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Administrators emphasize Duke’s recovery from lacrosse case

<p>Although many thought Duke’s reputation would be hurt following the scandal, the University did not take major hits in many key measures of reputation.</p>

Although many thought Duke’s reputation would be hurt following the scandal, the University did not take major hits in many key measures of reputation.

This story is part of our coverage of the 10th anniversary of the lacrosse case. Our other coverage can be found here.

Many people worried that the University’s national standing would suffer as a result of the lacrosse case, but a decade later those fears have proved largely unfounded, according to University officials.

Although many administrators urged caution in assuming that the University would suffer in any way as a result of the perceived scandal, others predicted drastic declines to come in the support provided to the University. These concerns were focused on three potential fronts: the number of applicants to the University, donations back to Duke from alumni and Duke’s national ranking—a calculation which includes both of the previous two factors.

Looking back on the first of these three metrics a decade after the story first broke, in the months preceding the lacrosse scandal, Duke received 19,379 total applicants, up significantly from 18,083 in 2005, according to numbers provided by the current Dean of Undergraduate Admissions Christoph Guttentag.

The following year, the number of applicants dropped to 19,206, in a deviation from the pattern of application growth.

“I expect the visibility of the lacrosse case may have had a small effect on the number of applications in 2007,” Guttentag said. “If it did, the effect was clearly minimal and temporary, and it’s hard to separate out how much of that was part of the normal fluctuation in applications we see from year to year.”

It is unclear whether the decrease in applicants was a direct result of the lacrosse coverage, but the admission numbers returned to a steady state of growth beginning in 2008, when 20,352 students applied.

“We can never be certain why people don’t apply, since without their applications we don’t know exactly who they are,” Guttentag said.

Although applicant numbers quickly rebounded, University officials fielded some questions with concerns about student safety brought on by the extensive media coverage.

In April 2006, Peter Vaughn, who then served as the executive director of alumni and development communications, reported that his office alone had received more than a thousand e-mails from alumni and parents about the case.

Guttentag noted that more recently his office has received “thousands of phone calls and emails every year” asking about Duke.

“Whenever anything about Duke gets national exposure, regardless of whether it’s perceived as positive or negative, we’ll field a few questions about it. But never very many, and never for very long,” Guttentag said. “Overwhelmingly people want to know more about the opportunities Duke provides its students, and they want to know what we’re looking for in our applicants.”

In the five years after lacrosse story broke, Duke experienced the greatest increase in applications in its history, said Michael Schoenfeld, vice president for public affairs and government relations.

He highlighted that this accomplishment came directly on the heels of claims from critics who said that no student would want to attend Duke after the lacrosse case.

“If you look back 10 years ago, what impact did Duke lacrosse have on Duke’s reputation? Well, the University today receives more applications than any time in its history. At the time, critics of the University or those who were worried said, ‘Nobody will ever apply to Duke again,’” Schoenfeld said.

Another area of University reputation that was scrutinized at the time was the alumni donation percentages.

Donations are a large source of institutional funding—going to support financial aid, merit scholarships and even campus maintenance and development, said Melissa Antaya, director of marketing for the Office of University Development.

In the year prior to the lacrosse case, $276 million was raised in alumni giving and 69 percent of seniors contributed to the senior gift, according to numbers provided by the OUD.

"I've told trustees it's going to take two to five years to recover from this," John Burness, who served as senior vice president for public affairs and government relations, said in a 2006 interview.

In 2006, alumni donations spiked to $342 million and continued to rise to $380 million in 2007, according to the OUD. This marked a period of unprecedented growth despite the negative media coverage that surrounded Duke.

"The fact that alumni giving set records last year speaks volumes," Burness told The Chronicle following the record setting donations reported in 2007. "Alums love this place. They know what a difference it made in their lives, and they want to make that much of a difference for the current students."

Senior gift contributions were less steady following the lacrosse case, with 61 percent of the class giving in 2006 and 66 percent giving in 2007. These figures have fluctuated over time, however.

In more recent years, the senior participation has fallen to far lower numbers.

“Unfortunately, senior gift participation has lagged in recent years, especially compared to our peers,” Antaya said.

For Duke’s Class of 2015, 32 percent of seniors gave, compared to an average 64 percent giving rate at its peer institutions and 90 percent at the University of Pennsylvania, according to data provided by the OUD.

Antaya attributed the drop to staffing changes within the Senior Gift Team and to issues with communication rather than to dissatisfaction of graduates.

As for the concern about Duke falling in the national rankings, the University has historically tried not to put too much weight behind minute changes, Schoenfeld previously told The Chronicle.

At no point in the past decade has Duke fallen out of the top 10 in the annual college rankings by U.S. News & World Report. The ranking includes alumni giving and application numbers as part of the scoring process.

Although Duke’s ranking fell from five to eight in the years that followed, it has since bounced higher and lower without too much change, though it has yet to crack the top five again.

Many concerns that arose about Duke’s reputation following the lacrosse case have proven to be overblown, but Duke community members and others still react strongly to new scandals.

“If you go back and look at other kinds of incidents in the University’s history, the same predictions were made,” Schoenfeld said. “The most apocalyptic predictions about the future, about whether Duke would be able to succeed as a university, were actually made in the controversy after the Nixon library in 1981. If you go back and look at the press clippings, at what people were saying, after the University had first accepted and then turned away Richard Nixon’s library, you’ll find many similar kinds of statements about the future of Duke.”

Looking back 10 years later, Duke has continued to thrive by many measures despite its time in the negative spotlight.

Since the lacrosse scandal, there have been other high-profile incidents, and there may be more to come in the future, but administrators are confident in the University’s ability to weather them as they come.

“Duke is a very resilient institution,” Schoenfeld said. “I think one of the things that, one of the lessons from lacrosse is that where the University’s reputation is concerned, you can bend it but you can’t break it.”

Emma Baccellieri contributed reporting.

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