Will Duke President Address Latest Scandal?

Cross-posted from See Thru Edu

There is some sort of poetic justice or perfect symmetry in the recent discovery that a Duke University student is paying her tuition by working as a porn star. There are certainly schools with more Bacchanalian social structures than Duke; many of its students are quite serious about their educations and have enough self-respect to avoid the worst campus excesses. But Duke’s recent sex-scandal-ridden history, featuring incredibly weak administrative leadership, makes it the perfect place for yet another such humiliation.

Duke’s libidinous atmosphere was first hinted at in Tom Wolfe’s novel, I Am Charlotte Simmons, published in 2004 (although Wolfe denied his fictitious Dupont University was based on Duke, the many parallels and coincidences were hard to ignore). It became the poster child for campus licentiousness in 2006 when a scandal erupted over a stripper who falsely accused lacrosse team members of rape. The school’s response, from president Dick Brodhead to the Gang of 88 faculty members, was to vilify the accused students and paint targets on their backs, even though there was considerable evidence that the woman was lying. (Questions raised then regarding her mental instability were recently confirmed when she was convicted of murdering her boyfriend.) Brodhead eventually had to apologize for siding with the stripper and the radical faculty members, but his reputation as a cowardly follower of the worst faculty elements was cemented.

In 2008, a Duke performance by the “Sex Worker’s Art Show” led to national exposure of the exceedingly raunchy and antisocial antics of a travelling troupe of strippers and prostitutes. (Due to that exposure, the Art Show no longer tours college campuses.) The performance was partially paid for with school funds under the control of the administration.

That was followed by the Karen Owens scandal in 2010. Owens was a Duke student who created a PowerPoint presentation describing in cringe-inducing detail her numerous sexual liaisons with athletes. She showed it to another student who put it on the web for public viewing, where it went viral. The derision directed toward the Duke community was so great that Brodhead again leapt into action, this time by admonishing the student body in a weakly worded email, asking them to behave better.

To make him appear even more ineffectual, Brodhead’s tepid attempt at leadership coincided with a campus visit by a so-called “sex educator”–again, partially paid for by funds distributed by his administration–who encouraged young women to experiment sexually with wild abandon. The expert offered such common sense advice as suggesting that it was okay for a young woman to go home with a complete stranger from a bar as long as they could “gaze longingly into each others’ eyes,” and that American children should begin having sex as early as puberty, “like they do in Europe.” In fact, such “educators” regularly appear on the Duke campus, with the administration offering both funding and its imprimatur.

And now there is “Lauren/Aurora,” a gender studies major who wants to be “treated with dignity and respect” after her performance in “rough sex porn” videos. So far, there has been nary a peep from Brodhead’s office. However, an anthropology professor who heads the Duke Human Rights Center wrote an op-ed in the Raleigh News & Observer suggesting that the young lady’s actions were “possibly naïve but not dishonorable.” In doing so, the professor suggests that the concept of honor itself is false and arbitrary (actually, she uses the word “tricky”). In the absence of administrative comment, her op-ed appears to be the official school response.

Such twisted attitudes are one of the reasons these things keep happening at Duke. Lauren/Aurora’s blog post discussing her decision is filled with rhetoric from the most outlandish corners of radical feminism; underneath, her statements go back and forth between denial, blaming society, and trumpeting her defiance of “the patriarchy.” Although, since she is still a freshman, it may not be right to completely blame Duke for her confusion, it is likely her head was filled with such nonsense while still in high school.

It is unfortunate that the school’s leadership is so weak; this incident offers a teachable moment. If Brodhead really wants Duke students to start behaving better, as he claimed in his 2010 open email, he would send Lauren/Aurora packing for her failure to live up to the “Duke Community Standard,” a code of behavior that all students must sign before attending. For if her acting career, which includes being choked and spit on during rough sex, does not fall outside of conducting herself “honorably and responsibly,” as is required by the Community Standard, then just about nothing does. It is the perfect time to send a message to the students in his charge that the school is serious about their behavior by expelling her and reclaiming some honor for Duke as an institution with at least minimal moral standards.

Sadly, Brodhead is sending a different message–with his silence and inactivity–that he stands for nothing. Unless not angering the most unhinged radical faculty members is a “value.”

Jay Schalin

Jay Schalin researches and writes about higher education policy for the Pope Center.

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