Duke's moral hazard

The facts are still bubbling to the surface for Duke University since its lacrosse team went wild one night last March. Even with what little is known, Duke hasn't shied away from relearning a key lesson: No education is complete without character education.

The North Carolina school is hardly alone among colleges and universities in being forced back to the task of shaping a student's personal behavior, both on and off campus, after suffering a disturbing incident - especially one involving the hiring of strippers for a spring-break party, underage drinking, and possibly racial slurs and rape.

As money pressures have risen in higher education to cater mainly to career preparation or sports entertainment, moral training has too often been left behind. The educator's role of shaping a young person's conscience slips away. At Duke, the public shame brought about by the boorish, "Animal House" antics of one men's athletic team may bring it back to teaching the basis for all other learning.

Last Monday, the first reports recommending changes at the school were delivered to Duke's president, Richard H. Brodhead, who had set up five different investigations after the incident. One report found that university administrators knew since 2004 of the team's "extensive disciplinary record" - the lacrosse players, who represent less than 1 percent of students, were responsible for 11 percent of misconduct cases. The school's attitude toward misconduct was judged "casual, arbitrary, and often ineffective."

Among these early suggestions are stronger rules against alcohol use and sexual exploitation, changes in the code of conduct, and better communication between coaches and Duke's disciplinary body.

And even though Duke ranks high in racial diversity, the school still needs to instill mutual respect and a greater sense of community. One probe found the lacrosse athletes had a crass, "Lord of the Flies" behavior, doing things in packs - living in the same dorms, holding drinking games - and largely living in a moral vacuum, away from adult supervision or other students.

Reshaping campus culture around moral character will mean better integrating academic and nonacademic life, as well as guiding behavior on and off campus.

It's worth pointing out that Duke's landmark is its chapel. Indeed, a recent survey of college students nationwide by the University of California at Los Angeles found a hunger for more spiritual help and growth in higher education. A large majority of students say their teachers don't do enough to discuss meaning and purpose in life.

There's a big spiritual disconnect on campuses. Professors need to bring out qualities such as compassion, integrity, and service to others in their students as well as give them knowledge and reasoning skills.

While the courts deal with rape charges against two of the lacrosse players, Duke itself is "committed to using this moment to find ways to educate our students about the meaning of the choices they make," says its president.

If it implements the recommendations of its five committees, Duke may be able to recover its reputation, reminding other schools to teach to the heart as well as to the head.

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