In 2008, when the youth vote helped turn North Carolina blue, only 36 percent of Duke students cast ballots.
Four years later, Duke was ranked one of the top five most politically apathetic colleges in the country, according to The Huffington Post. The other schools at the top of the list included the College of the Ozarks in Missouri, Ohio Northern University and the University of Scranton. This apathy may signal a stark difference between feeling and action at Duke—even in the landmark 2008 election.
“It’s kind of hard for me to fathom how that could have been,” said President Richard Brodhead, referring to the results of the Huffington Post ranking.
He added that in his experience, students care about “the underlying social issues” and that translates to a preference in political party. Some students involved with on-campus political groups find the lack of political action on campus unsurprising, however.
Senior Adam Lemon, former chair of Duke College Republicans, said that many people he knows are unable to find the time for politics.
“So many people care about [the election],” Lemon noted. “But whether through sheer human forgetfulness, a busy time schedule, apathy, or what have you, there’s just a number of reasons why people, regardless of how enthusiastic they are about the election, don’t turn out.”
An accurate descriptor?
In 2008, it may have been true to call Duke apathetic just by looking at the numbers, as Duke students voted at a rate more than 10 percentage points lower than youth in the nation. But it’s not clear whether “apathetic” remains an accurate descriptor of Duke students.
“I guess it depends on what you define as apathetic,” said junior Amy Wang, vice president of Duke Democrats. “It’s hard to say that you don’t have an opinion on this election because let’s be serious—this election has been very polarizing and very controversial.”
Wang described Duke as a very opinionated campus, but divided in terms of involvement. She also agreed with Lemon that a lot of it has to do with students’ schedules.
“It’s kind of one or the other,” Wang said—either you’re involved actively, or not at all.
Visible measures of political engagement are not always evident. John Aldrich, Pfizer-Pratt university professor of political science, remains optimistically skeptical.
“I don’t see rallies,” he said. “I don’t see signs, I don’t see people wearing buttons so it doesn’t look like that many people are engaged—but I haven’t done my polling.”
Although Aldrich admits he doesn’t know what calculations went into the Huffington Post's ranking, he said that Duke has “one of the more engaged student populations” he has seen. Despite the lack of visible activism, Aldrich said he believes that the political engagement of Duke students is at least on par with engagement on other campuses.
"They've got it wrong," he said, confidently dismissing the Huffington Post's conclusion.