One of many cases filed by members of the 2005-2006 men’s lacrosse team against the University and additional defendants was settled last week. As we reflect on this incident in which exotic dancer Crystal Mangum falsely accused three Duke lacrosse players of rape at a 2006 team party, its place in the broader history of Duke becomes clearer. We can begin to see how it has molded and continues to mold our campus culture to this day. For many people both within and outside of the Duke community, this case continues to define Duke’s identity. Today, we discuss an approach to historicizing the lacrosse scandal in terms of how it has affected and continues to affect administrators, students and media coverage of the University.
This incident has unfortunately had a stifling effect on our administration. The lacrosse scandal exploded early in President Richard Brodhead’s first term, and it has scarred the administration’s ability to comment on Duke’s social culture. Student engagement has been a weakness of the Brodhead administration. Even though there are surely other causes, it is undeniable that the lacrosse scandal had a substantial role in its shy behavior. Only somewhat recently has the administration shown signs of increased confidence in addressing social culture—canceling Tailgate, establishing a tougher stance on hazing, sending sporadic emails about social culture and the like. Nevertheless, their attempts are rare and usually superficial.
The lacrosse scandal breathed life into an unflattering narrative about Duke social life that has persisted ever since. This enduring narrative is one of rowdy, belligerent parties—with sexist and racist overtones—and the entitled students who attend them. The narrative breeds a vicious cycle premised on real cultural issues, as we have seen in the Kappa Sigma fraternity “Asia Prime” party debacle, but it also propagates them. Freshmen arrive on East Campus with preconceived notions of Duke social life and, enabled by upperclassmen, are pressured to live them out. We begin to assume that this is what the college experience looks like, and so we fulfill it. The lacrosse scandal is emblematic of the Duke culture wars, and its continuing resonance shows that the war is still being waged. Most unfortunately, the Duke lacrosse narrative has meant other narratives—ones of alternative, less extreme social subcultures—cannot take hold. The lacrosse scandal has crowded them out, in both our minds and those of the national media.
We see the strength of this version of Duke’s social life even in media coverage of our controversial instances. When we are in the national spotlight for a racist party or a sex PowerPoint gets leaked, it is rarely seen as a one-off incident. It fits into the pre-existing conception of Duke’s culture. Countless other aspects of Duke—such as its diverse group of selective living groups—do not fit into the mainstream narrative and are regrettably ignored.
At this point, we ought to take ownership of the story and reflect on how it shapes our Duke experiences today and going forward. As this particular chapter of lacrosse comes to a close, we should not forget it. Instead we should process it and think consciously about how it affects our culture even still.