Thursday, January 18, 2007

Duke University Defended

The infamous Duke lacrosse team story has stained the reputation of one of the country's solid old schools. This summary of events by a junior staffer at First Things is a measured narrative of what has happened to this point. As a grad student at Duke, Jordan Hylden has been following the news from the beginning of the story, unlike most people who only pay attention when headlines catch their attention.

At this point what started as a juicy, high-profile case, replete with sex, violence and racism, has turned into a piece of over-proofed fluff. Unfortunately, the spillover has not been positive for Duke's reputation.

A fair consideration of the evidence reveals legitimate criticisms of Duke faculty and administrators, but not at the level of those made by our editor, Joseph Bottum. While it is no doubt correct to criticize the Group of 88 for their overblown rhetoric and unfair pre-judgment of Duke lacrosse players, it is also not appropriate to extend that criticism to the vast majority of Duke faculty. And while it is legitimate to criticize President Brodhead and his administration for overreacting at times, their overall conduct can be read as ameasured response to an extremely difficult crisis. Certainly, it did not resemble anything like “throwing its own students overboard.”

That’s my judgment, and I certainly hope it to be true. After all, as I said, I’ll be a Duke graduate student next fall, and I certainly don’t want to run into teachers who hate me or administrators trying to run me out of town. Which brings me to my final point. Given that I don’t think the lacrosse scandal should keep me away from Duke, what is it that drew me there in the first place? Why do I think that Duke should be a top destination for young conservatives and Christians?

If there is any lesson to be learned from this story it is not about Duke, but about the state of post-secondary education in America in general. What happened there is fairly generic in the overall landscape.

But the problem with these criticisms is that none of this is particular to Duke. From what I learned at Harvard, and from what I hear from my friends at other schools, I can personally testify that this is a nationwide problem, not a Duke problem. Jody’s criticisms, like Wolfe’s, ought to raise questions for serious Christians about sending their children to any major U.S. university, not just Duke. Many parents, rightly seeing this as a serious question, will opt instead for a school like Wheaton or Steubenville. I can’t argue with that choice—making the right decision here has a lot to do with a student’s maturity level. But if one nevertheless decides to opt for a major national university, Duke again ought to stand out as a top choice due to its strong Christian presence, both in the faculty and in the student body, which acts as a significant counterweight to the mainstream student culture.

His reference to Wolfe refers to Tom Wolfe's "I Am Charlotte Simmons (which takes place at “Dupont University,” by which he obviously meant Duke) had much to do with this. A graphic Rolling Stone article followed, and the Duke lacrosse scandal of course fit nicely into the narrative."

This informative article reflects particularly well on First Things. I doubt that most periodicals would allow any subordinate to disagree with and criticize a senior staff member so completely. It illustrates how civilized people can manage a civil disagreement and remain mutually respectful, keeping their disagreement on point and not ad hominem. My own impression of Duke is limited to a couple of people, both of whom I respect, although they are cut from very different fabrics. Stanley Hauerwas is on the faculty of Duke Divinity school and is highly respected in his field. And Bill Wilson is a dedicated Christian professional whom I have been privileged to hear teach.

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