This week, The Chronicle reported that Project Wild—a popular pre-orientation program for incoming first-years—had been suspended this year after 23 students were cited for trail blocking and public nudity on a previous trip. Although the two-week wilderness experience will be reinstated after a probationary period, the details of the revelation have stirred controversy among members of the Duke community. This particular incident echoes a common conflict groups and individuals often find themselves within the insulated Duke bubble: tension between being accustomed to Duke’s rules while also being subject to the penalties of actual laws outside of campus. Today, we evaluate this fine line between being liable to the university and being bound by the law that governs the world outside the Gothic Wonderland.

Organizations on campus often learn that whether or not they are subject to legal repercussions from local governments, Duke is almost always involved. Last spring, The Chronicle published an article detailing a long quasi-legal battle AEPi fraternity had with the Office of Student Conduct (OSC) regarding an underage drinking incident at one of their off-campus fraternity houses. While there was much complexity to the situation and the ensuing battle with OSC, the fraternity—despite violating Durham policies and being off campus—was judged by the Duke standard. 

In many ways, Duke feels like its own municipality, subject to its own rules and stipulations. Within our walls, we are generally overseen by our own own police force, our own conduct system and, until recently, our own emergency medical services. Operating within this quasi-legal government can feel surreal for students. Given the insulated nature of the University, a Duke-based conduct system may seem like one that is best equipped to approach a situation with a holistic understanding of a student’s situation, theoretically leading to a more fair result. This system is not without flaws, however. Actually, many argue that this system is entirely flawed—it grants the school far too much power. With Resident Assistants and Honor Council, a “jury of peers” takes on an even more literal meaning when all of these representatives are being chosen from a relatively small student population. A quasi-legal system with no oversight allows a private university to set its own rules, to modify and to bend them at will. Still, the system has its benefits. The largest benefit being that, generally, it provides insulation from the harsher consequences of the outside world.

Hundreds of miles off-campus at Pisgah National Forest, the 2016 cohort of Project Wild acted outside of Duke’s legal protection. Most likely, on campus, public nudity would have led to group sanctions but little individual repercussions. As evidenced by Duke’s previous handling of student misdemeanors like Greek life infractions, student groups that break rules while on campus can often be punished by administrators in lieu of any particular students facing actual legal repercussions. While the fairness of this is up for debate, it does signal a sense of legal  invincibility privileged towards Duke students in the face of such judgements. 

We are so accustomed to living in a legal bubble of sorts that tacitly accepts some level of underage drinking and other forms of “criminal” activity. Possession of marijuana and other drugs, underage drinking or distribution to minors and petty theft of laptops and money are crimes that individuals outside this bubble have had their lives ruined for committing. We must have a better understanding of this privilege and realize that OSC hearings are guided by a completely different set of principles than those of our criminal justice system. Intentionally or unintentionally, we find ourselves as beneficiaries of a campus-wide pseudo-legal system with an interest in protecting us for the sake of the University’s reputation. Therein lies the central conflict. We will not always have this safety net, and while we cannot be blamed for using it, we should at least be mindful of it, especially when we venture off campus.