Duke does damage control (updated)

Duke University's track record in rocketing into the first tier of American higher education, after being founded in the 1930s, has been one of the most notable success stories in American higher education. But as Richard Baehr pointed out to AT readers over a week ago, the damage the lacrosse "rape" prosecution, and especially from the university's handling of the case, is starting to show. Early decision applications are down 20%. Regular admissions have until early January to apply, so the broader impact on applicants remains to be seen.

Particularly egregious in the eyes of many critics was a public letter  from 88 faculty members seeming to assume that the players were guilty. It reinforced a general impression that Duke's faculty is in thrall to political correctness. Indeed, one of the methods the university chose to elevate its national status was the aggressive recruitment of "cutting edge" postmodern scholars like Stanley Fish (no longer at Duke), which resulted in increasing prominence for various departments in surveys among academics.

The university administration clearly understands that it has a serious problem. Today, the News and Observer, the dominant local newspaper in Raleigh-Durham, carries a lengthy article outlining the response of the Duke administration. Some highlights:
Duke University has launched a costly campaign of alumni dinners, national surveys and aggressive recruitment.

The effort -- which includes a 12-city tour by President Richard Brodhead and an entourage of faculty and students -- is part of a larger push to blunt publicity generated by gang-rape allegations
None of this is going to be cheap. It indicates that Duke knows it has a very, very serious problem. The reputations of Harvard, Yale and Princeton have had centuries to develop. Even Stanford, a relative latecomer, has had a century of history, and benefits from the enormous wealth and growth of its home turf in the San Francisco Bay Area, particularly in the last 4 decades, as Silicon Valley has developed in part as an outgrowth of its electrical engineering department. Duke, in contrast, while located in an agreeable and rapidly-growing region, does not have anything like Silicon Valley as a product of its expertise. And the endowments of the two institutions are quite different. Both are rich, but Stanford's endowment is enormous.
Brodhead's tour, called "A Duke Conversation," invites hundreds of alumni for dinner and discussions in major cities from Los Angeles to New York. The admissions office has increased meet-and-greet sessions with prospective students while mailing tens of thousands of brochures that feature accomplished, impressive scholars and flattering descriptions of Durham.
Some of those conversations could be quite heated, given that some alumni are outraged that the coach was fired, the players suspended, and the faculty letter issued, all before any chance to mount a defense. The presumption of guilt and lack of support might well cause a certain amount of empathy for the accused on the part of former athletes and fraternity members, in particular, two groups which tend to be among the most loyal of alumni supporters in higher education.

Duke officials would like to see an immediate payoff for their efforts, but they say the recovery isn't a short-term proposition. A trial looms in 2007 for three former lacrosse players accused of rape.

"I've told trustees it's going to take two to five years to recover from this," Burness said.

Despite the players' denials and weaknesses in the district attorney's case, a seamy trial could create a media frenzy like the O.J. Simpson ordeal at the very time prospective students are deciding whether to come to Duke.
Duke, which rushed to judgment, now finds its best hope to be a dismissal.

However critical some alumni might be, as the News and Observer points out, all alumni have a collective investment in the prestige of their degrees. Anything which harms Duke's prestige devalues their credential. It is quite likely that they will rally to Duke's defense.

Still, prospective students and their parents now understand that the local community in Durham, self-evidently including law enforcement, has a hostile attitude toward exactly the kind of students Duke has relied upon for institutional success: privileged Caucasians. The article mentions the recent eye-opening study of university admissions and financial considerations:
Aside from lacrosse, Duke received more bad publicity in September with the release of a book by Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Golden, titled "The Price of Admission." It describes how rich and well-connected Americans buy their way in to elite universities, with one chapter detailing how Duke had for years admitted the children of wealthy non-alumni in hopes of fat donations. The descriptions seemed only to perpetuate the image of white privilege that pervaded the lacrosse media coverage.

"That didn't do Duke any favors," Goodman said. "How does this resonate with the middle-class kid in Greensboro or the middle-class kid in Chicago?"
All in all, Duke President Brodhead has a huge challenge ahead, to prevent becoming known as the leader under whom Duke declined to the second tier of American higher education. His track record in dealing with the first stage of the "rape crisis" cannot be very reassuring to trustees. The fact that no disciplinary actions have been taken against the 88 faculty, and in fact their letter has quietly been expunged from the Duke website, inspires no confidence that the proper lessons have been learned.

Hat tip: Richard Baehr

Update: Prosecutor Mike Nifong has dropped rape charges, but a trial is still on prospect for charges of assault and kidnapping. The ordeal continues for the three accused students and their families. And for Duke.

Nifong may be too embarrassed to drop all charges at this point. The fact that he is continuing to damage one of, if not the biggest employer in the region, may not help him in the longer run, however. He eventually may face accountability for his handling of this case.
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