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PR Hell: Media Misrepresentations

In early October, an unsavory Powerpoint that Karen Owen, Trinity ’10, intended to be seen by three friends spread from campus listservs to the blogosphere to the Today Show and The New York Times.

“I thought, ‘Oh no, not Duke again,’” said Laura Sessions Stepp, author of “Unhooked,” a book that analyzes the hook-up culture through the experiences of students at Duke and other universities.

In early November, offensive e-mails sent by members of Sigma Nu and Alpha Delta Phi fraternities stoked gender tensions on campus and triggered a series of posts on Gawker and other sites.

“In all seriousness, Duke really just needs to chill out with being Duke for a while,” Gawker quipped. “Seriously guys. Just... take a break. Just don’t be Duke for a while.”

Yet precisely what it means to be Duke these days is a rather loaded question.

At the Nov. 6 Tailgate, the 14-year-old sibling of a Duke student was found unconscious in a Porta Potty. Vice President for Student Affairs Larry Moneta decided to call the event—a campus tradition if there is one—to a halt, inspiring countless Facebook status changes and a flurry of blog posts to boot.

It got so bad that even President Richard Brodhead entered the digital fray with an e-mail to the student body Nov. 15 that was swiftly published by The Huffington Post.

“This fall we’ve had a series of incidents that, at least to a distant public, made the most boorish student conduct seem typical of Duke,” Brodhead wrote. “We’ve had our eyes opened to the serious costs of apparently harmless fun. As you know better than anyone, these episodes can create a wildly distorted image of Duke.”

The series of incidents, mounting by the week, had the makings of a public relations nightmare. But Mike Schoenfeld, vice president for public affairs and government relations, said his job has been no more challenging this semester than any other.

“Inevitably every campus is going to have just enough happening at it to confirm stereotypes. We have to work extra hard to not have that stereotype of Duke become sort of hardened in the public consciousness,” he said. “The abhorrent behavior of a small group of people is not going to torpedo the University’s reputation. It’s a tremendous distraction, but at the same time we shouldn’t be apocalyptic about the impact.”

Schoenfeld noted that the media loves spinning tales of hard-partying college students who are quick to turn to the bottle and hop into bed. It is a narrative devoured by many, and for the past several years Duke’s gothic spires have often been the perfect backdrop.

Asked to sum up Duke, Leah Finnegan, college editor for The Huffington Post replied: “It’s the Southern jock school. It’s always been up there on the list of schools students dream about going to, and it’s very all-American. It’s like if the University of Michigan and Yale met and combined.”

Sex and prestige may as well have wed in a ceremony in the Chapel. Students are commended for being accepted to Duke, but a lacrosse joke often follows.

Dean of Students Sue Wasiolek noted that in the wake of the lacrosse case, stories about Duke student’s extracurricular activities have been pursued with greater vigor and found a larger audience. The scandal, among the University’s darkest hours, is often referenced, even in the absence of a clear tie. Several times each year, Vice President for Student Affairs Larry Moneta said he feels as if he is still living in the shadow of the case.

“I don’t know whether it’s a 10-year shadow or a 30-year shadow or it’s over in another week,” he said.

Stepp said it is no wonder that journalists write about Duke so reliably. With the background of the lacrosse case already written, they have only to describe the latest sordid chapter in what they see as a continuing saga.

“I feel for the students there and the administrators, they literally can’t do anything without the media picking up on it,” she said. “It’s kind of like the kid at school who gets made fun of once and then everybody starts jumping on that child.”

Finnegan, of the Huffington Post, has less sympathy for Duke.

“I don’t think it’s really us going after Duke,” she said. “Duke doesn’t hesitate to provide us with fodder.”

At the heart of the debate is a question of agency. Has Duke been mercilessly typecast? Or, in the ways they conduct themselves and the ways they regard their peers, are Dukies unwittingly perpetuating the stereotype?

When Wasiolek received word of the infamous thesis, her concern was not for the University’s reputation but the project’s infamous author. Her first move was to call up Karen Owen herself, to see how she was doing and confirm that the PowerPoint was her work in the first place. In Wasiolek’s mind, it did not seem outside the realm of possibility that someone else had circulated the document as a sick joke—stranger things have happened in the digital age.

Owen confirmed it—the PowerPoint was indeed hers. But the document quickly grew to encompass something that dwarfed her.

Stepp investigated the hook-up culture at Duke before the topic became a campus cliché. Tom Wolfe’s “I am Charlotte Simmons,” a book widely seen as a veiled critique of the state of social relationships at Duke, had not yet been published. The furor of the lacrosse case was still unimaginable.

Duke didn’t invent casual sex, but it has become the poster child, Stepp explained. Stepp is quick to note that the senior thesis says little about hooking up—it is a story about sexual aggression. But it fits with a larger narrative of Duke students as sexually promiscuous.

“I’ve covered enough universities to know that what happens at Duke happens at other campuses, it’s simply that it’s now become an easier target,” Stepp said.


The lacrosse case, the saga of a crime that was never committed, is used to draw broad conclusions about sex on campus, which barely ever happens either—or at least much less than one might think.

In the wake of the lacrosse case, Suzanne Shanahan, associate director of the Kenan Institute for Ethics and an associate research professor of sociology, was perplexed. The media provided a torrid narrative of sex on campus, but her students told of far different experiences. She did not know whether the media was sensationalizing the matter or her students were bashful about detailing their love lives in the company of a professor, but she was determined to get to the bottom of the matter.

What she found after surveying 1,500 freshmen and seniors in the Fall of 2007 surprised her. If anything, Dukies seemed to have a little bit less sex than their peers. According to Shanahan’s findings, just a third of Duke students participate in the hook-up culture, and most of those individuals stick to making out. About the same proportion of students are in relationships. A third of those on campus abstain from romantic entanglements completely.

Perhaps most intriguing to Shanahan and her colleagues, two-thirds of freshmen are virgins, a category to which one-third of seniors still belong. Karen Owen, the “subjects” of her thesis and the students Rolling Stone interviewed for its notorious piece “Sex and Scandal at Duke” represent a tiny subset—less than 10 percent—of the student body that has multiple sex partners and engages in adventurous behavior in the bedroom. Shanahan identified a common flaw in the research of Rolling Stone and other publications.

“They only talked to people who were hooking up,” she said. “If you only talk to pyromaniacs, you might think everyone’s setting things aflame.”

Yet though most students reported little experience with casual sex and reported similar activity among their friends, they still professed a belief in the prevalence of the hook-up culture on campus. Students still trusted the media’s account, though they saw something very different with their own two eyes, Shanahan said.

“I think the media’s giving people outside of Duke and people inside of Duke a distorted picture of what’s really happening on campus,” she said. “That affects what students think is possible for themselves and for their friends.”

The gap between a student’s experience and what they perceive to be normal can be a source of great angst, Shanahan noted.

“People imagine that if they’re not living up to what’s happening in Rolling Stone, they’re not having the quintessential Duke experience,” she said. “If you have a sense everyone is doing it and you can’t imagine participating, it does cause a moment of pause: What’s wrong with me?”

Administrators and students agree that while Karen Owen couldn’t be further from the typical Duke student, she and the other unwitting starlets of the semester’s headlines do shine the spotlight on a streak of excessive behavior in which a minority of students partakes. But opinions abound on how to proceed.

“To the extent that there are features of student culture that strike you as less than ideal, I urge you to face up to them, speak openly about them, and have the courage to visualize a change,” Brodhead wrote to students. “I myself and the members of my administration will cooperate with you fully. But we won’t succeed in making Duke the best that it could be unless you make that your personal project, as you shape your own conduct and your collective life.”

Stepp recalled attending an on-campus event in which counselors devoted the better part of an hour to discussing sex toys and closed with a quick outline of healthy relationships.

“In my mind, 50 minutes on sex toys and 10 minutes on relationships, there needs to be a bit more balance,” she said. “Student counseling services are reluctant to even suggest a kind of dialogue on these issues lest they be seen as puritanical, and as a result colleges have taken a completely hands-off approach. Their idea is students will learn this on their own. You can debate that.”

Some of the intrigue of the story may be in Duke’s bones. The university’s location in the genteel South makes it a much more striking backdrop for tales of sex and scandal.

“There’s this kind of shock value that it wouldn’t have if it came from Los Angeles. UCLA—oh well, that’s L.A.,” Stepp said. “You can’t say that about Duke. Even the architecture—the grounds say grace and beauty and etiquette and ladies and gentlemen, so when the media discovers that they’re just like everyone else, there’s a certain fascination with it.”

Yet even the grounds can mislead. The gothic towers that have served as the backdrop for TV newscaster’s stand-ups and countless movie scenes evoke a time long ago. The steps were carefully designed with shallow dips in the middle to suggest centuries of scholarly foot traffic. But the buildings were erected in the 1930s, sketched by an architect envisioning a statelier era and intended to seem dated from the day they opened their doors.

A place that looks as historic and traditional as any other has precious little history to call its own. Duke as we know it was founded about a century ago, and it has only had the world-class status of which it is so proud for about 25 years. Duke is an institution still in its adolescence, sometimes fraught with concern about how it measures up against its peers.

Wasiolek sees Duke’s youth as a source of strength and vulnerability. She noted Stanford University’s relatively recent founding in 1891.

“Does 20 or 30 years matter? I guess it does,” she said. “I do think that youth has something to do with it. Of course we consider that to be our benefit that we are young and nimble and willing to look at new ways of doing things. But we’ve not perhaps developed that historic, protective shield that the older institutions have.”

Schoenfeld noted that Dukies like himself who graduated in the 1980s have seen their diplomas appreciate nicely since they left campus. But as Duke’s star rose so quickly, there is a fear when scandal erupts that it could fall just as fast.

Duke is a perplexing set of contradictions: a young institution that looks old, hails its tallies of Rhodes Scholars and national championships and abides by a work hard-play hard ethos. Embedded in it are traits of other universities we know, and yet the sum of these qualities is like almost no other place.

The story of Karen Owen, the longest-lived of the semester’s scandals, burned hot and bright for three days, Schoenfeld said—a lightning-fast span even in Duke’s brief history. Schoenfeld noted the story was not terribly complicated to handle. As the story spread in the blogosphere, he was only contacted directly by a dozen media outlets, all of which knew that the University’s stance was not to comment. The silence, however, may create an opportunity for other voices.

The schools of the Ivy League have hundreds of years of history and prestige to guide their perception in the public eye, but any incident that lingers long enough in the headlines threatens to claim a part of Duke’s identity—at least for a certain audience.

“If you don’t define yourself, others will do it for you,” said George Grody, a visiting associate professor at Duke in the marketing and management studies program and a former marketing executive at Proctor and Gamble. “That’s the biggest issue with a brand.”


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