The Stone City

Words Made to Last

Monday, March 03, 2008

Downward Mobility

To update an old joke:
Q: How do you build a top-30 university?
A: It's easy; start with a top-10 one.

This is what the Duke University administration has been busily doing for two years now. Their latest newsmaker -- petitioning to shut down the website of the students who are suing the university and town -- is at least comprehensible: the administration is simply playing the bad hand they have dealt themselves.

Duke's rise as the uncontested flagship of the New South was amazing. In the 1980's, there was not much to choose between Duke and Georgia Tech; Rice was better at sciences and engineering, and U. Va. was better at everything else. Then, somehow, everything blossomed at once: Duke's bulked-up arts and humanities departments won top rankings, while its students won mathematics and computing competitions, and [perhaps most amazingly] it punched through the wall of northeastern self-regard to appear regularly in the U.S. News top five.

But a university is run by, and largely for the benefit of, its faculty. And that faculty, which had driven Duke's rise, naturally had a feeling of power and of secure rightness. They had come to this comparative backwater, and built it into something great, and that was a manifestation of their own intrinsic excellence -- and, for those trafficking in normative issues, of their tendency to be in the right. The politicized portion of the faculty would be irresistibly tempted by the case of the lacrosse players; and who could hold them back?

A university is sustained, over periods of decades, by the deep pockets of grateful alumni [especially those with marginally qualified teenage children] and by the confidence of top faculty that their efforts can be best rewarded there.

Who will be grateful to Duke now? Do its alumni now look forward to being able to announce their affiliation? And would they move heaven and earth -- or at least their bank accounts -- to expose their children to its lawless, envious, back-stabbing environment? I expect that the answers to these questions will be increasingly and embarrassingly clear.

Will the faculty, and the next generation of faculty, still look to Duke as the best avenue for their own advancement? Constancy is not one of the virtues this group has so far demonstrated; and the effort to convince young talent to cast their lot with a high-risk school will be difficult.

Duke is headed back into the obscurity from whence it came. Once again, U.Va. will be older; Rice will be better; and Georgia Tech will be cheaper.