In defense of Duke
This week, Cosmopolitan Magazine published an article about Duke’s latest scandal—the oftentimes-upsetting response to the news that a member of the freshman class also happens to be a porn star. The article began as follows:
“It's no small feat being known as the infamously worst college for women in a country where , but then there's Duke University. The elite North Carolina college has a for and overall towards their female students.”
And we do—have a heinous reputation, at least.
In 2011, The Atlantic wrote: “Something ugly is going on at [Duke] University.” The “glittering social world” dominated by unintellectual, casually racist and sexually demeaning alpha males, they wrote, would “offer any parent ample reason to think twice before sending a beloved child to Duke.”
In 2009, GQ released a list of the “douchiest colleges” in America. Duke was ranked second. “They’re probably number one,” GQ wrote, “but we’d rather not rank Duke number one at anything.”
This reputation is a sharp contrast to the Duke I know—home of the Me Too Monologues and Common Ground and Who Needs Feminism, home of the five hours of PACT training I received last year and the fabulous Women’s Center and, after a few years of student activism, “one of the most extreme college sexual assault policies in history.”
To me, the dominant conversation hasn’t been one of “s and overall ”—it’s been a backlash against it.
So why are we still characterized this way?
One possibility is that that these initiatives are responses to an unusually toxic campus culture that remains dominant. Maybe Duke students generally are uncommonly crude, uncommonly racist, uncommonly misogynistic—maybe the social group I surround myself with has shielded me from this reality.
But I think another possibility is more likely.
The Duke lacrosse scandal still looms over campus. The lesson that the world learned from the scandal was that Duke was a toxic environment for women, a land of misogynistic douchery in excess.
But the few who paid attention through the case’s end learned another lesson, too: We learned how easily people assign narratives to events and people and places. We saw privileged white athletes callously partying at their elite university. We saw an underprivileged black stripper trying to make ends meet. The narrative that made sense was that the men were taking advantage of her—not that she was taking advantage of them.
And the world clung to that narrative, abandoning the principle of innocent until proven guilty, considering the social commentary inherent in the story evidence enough.
The University as a whole has taken on the characterization of the accused lacrosse players. The narrative that now makes sense is the story of the dominance of the Dukebag: the rich, white, smart-but-unintellectual misogynist unaware of his privilege.
But, like the lacrosse case, the reality of the situation is more complex.
“S, and overall ” exist on this campus—of course they do. But I’d argue that they are not Duke problems. They’re societal problems.
We don’t live on a campus where rape culture dominates, where women make less than men for the same work and where we subconsciously assert that women should be submissive and men should be dominant. We live in a world where rape culture dominates, where women make less than men for the same work and where we subconsciously assert that women should be submissive and men should be dominant.
But when we see manifestations of these issues at Duke just like we would everywhere else, they get enormous amounts of attention because they confirm the Dukebag narrative.
Believing that Duke’s faults make it unusual is an appealing story. Changing the culture in a place where the population is measured in thousands, not billions, is a much kinder task to take on.
But it’s simply not true. Cosmopolitan demonized the Duke campus’s response to Lauren’s reveal. They described how she was “outed by her classmate as a porn actress” and “is now facing Internet humiliation and rape threats.” This is terrible—it is so far from OK. But do we really believe that the reaction would have been different somewhere else? That Yale or UNC or Brigham Young University would have universally welcomed a porn star with open arms?
And, while the focus has been on the negative response, she’s seen broad support, too—the article she wrote was, as of last Saturday, tweeted nearly 1,500 times and liked on Facebook over 600 times. When I saw it shared, it was accompanied by expressions of admiration for the grace with which she was handling the situation.
So parents? Don’t think twice about sending your child to Duke. There are a lot of screwed up norms on this campus—just like there are everywhere else. We’re just lucky enough to be so infamous that we confront them regularly.
And, to the women who are about to be accepted into the Class of 2018: Don’t let the articles mislead you. Unlike the writers of those articles, my sample size of the experiences of Duke women is enormous, and I say chances are you’re going to love it here.
Ellie Schaack is a Trinity junior. Her column runs every other Monday.