“You go to Duke!? That’s awesome!! Do you go to a lot of basketball games? Have you ever met Coach K?!”
“You go to Duke? Oh. I can’t believe what those lacrosse players did to that innocent girl. And didn’t you guys just have some party with a teepee and a kimono and…”
When it comes to Duke, everyone has an opinion. By the time you reach senior status, you’ll have heard some iteration of both of the above statements at least ten times, and you likely will have a pre-fabricated response for both. In my case, the former was usually uttered by a stranger in the grocery store, at least until I learned not to wear Duke apparel in my hometown. The latter almost always came in the form of a middle-aged woman sitting next to me on a five-hour flight back to California, always ensuring memorable if only massively uncomfortable trips home.
It’s hard to pin down exactly why Duke has such a polarizing effect on people. Our men’s basketball team—considered the most popular and most hated college basketball program, depending on who you ask—certainly has a lot to do with it. Tack on the fact that we’re a private, Ivy-adjacent institution, and we’re right up there with the likes of Notre Dame, the University of Southern California and Stanford on the list of “private academic-athletic powerhouses fans love to hate.”
But still, something sets Duke apart.
Many would argue that “something” is our knack for producing scandals—most notably the 2006 lacrosse scandal—and there’s probably some truth to that. But the fact of the matter is that many other universities have suffered scandals of similar magnitude to the Duke lacrosse case and have recovered far better than we have. My theory is that it’s not so much about the scandals, but how we respond to them and, in turn, perpetuate them.
Without going into a detailed history of the lacrosse case, I’ll sum it up by saying that many members of the Duke administration and faculty were quick to presume guilt and jump on the anti-Duke bandwagon. In my opinion, the truly damaging, lasting effects of the scandal had nothing to do with lacrosse or with Crystal Mangum. What hurt us the most was our willingness to throw our own students under the bus—our desire to drag our own name through the mud, lest the mainstream media do it for us.
Sadly, this is a blueprint we, as students, seem compelled to follow in creating scandals of our own. Whether it’s Karen Owen’s senior thesis, the PiKapp “Pocahotness” Party or Asia Prime, we find a way to continually relive scandal over and over and over again.
Maybe the problem is that we are too acutely aware of what some people think of us. They think we’re an elitist, misogynistic, heteronormative, close-minded, hook-up-focused “social disaster.” And maybe we’ve started to believe it, too.
We’ve started to self-loathe. We problem-seek and we sensationalize to prove that we’re not what people think—to prove that we do care and we’re not all like that and we’re trying to fix it and it’s going to get better if only we keep protesting and signing petitions and writing letters and making national media…again.
We elevate every act of racial insensitivity to the level of national importance. In trying to make a point and take a stand, we’re creating a picture of Duke for the world that is exactly the opposite of the one we hope to achieve. Maybe, just maybe, we’re being a little too hard on ourselves.
I don’t mean to imply that these issues we lift to the level of national scandal aren’t important. They are, and we can’t grow as a University if we aren’t constantly trying to improve our campus culture. But there has to be a way to discuss these problems as a community without villainizing ourselves to the public.
Because, when I look around at my Duke community, at the school where I’ve spent one-fifth of my life thus far, what I see is not what America sees. I see a school that may have its flaws, but is spirited and accepting and open-minded and inspiring. I see a place that, despite some cracks, is pretty great. I see a school that—four years later—is still the school I’d pick today if I could do it all over again. I’m proud of what I see, and I’m the first one to admit I don’t always say that enough. We don’t say that enough. Because at the end of the day, how can we expect outsiders to like us if we can’t even like ourselves?
Here’s how I see it: The next time you want to put Duke in the headlines, make it a headline we can be proud of.
Scott Briggs is a Trinity senior and the editorial page editor. His biweekly column is part of the weekly Editor’s Note feature and runs on alternate Fridays. Send Scott a message on Twitter @SBriggsChron.