Duke University wonders if its elite student body has a massive hangover

December 25, 1993|By Knight-Ridder News Service

DURHAM, N.C. -- In subfreezing weather, as Saturday became Sunday, the Rev. Will Willimon watched as Duke University students reveled around a bonfire they had fueled with campus benches.

"Bye, Reverend," said one student as the fire died down. "Hope you see some more action tonight."

For the past two hours, Mr. Willimon, dean of the Duke Chapel, had helped campus police officers break up two fraternity parties because they were too noisy.

Mr. Willimon also watched as campus police questioned a student who had been chased back to his room on Central Campus by what Mr. Willimon called "a lead-pipe-swinging group of community hooligans."

And he was there as police answered a frantic complaint that someone was "beating up his girlfriend in the room next to mine."

Why was Mr. Willimon, a middle-aged cleric, spending a wild Saturday night with Duke undergraduates?

Administrators had sent him to roam the campus after-hours because they wanted to know if the social aspects of student life -- such as beer drinking, fraternities and sports -- were hurting academics.

For five months, he abandoned his office inside the lofty Duke Chapel to cruise with campus police, attend keg parties and even sleep in a women's dorm.

He released his 32-page report, "We Work Hard, We Play Hard," to administrators in April. The document ignited a debate that has rocked the campus this fall: Is Duke, one of the nation's top-ranked private universities, intellectual enough? If not, what should be done?

He raised various points:

* Most Duke undergraduates seem to believe the university "is merely a step on the way to law school, a necessary evil to be endured before Wall Street."

* Many top student scholars at Duke are dissatisfied with the campus' intellectual life. Twelve women who transferred in 1991 said their main reason for leaving was the "anti-intellectual climate."

* Alcohol is the No. 1 problem when it comes to public safety and student health.

Students complain they rarely see their professors outside the classroom. Professors say they stay out of students' lives because they "want to allow them to be adults." Mr. Willimon says teachers may be abdicating responsibility.

Reynolds Price, the James B. Duke professor of English, may have started the debate last year with his Founder's Day speech -- the one that lambasted students for their "blank faces" in class. If you listen to students, he said, you'll hear one sentence more than any other: "I can't believe how drunk I was last night."

Some people think fraternities are to blame. Mr. Price is calling for a gradual phaseout of fraternities -- and making all dorms co-ed. Others believe a more demanding curriculum is the answer.

And some believe students and teachers should spend more time doing what they're supposed to do at a university: exploring ideas in what new President Nan Keohane calls "the partnership of learning."

Will all this soul-searching tarnish Duke's reputation? On the contrary, Mr. Willimon contends, the school will emerge better off. In fact, he says, the anti-intellectualism debate has led to many thoughtful conversations.

Fraternities are at the center of the discussion. Partly because of their privileged housing position in the heart of campus, fraternities at Duke seem to monopolize campus social life.

Critics say Duke's Greek life fosters anti-intellectualism on campus, as well as sexism. They point to fraternity traditions: "smokers," for example, where students watch strippers and pornographic films.

Margaret McKean, a political science professor, says students have the right to be foolish -- except when it hurts other people. In words that have been much quoted around campus, she called for fraternities to have at least "the same standards as a sleazy, all-night bar."

And even students who don't like fraternity parties admit fraternities are only part of the problem.

Kendra Hudson, a senior cultural anthropology major from Virginia, picked Duke because of its academic reputation.

"I was expecting people to be more serious, more focused on academics than they are," she says. "Students perceive the university as a stepping stone. They do what they need to do, and that's it."

Others believe faculty members should share the blame.

"If students were really working hard, then most of this other stuff would disappear," says Lawrence Evans, a Duke physics professor.

Mr. Willimon says that whatever consequences this debate might have, Duke is privileged to be at a fork in the road.

L Janet Dickerson, vice president for student affairs, agrees.

"In a way," she says, "I think that a discussion is more important than any outcome."

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