Duke is a pretty appealing place. We boast a first-class faculty, a brilliant student body and stirring architecture. We are generous to the community of Durham, house the Talent Identification Program and other youth development activities and serve as a bastion of sanity in the seedy world of college athletics. There is a lot to like.
And yet, it seems, Duke is far from liked outside its extended community?and by that I mean the campus, pockets of New York and New Jersey and a few other outposts east of the Mississippi. For the rest of the country, resentment is the norm. At best, we amuse and titillate the world with our baby oil wrestling; at worst, we are thoroughly hated.
There are two central causes for this: one simple, one complex. You?ve probably already guessed the simple one, which is that Duke men?s basketball teams have wreaked havoc over the rest of the field for nearly two decades. This has set up a ?Yankees complex? whereby fans of weaker teams try to check the dominant team and return to a more multi-polar league. You can?t fault Coach K(aiser?) for his teams? record of excellence; the resentment in this case is jealousy and nothing more.
But other schools have been equally if not more dominant in major sports, from Florida State and Nebraska in football to Kentucky and Arizona in basketball, and these universities are seldom despised except by their immediate rivals. So athletic prowess is only part of the story.
The other, complex cause for America?s Duke disdain is much more interesting and probably more important. There is a perception out there?whether consciously held or just ?felt??that Duke tries to have it both ways on a number of salient issues and does not play by the unwritten rules that keep universities in check. By eschewing the rules, Duke and its most visible components?students, teams and projects?are seen as arrogant. Furthermore, perceiving that Duke lacks any systemic check to its ambition, outsiders take it upon themselves to hate Duke as a subconscious external check.
That may have blown your mind, so here is a bit of explanation about how Duke tries to have it both ways. It starts with the balance between athletics and academics, which is supposed to be a trade-off. Harvard gets the Nobel prizes, FSU gets the championships and Joe Q. Floridian gets to take solace in the fact that his Seminoles could whoop those Harvard nerds any day.
Duke doesn?t play by those rules. We have a perennial top-five team in both basketball and the classroom, and the failures of our football team are a meager consolation to the apoplectic Mr. Floridian. Stanford is the only other school that so blatantly skirts the athletic/academic trade-off, but its championships are in marginal sports and its success in the big-ticket sports has been uneven.
There are other areas where Duke tries to have it both ways, less obvious nationwide but keenly perceived within North Carolina. We are a young university but feign grand tradition. We are Southern when it suits us but never allow it to define us?and as any Southerner knows, you either have it always or not at all. We make our big imprint right down the road from North Carolina?s most beloved university, constantly stealing its thunder. We make undeniable contributions to the community, but close ourselves off on East Campus with a wall and on West Campus with labyrinthine roads. We can say we are open and accessible and be right; we can say we are elite and be right.
We don?t pause for afternoon tea. We don?t stop and enjoy the wildlife. Duke is a barreling powerhouse hell-bent on excellence, rules and social graces be damned. And just like that uncompromising girl who gets perfect grades and is beautiful and parties on the weekend and leads with integrity, Duke rubs people the wrong way because it makes their almae mater pale in comparison.
There is nothing we can do to make ourselves more popular short of lightening up. External resentment is, perhaps, the inevitable price of unharnessed ambition and never accepting the mediocre. As long as we can make new rules and challenge the status quo, we will find ourselves in the forefront of higher education, picking up new enemies for all the right reasons.
Andrew Collins is a Trinity senior and a former University Editor for The Chronicle. His column appears on Tuesdays.
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