This week, Governor of Missouri Eric Greitens has made headlines after admitting to an extramarital affair and being accused of blackmailing a woman with compromising photographs. A Duke alum and former Angier B. Duke scholar, Greitens received the Truman and Rhodes scholarships. He served our country as a Navy SEAL; for his service, he received the Purple Heart and the Bronze Star. He donated his combat pay to the nonprofit The Mission Continues, was named a top social entrepreneur by the Manhattan Institute, and in 2005, was appointed a White House Fellow by President George W. Bush. Before Greitens won the Missouri gubernatorial election in 2016, St. Louis Magazine profiled him: “If the man has an Achilles’ heel, it’s perfection.” With only a glimpse at his resume, even the magazine’s hyperbole appears reasonable. However, in light of recent news, the comparison of Greitens to Achilles seems false. Achilles did not choose his weakness, but Greitens surely made his choice carefully. To echo the words of prominent Missouri Republican, Paul DeGregorio, Greitens’s life “[is] all about his ego and his ambition.”
Although accusations of Greiten tying a woman to a bedpost and taking blackmail photographs are appalling, Greitens’s level of ambition is not unfamiliar to many of us. Some among us are quick to dismiss these recent headlines as a momentary lapse in judgement during a lifetime of excellence. Greitens’ fall from grace illuminates our perceptions of power and the reckless decisions we tacitly accept as means to an end. Given Greitens is the latest on a list of Duke affiliates to make national headlines for alleged or proven improprieties, we attempt to understand what leads some among us to embark on the wrong path to success. Duke’s mission statement emphasizes a commitment to “[students’] development as adults committed to high ethical standards,” yet we find ourselves wondering if this is necessarily true.
Our social culture largely operates on autopilot. From sexual assault to incidents of hate and bias, the reality is not that students do not see issues on campus—it is that they just do not think critically about these issues and how certain institutions perpetuate them. Perhaps we exercise this complacency while pursuing power. We fail to see fundamental issues in our tunnel vision toward a goal. We start to actively value success above all—a figurative replacement of the Women’s Center with the Center for Leadership and Development. We look the other way. We justify any means.
Striving for power is not inherently a folly. Given the hundreds of organizations on campus, many of us are leaders; some of us are using our power to shape our university positively. While attaining power, however, we should think more critically about the steps we take. Maybe today, we still feel sympathy for the scores of men finally questioned by the “Me Too” movement. In the future, we should be pushing toward a world that values success without intentional misconduct, not in spite of it. If we do not think critically today, before we embark on our journeys outside the walls of this campus, we risk losing sight of character, empathy and morality later in our lives. This is not to blame Duke or paint all students with a broad brush. We are simply reflecting on how even our role models turn into monsters. Eric Greitens’s story worries us because we lose ourselves in his credentials and find ourselves justifying clear wrongs he committed. The question is whether we are doing the same for ourselves.
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