Duke University's handling of the alleged rape attack by three members of its lacrosse team last year, along with the exposure of town-gown antagonisms and other negative publicity seems to have caused measurable damage to the school. The results are just starting to come in, but the school could be in for long term slippage, following its dramatic climb to the upper level of the academic prestige system.
Duke University likes to think of itself as the Harvard of the South. (Harvard, on the other hand, has never spent any time wondering whether it was the Duke of New England.) Admissions statistics are one of the key determinants of the pecking order among universities of the first rank.
Duke's statistics on early decision applications for the class of 2011 are now in. While applications are growing at most of Duke's "overlap" schools (those with which it competes for top students each year), early decision applications to Duke dropped 20% from last year. Duke admitted approximately 40% of those in the early decision pool, more than double the overall acceptance rate for last year‘s entering class.
There is one key reason while competitive universities prefer early decision applicants: admitting lots of early decision applicants increases a school's "yield" (the percentage of those the school accepts, who then accept the school's offer. One hundred percent of early decision admits enroll, driving yield for the entire admitted group much higher. A high percentage of early decision admits can mask a low yield on the part of the rest of those accepted. Comparative yield statistics figure prominently in many competitive rankings of universities.
Duke has always fared poorly against the Ivy League schools and other elite institutions such as MIT and Stanford in the head to head competition when students receive more than one acceptance. It needs a high proportion of early decision admits to mask this weakness. This year, it will be no surprise if Duke fares even worse in this competition than in other years, after the complete admission results are reported in the spring.
Duke is a prestige school with many quality sports programs (like Stanford and Princeton), with very strong "programs" (to use the vernacular) in men's and women's basketball, soccer and lacrosse to name just a few. Given how shabbily the University treated the lacrosse team members after the initial accusations were made (with about a hundred faculty members all but demanding that the team members be strung up for their "crimes" of rape and racism, and the President of the University seeming to forget that even white athletes are innocent until proven guilty), it is not surprising that some of America's best students and athletes may be thinking twice about whether Duke offers the kind of atmosphere they seek.
For the three accused lacrosse players, almost certainly innocent of the charges filed against them, their names have been tarnished forever, even if they are eventually cleared of the charges. Their families have had to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on lawyers to defend their sons. Lives have been harmed forever.
But District Attorney Nifong cruised to re-election in heavily black Durham. Like Captain Ahab, Mike Nifong will not let facts get in the way of a crusade, which may be casting both the white devils, and the Blue Devils, overboard.