Nixon University: A Bastion of Intellectual Thought
By Jared Crum '11
To the reader: earlier this month, Karen Owen, an recent graduate of Duke University, came under the glare of the national media for her pretend “senior thesis” analyzing her sexcapades as an undergraduate. Her report, which went viral online, ranked her male subjects’ pros and cons. Your faithful columnist has obtained the management consulting report commissioned by Duke to chart the university’s way forward in the wake of yet another scandal — or at least what it might look like.

From: Bone and Company Consulting

To: Board of Trustees, Duke University

Re: “Horizontal Academics” at Duke

This report is spurred by Karen Owen, a recent graduate of your institution, and her mock senior thesis detailing her sexual exploits, “An Education Beyond the Classroom: Excelling in the Realm of Horizontal Academics,” [capital letters our addition].

After Ms. Owens shared her work with friends, who shared it with friends, who shared it with the Internet, your institution once again caught the unforgiving eye of the national media and the American public. We consider your decision to enlist our management consulting services well advised.

There is no doubt Ms. Owen put much energy and effort into preparing her report, if not compiling the data for it. She outlines scientifically the pros and cons of each of her male “subjects.” In fact, a neat word cloud we appended to this report marks “subject,” “research” and “raw” as prominent terms. We applaud your admissions committee for its discerning eye for hard workers.

The direction of Ms. Owen’s ambition, however, has brought negative attention upon Duke. Humiliating excerpts of a highly intimate nature have circulated around cyberspace. While it is likely this episode will perpetually haunt Ms. Owen’s reputation, it need not haunt yours as well.

Before presenting solutions, we touch on the larger issues that brought about this situation.

In 2004, author Tom Wolfe published “I Am Charlotte Simmons.” This novel, an exposé on American college life, drew predominantly from the Duke environment. The fictional university Wolfe created, DuPont, was elite, prestigious and cultivated an environment totally inimical to intellectual flourishing, or learning at all. Wild parties and drunken hookups were not an exception, but an every-night rule.

Critics said Wolfe’s portrait perfectly exemplified your institution. Fratboys and athletes were kings, anyone else was not. Perhaps most damning was the charge that, at root, your university was an expensive, shallow fraud.

This critique was obviously overdrawn and inaccurate. Duke, if viewed from 30,000 feet, may have looked like a four-year carnival. Up close, students told a different story. The bacchanal angle was overplayed. Well-regarded academics were not marginalized, and in fact, had been actively recruited and pampered by the university. And admission to Duke was not easy: professors called their lacrosse players, for example, smart and engaged.

But lacrosse became an Achilles heel. On March 14, 2006, Duke’s lacrosse team began a long journey in and out of infamy. A team-hired stripper accused several players of rape. Before the odyssey was over, English professor-turned-Duke President Richard Brodhead had been publicly embarrassed and the name of Duke scarred (before the charges, all false, were dropped).

The culture at Duke, however, seemed to change little. At a lecture at the College in 2008, the lacrosse coach whose tenure ended with the scandal, Mike Pressler, compared his role as coach to that of a math professor in the pages of The Student: “How can you hold a coach accountable for things he doesn’t know? How can you hold a math professor accountable for what his students do on Saturday night?”

Strictly speaking, Mr. Pressler was right. He was initially ignorant of the night’s events. But his refusal to see a coach-player relationship as different from a professor-student relationship showed that Duke’s overly-deferential “hear no evil, see no evil attitude” toward athletics was endemic in important layers of college administration. Duke Professor Orin Starn informed The New Yorker’s Peter Boyer that basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski was, in fact, “the most powerful person at Duke” (Sept. 4, 2006).

What our consultants have tried to avoid in this process is what the rest of the country is doing right now: prejudging. Your president touched on this issue with Mr. Boyer in words we cannot improve upon: Prejudging is “deeply human … At the same time, it really is our obligation to resist it, because … Truth and justice mean something opposite from our preconceptions.”

We could not agree more. Most thoughtful people will realize that whatever bad apples exist, the whole patch is not rotten. Duke does not consist entirely of Karen Owenses or Mike Presslers. Athletes bring virtue to every institution they honor with their talents.

The world however, is a much less nuanced place. We return to the decidedly more light-hearted initial matter: horizontal academics. How should Duke move forward? Under ordinary circumstances, we would recommend you sack a few deans or hire some new counselors. But because of the previous wounds your image has suffered at the hands of an unflagging campus culture, we recommend your institution be renamed for its most famous law graduate: Richard Nixon. “Duke” has had one too many blows. “Nixon University” presents a fresh start and an image improvement, which should only underline the depreciated status of your brand’s reputation. We wish you well.

With warmest regards,

Bone and Company

Issue 06, Submitted 2010-10-20 01:31:25