John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

Surely We Can Do Better

John N. Gardner
President
As a career higher education leader there are, of course, all kinds of trade publications I read regularly for administrators and leaders of higher education. No surprise there. Nor is there any surprise in that the publication that I read the most faithfully that is not written expressly for higher educators is The New York Times.

I have been doing this daily since I was seventeen years old and a freshman in college. I had a political science professor who suggested that if one wanted to be a serious student in his discipline that one really needed to read The Times. I wasn’t sharp enough then to realize how conservative he was. Nor would I have known the significance of this professor’s own graduate school mentor at the University of Chicago, Professor Leo Strauss, the intellectual father of the “neocons” who brought us the invasion of Iraq. As I think about this now, I have to wonder how many of the professional conservatives faithfully read The Times as I do. Anyway, this is turning out to be a bit of a tangent. I was trying to make the point that this was just one of the many behaviors I acquired in college that have provided supportive foundations for my adult life.
So every day when I am home in Brevard, N.C I get The Times and one of my favorite things to do on any Sunday, is to read The Sunday Times. In today’s edition, there was an article in a section I generally do not read in any depth, “Sunday Styles”. There was a piece entitled “After Class, Skimpy Equality”. It was about the dominance on elite college and university campuses (e.g. Duke was the campus in particular focus) of men over women. An example given that really captured my attention was the reporting of an e-mail sent last fall by a Duke fraternity to 300 female Duke students inviting them to attend a Halloweenparty dressed to look like sluts. Yes, you read that correctly: “sluts”. And I quote from the invitation:
Whether your (misspelling that of the quoted author, not this blogger) dressing up as a slutty nurse, a slutty doctor, a slutty schoolgirl, or just a total slut, we invite you………”
The article further reported that even though the invitation was widely circulated and became the source of heated controversy, and “official indignation” leading to the establishment of an official “Greek Women’s Initiative”, still hundreds of Duke women went to that party, with a reported “many” dressing in the manner in which they had been invited.
I just haven’t been able to stop thinking about this. Now this isn’t one of the nearly 4000 or so US NON selective colleges and universities. This is one of the most elite, highly selective universities in the world for a student body that is in every manner privileged. If there should be women anywhere who are smart enough, accomplished enough, self assured enough to not be enticed to such an event, it should be at Duke.
Perhaps this story caught my attention because I live in North Carolina. Or because I am married to a very smart Dukie. Or perhaps because in my work I see so many examples of women outperforming women in every area of college life.  Or because I expected better of an elite college. Or because I just didn’t want to believe this.
But surely we can do better. Yet if this is going on at Duke, what should I be assuming is happening at all the less selective places? I have always known that the need to fit in, belong, be accepted, go with the herd, is so powerful that it is impossible to resist—even for the best and the brightest.
In the same article a female junior at the University of Utah was quoted as saying:
“Personally, I think that this is the time in your life when you’re most experimental….It’s the designated time to try new things and get stuff out of your system……….”
Well, I thought about that observation long and hard. And for reasons totally unrelated to the focus of this article about the low standards for campus social life being set by the alpha males seeking to exploit their vulnerable female colleagues, I came to the conclusion that for this male, former undergraduate student, now about 45 years out of college, that this is the time in life when I am the most “experimental.” My realization had nothing to do with my own sexual behavior but rather my professional work related behavior. There are lots of reasons why this is the case and those are not the subject of this posting. But this insight made me realize I truly am a long way from my undergraduate days, in which I never contributed to the creation of an undergraduate campus culture which demeaned women. My campus did have powerful Greek letter student organizations. And what I saw of their “rush” practices (when a group offered to take me to a brother in Wheeling, West Virginia), their hazing practices, and overall dominant value structures, made me disinclined to join them. And it wasn’t until about 20 years later when a dean of students at the University of South Carolina talked me into becoming a faculty advisor for a fraternity—admonishing me that it was a lot easier for me to criticize these groups than to do something constructive to try to influence them. So I accepted the challenge and served in that role for 16 years, four times as long as it took me to get through college. And I am positive that “my boys” never issued such an invitation as that reported for this Duke fraternity. Maybe my boys just weren’t creative enough. Or maybe none of them would ever have been able to face their faculty advisor and acknowledge authorship for such an invitation. So where is the adult supervision at Duke? Surely we can do better.

One Comment

  1. BryceSeptember 2, 2011 at 10:52 amReply

    This post raises an interesting question about "selectivity" and the kinds of differences we should expect between students at selective schools and non-selective schools.

    At times, I think we make too much of "selectivity" and make false assumptions about the students admitted to these types of institutions. In my experience at one of these so-called "selective" institutions the only real difference between students at selective institutions and the rest of the pack are slightly higher HS GPAs, more impressive standardized test scores, and extracurricular activities that affluent parents could afford to provide.

    I'm not sure they are any more mature or committed to education than many of the students at a typical state school.

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