on campus."

Other students say that tampering with Duke's campus culture could eliminate the things that attracted them here, like the housing hierarchy that some say helps them develop friendships, or the sports success that contributes to school spirit.

"A major draw of Duke is that we have an athletic prowess which separates us from Harvard, Princeton, Yale, which I know are schools the administration tends to compare Duke to," says Jennifer Wei, a freshman from Miami. "I think we need to keep the things that make us unique."

The future of the committee's recommendations is unclear. Duke President Richard Brodhead has said only that he hopes the report will "launch a conversation."

In the meantime, the school is moving toward toughening its student conduct standards, and Brodhead says he's committed to expanding social options on campus. He told the faculty that many students crave a social life that — in his words — isn't modeled on John Belushi.

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