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Duke in response mode

Swift action can save reputation

DURHAM, N.C. -- A pair of baseball players and their coach left Duke University last April in a steroid scandal. Two months later, the school's world-renowned hospital revealed that doctors operated on nearly 4,000 patients with instruments washed in used hydraulic fluid.

Now the campus is reeling from allegations that members of the nearly all-white men's lacrosse team raped a black stripper. No charges have been filed.

Duke's tough year has university administrators worried: Has this chain of ugly events damaged Duke's hard-earned image as the South's ''Ivy League" school? Will the latest scandal drive away students who strive to earn the academic credentials needed to win a coveted place in the classrooms of Duke's Gothic-styled campus?

''Did I make the wrong decision by accepting to go to this University???" a black 17-year-old asked in a posting made in a Duke forum on MySpace.com.

Duke officials picked up the pace of their reaction to the burgeoning scandal this past week. On Wednesday, it took the school just hours to cancel the lacrosse season and accept the resignation of coach Mike Pressler after the release of an e-mail sent by a team member that President Richard H. Brodhead called ''sickening and repulsive." That night, Brodhead initiated a series of internal investigations into Duke's response to the allegations and into whether the school has fostered a culture of intolerance and elitism.

Painful as this current self-examination may become, experts said Duke will weather the storm.

''Duke has already done more . . . than any other institution facing a crisis in the 21st century," said Sheldon Steinbach, general counsel of the American Council on Education. ''They have been forthcoming, open, honest -- to the extreme that's legally permissible -- and have not stonewalled or hunkered down."

The alleged rape March 14 at an off-campus house has turned up the heat on long-simmering tensions between Duke and some Durham residents, and among students of different races. The city's population is equally divided between blacks and whites, but only 11 percent of Duke's 6,200 undergraduates are black -- although that figure has about doubled in the past two decades.

''One of the things that's been, of course, really hurtful about this story is it's led people who've never been to Duke or Durham to think they know all about it because they've seen 30 seconds on TV or read a three-paragraph news story," Brodhead said.

In its latest report on ''The Best 361 Colleges," the Princeton Review ranked Duke fifth worst in the nation in town-gown relations, and sixth worst for race and class interaction. The report's author, Rob Franek, said this latest scandal could have lasting effects unless Duke responded aggressively.

''I think that the way they're going about it is proactive, and I believe that will resonate with a college-bound student population," said Franek.

In 2001, when the Princeton Review ranked Duke as the least tolerant of gays, Franek said the university took action. That included distributing thousands of T-shirts with the slogan ''Gay? Fine by Me." Even the university president wore one.

''They're off the list now," Franek said. ''That was proactively dealing with something."

The same thing can happen this time, he said.

''I think it will test the mettle of Duke's current administration as well as its current students as to how they deal with this issue," Franek said. ''Will they continuously follow through -- or will the issue just sit on a back burner? I don't think that that's going to happen."

Duke had nearly 20,000 applicants for the class of 2010, offering admission to 19 percent. Prospective freshmen will be on campus next week.

Robert J. Thompson Jr., vice provost for undergraduate education and dean of the undergraduate college of arts and sciences, said some prospective students have asked about the rape allegations during recent campus visits. But he hasn't heard of anyone changing their mind about coming to Duke, and he feels most people understand the alleged acts are ''so alien to our value system."

''We're responding in ways in which you would expect the university to respond," he said. ''I think we want to be very transparent about what it is we're dealing with and how we plan to go forward."

Steinbach said the impact of this scandal should be short-lived. He and others cited the University of Colorado, whose football program was rocked earlier this decade by allegations of rape and using sex as a recruiting tool. There was a drop in out-of-state applications in the scandal's immediate aftermath, but ''that has been rectified," Steinbach said.

''The short-term impact, if there will be any, will probably be on the lacrosse recruits who are currently in high school, some of whom might decide another climate may be more hospitable for the next year," he said.

New York banker Thomas Clark, incoming president of the Duke Alumni Association, said Brodhead's office is averaging about 1,000 e-mails a week about the controversy. He said the vast majority have been supportive.

''Whenever a school like Duke that is on such a pedestal, given its success in so many areas, any time there's a problem, it stands in such contrast to the typical and ordinary image," said Clark. ''The silver lining is the approach that the university has taken, which is one of what one can learn from this."

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