The independent news organization of Duke University

Diversity debate continues

This is the first article in a series this week examining institutional diversity.

Duke is the most racially diverse university in the country. Right?

If that sounds strange to you, you're not alone. Although a number of publications with various goals and methodologies have recently cited Duke as tops among its peers in diversity, administrators have questioned the rankings' value and have insisted that the University still has a long way to go.

The most prominent recognition of the University's diversity efforts was a summer 2002 article in the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education that ranked Duke first among highly selective universities for its success in integrating African Americans.

Provost Peter Lange said Duke's diversity is strong in ways that are not always appreciated, but that the University has yet to fully achieve the type of community that he and other administrators seek.

"You can have a diverse community, but one in which one [group] is so prominent that all the others feel peripheral. Or you can have a really plural community... where there isn't one really dominant [group]," he said. "I think that Duke is moving from the first to the second, but we've got a ways to go, still."

In the 2004 edition of the 351 Best Colleges, published by The Princeton Review, Duke ranked 19th in the category of "little race/class interaction." Indeed, the authors of the JBHE study noted that the purely quantitative nature of the rankings caused many important aspects of diversity to be omitted.

"Clearly there are other factors that go into the overall racial climate at a given university which cannot be measured by the standard indices of institutional racial integration," the authors wrote. "These include attitudes of faculty toward black students, patterns of residential segregation on campus, attitudes of white students toward racial minorities, and particularly, the seriousness and frequency of campus incidents of racial animosity or violence."

Residential self-segregation has existed at the University for years, although the requirement that all sophomores live on West Campus beginning in 2002-2003 caused a dramatic spike in the number of black students living there. The percentage of black students living on West Campus increased from roughly a third to over 50 percent the year the change was made.

The JBHE ranking was positively noted by senior administrators upon its release, as President Nan Keohane called it encouraging in her October 2002 address to the Board of Trustees and it was also highlighted in the 2002-2003 annual report.

Another recent ranking, the Black Enterprise's 2003 Top 20 Colleges for African Americans, placed Duke 12th overall and fifth among non-historically black schools.

"If you look at Duke's ability to recruit students of color, and our success in doing that... we've been uniquely successful," said Senior Vice President for Public Affairs and Government Relations John Burness. "There's no doubt that the recruiting efforts led by Peter Lange have now created an environment where it's no longer rare that outstanding African American faculty come to Duke."

By the numbers, at least, Duke has achieved tremendous success in increasing its racial diversity. Thirty-six percent of this year's incoming freshman class are students of color, compared to 24 percent of the students who entered in 1996. Under the Black Faculty Strategic Initiative, the number of African American faculty members increased from 44 in 1993 to 99 this fall, and follow-up efforts initiated this year will work to boost other races' representation as needed.

Both Lange and Dean of Trinity College Robert Thompson, however, cautioned against too much self-congratulation.

"My response to that [JBHE] poll was, 'I'm pleased that at least in some situations we're doing well, because we're working on diversity,'" Thompson said. "We also know that you can't be self-satisfied."

Lange said the positive rankings could be a trap if they lead to complacency. "Making that diversity real on the ground in terms of the experiences of our students, faculty and staff and making that diversity have the kind of contribution we want takes a lot of effort," he said.

Underscoring the lack of unanimity about Duke's diversity, the 2004 U.S. News and World Report college rankings placed Duke 65th in diversity among all colleges and 10th among the schools included in the JBHE survey.

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