Ashley: Unfortunate contrasts on campuses

Feb. 09, 2013 @ 04:02 PM

What an unfortunate study in contrasts these past weeks have been for Duke University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Moments of triumph and success have been shadowed by embarrassment and the lingering aftermath of scandal.

What a shame.

At UNC, the Board of Governors on Friday approved, after months of diligent work, a new strategic plan for the university. But the meetings where that was debated and adopted have been, and were last week, dominated by the continuing investigations into and grappling with the consequences of academic misfeasance in the African and African American Studies department.

On Thursday night, Sylvia Hatchell, the Tar Heels’ longtime and revered women’s basketball coach, became only the third women’s coach to achieve 900 victories – and with her next win will become the second-winningest women’s coach of all time.

But also last week, the campus wrestled with assertions that the administration fails to take seriously and deal forcefully with incidents of sexual assault, incidents that many students have charged are all too common at the nation’s oldest public university.

Nine miles away in Durham, Duke University has struggled with its own good news/bad news week.

On Friday evening, the university officially celebrated the opening of its Mary Duke Biddle Trent Semans Center for Health Education. Medical school dean Nancy Andrews hailed it as “absolutely wonderful – for the students, for the faculty, for the entire Duke community.”

But throughout the week, campus and media attention also was captured, even dominated, by the furor over a culturally insensitive, racism-tinged fraternity party initially labeled “Asian Prime.”

The juxtaposition underscores an ironic reality for Duke. Because of its elite status, because it is one of the nation’s top private universities with a reputation that stretches globally, its missteps also garner outsized attention.

In my student days at Duke more than four decades ago, one could argue that racial and gender sensitivities were in far shorter supply than today. Integration had come to Duke’s undergraduate student body just three years before I enrolled as a freshman, and the relative handful of black students often felt uncomfortable and excluded. Far fewer than half the undergraduates were women – who were protectively cocooned on their separate East Campus and hampered by stricter regulation than the men, many of whom casually and uninhibited, objectified them.

Today’s student body, as is readily apparent by a stroll or jog through campus, is broadly diverse. Speaking to a class last week, I was reminded, as I always am, how strikingly smart and engaged the students are.

Thuggish behavior was not unheard of – was far more common – in my student days.

But our expectations, thankfully, are different these days. Unevenly and more slowly than should be true, society as a whole has become more sensitive to, tolerant of and, in our best moments, embracing of differences.

The good news, I guess, is that many, probably most, students are deeply offended by the sophomoric insensitivity of the Kappa Sigma party.  Even the chapter president, Luke Keohane, acknowledged the error in a discussion The Chronicle, Duke’s student newspaper, described as thoughtfully discussing such questions as “what are the implications of this as it relates to race on this campus? Why does it matter?”

“Our actions are inexcusable,” Keohane told the group.

If acknowledging a problem is the first step to addressing it, and if not just the members of Kappa Sig – who, penitent or not, merit sanctions for their behavior – but others in the community who may be blind to such insensitivity see that, than those words may be the most important ones uttered last week.

Bob Ashley is editor of The Herald-Sun. You can reach him at 919-419-6678 or bashley@heraldsun.com.