Duke University's Eternal Bonfire of the Vanities

Recently by William L. Anderson: Regime-Based Policing: Another Progressivist Legacy

When we last left Duke University and its home of Durham, North Carolina, the bogus story fueled by the leftwing politics that governs Duke and Durham that three lacrosse players from Duke had beaten and raped Crystal Mangum was being put to rest. True, there were lawsuits filed against both entities by former lacrosse players, but the fires that burned at Duke seemed to have been doused.

For a year while the false criminal case went on, Duke University truly was the Bonfire of the Vanities as students and representatives of the Ruling Party of Durham competed with each other to see who could make the most outrageous and untrue statements. Almost six years ago, I likened it to the Reichstag Fire, but since that time, I have concluded that in the make-believe world that is Duke and Durham (or Dukham, for short), the fires always are burning and there always is a new reason for the Right Kind of People of Dukham to be offended.

(During the lacrosse case, many journalists referred to Tom Wolfe's book, I Am Charlotte Simmons, which was loosely based upon life at Duke. However, Wolfe's Bonfire of the Vanities really does a better job of describing the university, where certain people always are on tap to be offended and take to the barricades, making sure all the while that facts don't get in the way of their pronouncements.)

Six years ago, the lacrosse incident set Dukham ablaze (or, to be more accurate, the refusal of Dukham's finest to do any independent thinking set Dukhanm ablaze). Today, it is the appearance of an unpublished paper that takes a hard look at some of the unforeseen consequences of Duke's aggressive affirmative action policies.

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Granted, the end of the criminal portion of the lacrosse case was disappointing to a large number of Dukham folks. The charges, after being investigated for the first time (disgraced DA Mike Nifong never did take the time to do an actual investigation even though he had three indictments), were dismissed by North Carolina's Attorney General Roy Cooper, who said openly that the players were "innocent." Such a thing did not sit well with the leftist and racialist faculty members that had pontificated on the case, as well as the Usual Suspects of the local activist groups.

Much has happened since then. Mangum is in jail awaiting trial for allegedly murdering her boyfriend, Nifong remains disbarred and disgraced, and his sidekick Tracey Cline, who has served as Durham County's DA since Nifong disappeared (Cline was to be second chair in the prosecution if it had gone to trial), has been suspended from her duties while she is investigated for alleged misconduct.

While the lawsuits creep along, an email from Duke's dean of students, Sue Wasiolek, that surfaced during discovery, pointed out that right from the start, the lacrosse players "cooperated" with the police. Unfortunately, when Nifong used the local and national media to insist that the players were "putting up a wall of silence," no one from Duke University's administration, including Wasiolek, tried to set the record straight. It is clear that the leadership at Duke knew the truth, but the fiction was so much more satisfactory to the locals, a significant portion of the university's faculty and student body, and, of course, the New York Times, which fell headlong into the Nifong pit. The players were guilty and Dukham's leaders were not going to let a little thing like the truth spoil a party put on by self-righteous activists.

As I said earlier, the bonfires might have simmered temporarily, but today, they are in full blaze as Duke University is enmeshed in another self-inflicted crisis. Once again we see many of the same people from the faculty and the administration beating their chests to atone for the university's supposed racism and to point out to others that there are dastardly racists in their midst.

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Well, kind of. Before going on, I need to point out that there are two groups among the Duke faculty. The first group is what I would call the Adults. These are people who write, teach, and publish on a high level. The adults were in their offices on Saturdays doing research, and they were the ones publishing in top journals and advising doctoral students.

You will find the Adults in departments like economics, biology, engineering, physics, and mathematics, and even some members of the English Department, and they mentor both graduates and undergraduates that are put through their paces, academically speaking. The Adults do not grant the easy "A," and they have high expectations from their students — and from themselves.

While most of the Adults have political views, when it comes to issues like tenure and promotion, they generally do not try to sabotage someone else's career because they disapprove of the other's political leanings. These are people who care deeply about their line of work, and their students, the kind of professors that the rest of us admire greatly.

Unfortunately, Duke University's faculty also is populated by large numbers of what I would call the Spoiled Children, people who are quick to call out the rental protesters when things don't go their way. The Spoiled Children generally occupy departments and majors like Women's Studies, Cultural Anthropology, English and History (which used not to be the case, but over time, these departments have traded scholarship for falsehoods), and other such areas that are relatively new to the college curriculum scene. (I also include history because one of its most "prestigious" professors, William Chafe, publicly compared the lacrosse players to the murderers of Emmett Till in 1955. Chafe never apologized for his utterly false statements, thus bringing shame upon his entire department.)

It is rare that the Spoiled Children actually turn out real scholarship or see their students from any other perspective than their political viewpoints. Unlike the Adults, who tend to evaluate their students according to what they do, the Spoiled Children pre-judge their students according to what they are, be they black, white, Hispanic, Asian, male, female, straight, or gay.

Their academic output often, to put it mildly, is shocking. One full professor that teaches in a Spoiled Children major has no published works in any reputable journal and has had a "forthcoming" book…for the last 15 years. The Adults publish in journals like Econometrica and Science. The Spoiled Children publish in journals like Social Text, which became famous because an Ivy League professor purposely wrote a parody of what has become academic babble, and Social Text published it as legitimate work, only to have the whole thing later exposed.

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When word that an unpublished paper written by an economics professor, a sociology professor, and a graduate student might not paint the happiest picture of academic life at Duke, the Usual Suspects rose up to protest. The paper itself looked at what happens after students with lower SAT scores (including both those admitted via affirmative action and the "legacy" students) actually settle into academic life at the university.

While many of these students might start out majoring in natural sciences, economics, or engineering, they often change majors and migrate to the "softer" majors in liberal arts. The significant part of that migration, the paper noted, was that the "legacy admissions" and affirmative action students migrate in statistically-significant larger numbers than do the students that did not need any special dispensation to enter Duke.

The paper's findings matched what other researchers already have noted regarding affirmative action and legacy students attending other highly-select universities such as Harvard, Yale, and Stanford. Many of these students arrive unprepared for the level of work they must do in the difficult majors in order to keep up with those students who can do the work, and this leads either to students dropping out or changing majors.

Thus, many researchers have argued, affirmative action policies very well might make a university look good in its admissions policies, but many of the students admitted in these circumstances are led into a bait-and-switch situation in which they are led to water, but are unable to drink. The solution is not to water down the curriculum or to engage in the higher-education equivalent of social promotion, but rather to encourage many of these students to attend colleges and universities where they still can major in the more difficult areas, but the level of work required is not as difficult as in the top-tier universities.

I give myself as an example. When I wanted to go to graduate school in economics, I decided to apply to those places where I would most likely be successful. I received an education in the whole thing after having taken my Graduate Record Exam and scoring close to 700 in the quantitative section.

One place where I inquired about admissions was the University of Virginia, which is highly-regarded in graduate economics. When the woman on the phone asked what I received in the quant section, I told her my score. There was silence on the other end, and finally she told me, "Many of our students score 800 (a perfect score)." Yes, she said, they probably would admit me, but there likely would be no funding and I might be eaten alive in the numerous mathematics courses I would be taking.

I chose another university and got through the program mostly in one piece, and have enjoyed a reasonably successful career since then. No, I wouldn't be a candidate to teach at Harvard or Duke, nor would any "prestigious" state university desire my resume, but there has been a place for me, anyway, and I am happy with it.

One of the unspoken tragedies in this whole affair is the fact that it really would be desirable to see more African-Americans in the hard sciences and engineering, and if the Dukes and Stanfords were not so fixated on their own public relations, we would see many of these students in programs which could be successful and spawning new opportunities for blacks in occupational fields where they now are scarce. Within a generation, a new group of black students would arise that could excel in the difficult majors at the most-select universities, but the current political climate simply won't allow for that to happen.

Not surprisingly, the faculty members in those areas of study such as Cultural Anthropology went ballistic over the paper, decrying it as "scholarly racism" (according to English and Law professor Karla Holloway, the same Karla Holloway who declared the lacrosse players to be rapists because "guilt is a social construct"). In fact, many of the same professors that rushed to judgment in the lacrosse case and created an atmosphere of hate and hysteria at Duke also are the out-front people here.

One of the worst offenders in the lacrosse crisis was professor Tim Tyson, who openly called for dismissal of all of the lacrosse players and repeated the lie that they were refusing to cooperate with the police. Tyson also led on-campus protests against them, rushing to judgment and then refusing to acknowledge after the players were exonerated that they actually were innocent. In other words, Tyson is one of those Duke faculty members who absolutely hates a large portion of the Duke student body along with most of the Adults who are on the faculty.

Tyson, as is his wont, openly attacked one of the authors, economics professor Peter Arcidiacono, in an article, alleging that Arcidiacono was a racist and worse. (Of course, Tyson's article is filled with ad hominems and he refuses to address the real issues of the paper, preferring to wrap himself in the righteousness of his own worldview.) Writes historian K.C. Johnson:

As with virtually all of Arcidiacono’s critics, Tyson does not challenge the data that the paper of Arcidiacono, et al., uncovered. Instead, he resorts to the race-baiting attack lines: after disingenuously suggesting that he’s not challenging the academic freedom of people who don’t share his world-view, he does just that: “Duke's treasure, the late Dr. John Hope Franklin, whose legacy Arcidiacono treads upon, provided research for Thurgood Marshall in the Brown v. Board of Education case. But there is no constitutional right to R-E-S-P-E-C-T, as Aretha might put it. BSA members who question ‘the research's intent, methodology, analysis and conclusion, in addition to its validity,’ display a generosity and deliberation far exceeding those of this study.”

Once again: Tyson does not challenge in any way the data that Arcidiacono, et al., presented, that black students at Duke disproportionately migrate away from more difficult (science and engineering) to easier (liberal arts) majors.

As in the lacrosse case, a large portion of Duke's professors are permitted to launch baseless and public attacks on other students and faculty, all the while drawing large salaries and having to do little productive work while denouncing their employer and anyone else who pays for them to stomp about campus. In fact, it seems that their "work" is to claim that they are mistreated by Duke, which requires little out of them but spending a few hours a week on campus protesting that they should even be there at all.

In the end, these people will get what they want. Duke's leadership will bow and scrape before them and apologize for the presence of Adults on campus. The Spoiled Children will be appointed to leadership positions and will further try to make life miserable for those students and faculty members that actually are trying to pursue serious scholarship. And the bonfires will continue to burn and burn and burn.

February 1, 2012