Duke wants to know if applicants are sexually attracted to boys or girls…or someone else…

The reason I know this is that Duke encouraged applicants for admission this year to tell the admissions office about their sexual orientation. They not only asked them for this once on the application, they actually asked them twice. Two out of three essay topics on the 2017 application encouraged 18-year-old kids to describe their sexual orientation to Duke.

Can someone please tell me who thought this was a good idea? Why would one person, much less multiple people, come to the conclusion that this is an acceptable topic for a college application? Why would Duke think it’s okay to ask 18-year-old kids to identify their sexual orientation? Keep in mind, it’s actually illegal to ask the same question of adults on a job application.

Before you jump to conclusions, you may want to know that I am not a religious zealot or right wing extremist. I believe that the LGBT community deserves the same rights and freedoms afforded to everyone else. I see the value in diversity of all kinds…race, religion, gender, sexuality, political orientation, etc. I want my alma mater to be a place where kids are exposed to all kinds of people and opinions…allowing students to learn and develop their own sense of being, in a place where all viewpoints can be heard and respected.

With that said, I cannot fathom how Duke Admissions Office, much less the university administration, could think that asking high school kids to describe their sexuality is a good idea. Let’s examine some problems with asking kids to describe their sexuality…

For starters, that’s very private information. Despite our highly sexualized society today, that is still a topic most would consider personal and, some would say, confidential.  

What is the kid who is still “closeted” supposed to say to you? He hasn’t even told his parents he’s gay, and he’s supposed to tell Duke? Really? If he doesn’t tell Duke his secret truth, he’s supposed to weave some interesting lie about his straight life? How about the kid who is openly gay, or lesbian, or transgender, but doesn’t think it’s anyone’s business? How about the kid that has a really unusual, or even disturbing sexual orientation? Should the kid tell Duke that he is only sexually attracted to balloons and robots?  

More on point though…how about the kid who’s simply heterosexual? What in the world does he or she write about? Recent Gallup polls suggest that about 4.1 percent of the population identify themselves as LGBT. It might be a little higher or lower, but let’s say it’s less than 10 percent. So upwards of 90 percent of the applicants to Duke have to try write something unique and interesting about their sexuality, when in fact the full answer to the question for that 90 percent is simply, “I’m straight.” What more is there to write? Should they also feel compelled to weave an interesting tale, so as to write a good essay?

I understand that you prefaced this essay question by saying, “…if you like the opportunity, we invite you share more about your sexual orientation…” Maybe someone thought this nice ‘optional’ feel made it okay to ask?  Well, it’s not. Most college counselors encourage kids to answer all essay questions.

Why does Duke want to know about a student’s sexual orientation? Does Duke engage in some form of discrimination against applicants of a certain orientation? Or, does Duke discriminate in favor of certain sexualities? Is there a secret affirmative action process at Duke, as it relates to sexual orientation? Part of the second essay question asking about sexual orientation and gender identity also encourages applicants to talk about any other diversity groups to which they belong, or their cultural background. Why does Duke want to know about that?  

Additionally, none of the following schools (whose applications I am privy to) asked anything about an applicant’s sexual orientation or cultural or minority affiliation...UVA, William and Mary, Virginia Tech, UNC, Clemson, South Carolina, Johns Hopkins and a few others. If I’m president of Duke University, and my Admission’s Office put out this application, I would want to know much more about the process. I would want to know if there is an agenda at work. I would want to know what the underlying acceptance rates are for kids who answered those essay questions, and clearly identified their sexual orientation.  

Was the acceptance rate statistically higher for LGBT kids than it was for the general applicant pool? Was it lower? Was the acceptance rate statistically higher for kids who identified a cultural connection to a minority group? Was it lower?

If Duke finds statistical differences here, I think it’s critical to discuss whether or not those admissions biases are in keeping with the university’s overall goals. Is Duke making a concerted effort to be more or less diverse than the population as a whole? Are we trying to be more or less diverse than other top universities? What is the goal, and is that goal in the long-term best interest of the school? I would not presume to know what admissions biases are in the Duke’s best interest, but if there are biases, I think they should be known, analyzed and discussed.If it turns out there is a concerted, unofficial “affirmative action” of some kind involved in Duke Admissions, I also think it should be publicly known. I think that students and prospective students have a right to know what direction the University is going on all issues…academic, student life, diversity, etc. I also think that alumni and donors should be apprised of these things as well.  

I have always had many things to be proud of as a Duke alumnus. However, using a college application to canvas teenagers to talk about their sexual preferences does not make me proud.

- Sean Allburn, Pratt ’90