Duke case spurs US colleges to clean up campus culture

While the case is over for the former lacrosse players, it has prompted soul-searching at many colleges and refining of student policies.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

For three lacrosse players at Duke University, the year-long ordeal of defending themselves against incendiary sexual-assault charges is over, the case dropped Wednesday after North Carolina's attorney general declared the three "wrongly accused." But it's not over for the broader campus community.

Concern about the alcohol-fueled party that provided the backdrop to the case prompted Duke administrators and faculty to undertake an introspective examination of campus culture – a process that is outlasting the case itself. It's forced a closer look at everything from the unofficial school motto – changed from "Work Hard, Play Hard" to "Work Hard, Play Well" – to ideas for closer supervision of student drinking to why 44 percent of black students had complained of racial discrimination by their sophomore year.

The notoriety of the case forced Duke to the front of academe in this evaluation of student life and campus culture. But colleges across the US are also soul-searching and refining policies in the wake of the case, recognizing that Duke is not the only campus where the confluence of race, sex, privilege, and booze could spark a scandal.

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"In part because of the Duke scandal, there's a trend in higher education towards increasing accountability for perpetrators, more and better support for victims, and ... more intensive prevention programs," says Alan Berkowitz, a social justice consultant in Trumansburg, N.Y.

The case began when three Duke University lacrosse players were indicted last spring on charges of rape, kidnapping, and sexual assault. A woman told police that she was assaulted at an off-campus house in Durham, N.C., where she had been hired to perform as a dancer during a team party March 13, 2006. In the aftermath, Duke canceled the rest of the team's 2006 season and the lacrosse coach resigned. Then in December, the district attorney dropped the rape charges against the players after the accuser "could no longer testify with certainty that it occurred," according to court documents.

To some critics, the affair spoke volumes about how universities sometimes are willing to compromise their ideals to protect lucrative programs.

"The very first thing is [for colleges to] meet the minimum standards of behavior in society, and they can't even do that," says Mal Kline, director of Accuracy in Academia in Washington. "It comes back to the schools, really."

However, since the case came to the fore last spring, colleges have been instituting or hurrying planned changes to address the problems of an athletics-dominated college atmosphere where even Division III schools are relying on fine-tuned squads to draw recruits and prestige.

They've been helped in their efforts by United Educators Insurance (UEI), a 1,200 member college consortium, which has held several conferences to bring college officials up to speed on the changing nature of colleges' liability for off-campus incidents.

"The Duke situation does reinforce the importance of not presuming a student is guilty, but, while tragic for the individuals involved, it has also had the important effect of causing universities to rethink the role athletes play and the rules that govern conduct," says Karen-Ann Broe, a risk analyst at UEI.

The University of Texas and University of Georgia have begun acting faster to suspend athletes for off-the-field incidents involving beer and marijuana. The University of Alabama has tightened conduct policies for athletes and changed contracts for coaches so they are more responsible for the actions of players. And at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., last year a women's soccer coach was fired after pictures of a hazing ritual were posted on a social- networking website.

NCAA athletic conferences have hired teams of sexual violence counselors to hold special seminars for athletes. But more colleges are also putting big-name New York image consultants on retainer to prepare for a possible scandal.

At Duke, a new $30-million volunteer service program called DukeEngage pays for students to go out in the "real world" and help people. Though unconnected to the case, the school sped up the February announcement of the program. More quietly, the university is fixing up and selling off 12 off-campus homes it rented to students – including the one where the lacrosse players held their now infamous party.

One recommendation is to limit the amount of time faculty spend on committees so they can spend more time with students. But bridging that gap won't be easy since most university budgets are driven by projects that typically involve professors leading teams of graduate students, not freshmen. Other suggestions will be presented to the Duke trustees this fall, including a proposal to create a 400-seat campus drinking area.

There's evidence that Duke's soul-searching had an impact on the campus. Judicial procedures on campus dropped by 85 percent after the case. And though applications were down 20 percent early in the year, the year-end total of around 20,000 was only 1 percent behind last year's crop – including a record number from African-Americans.

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