Creating a Culture of Character

The Duke Chronicle
Duke University

In a recent letter to the Duke community, Duke President Richard Brodhead wrote about the need to take the “ethical dimension of education” more seriously in light of the rape allegations against members of the men’s lacrosse team.

President Brodhead is on to something. Duke has high standards when it comes to academics, but we don’t have high standards when it comes to carrying ourselves with character — with dignity, courtesy towards others, self-restraint in the face of temptation and a sense of personal responsibility.

Admittedly, we have a Community Standard and various rules and regulations, but student conduct over the past academic year has demonstrated that these have done little to cultivate a culture of character.

Rather, much of student life is pervaded by a culture of alcohol abuse, sexual looseness, noise violations, public urination and other forms of boorish behavior-what I call the culture of crassness.

For example, one Saturday afternoon last October, I was walking across the Main West Quad towards the Chapel. A group of three students holding cups of beer surrounded me and asked, “Can I pour beer on you?” They proceeded to follow me and make lewd remarks.

That students feel perfectly free to openly engage in such behavior-deriving pleasure from demeaning others-speaks volumes about our campus culture.

This culture of crassness is particularly ironic given that Duke’s most iconic symbol is its chapel-the very place from which a culture of character has traditionally been promulgated.

The ongoing investigation of rape allegations against men’s lacrosse players has brought to attention how low our standard of acceptable conduct has fallen.

On the night of the alleged rape, an e-mail sent from a lacrosse player’s account referred to strippers and said, “i plan on killing the bitches as soon as [they] walk in and proceding to cut their skin off while c- in my duke issue spandex.”

While many people, such as President Brodhead, have rightly described the e-mail as “sickening,” it is disturbing that many have also dismissed it as a mere joke. One person said in The Chronicle last week that the content of the e-mail, in slightly altered form, could have appeared in student conversation at the Great Hall.

If true, we should be deeply troubled that sadistic enjoyment of heinous murder and mutilation has become an acceptable subject for dinnertime conversation.

New York Times columnist David Brooks had it right when he referred to the e-mail in a recent column by saying, “The person who felt free to send this message to his buddies had crashed through several moral guardrails. A community so degraded, you might surmise, is not a long way from actual sexual assault.”

You don’t have to be a psychologist to know that our thoughts influence our emotions, which influence our behaviors. “Ideas have consequences,” author David Horowitz said in a talk last month.

A culture of crassness can’t be pinned just on lacrosse players, however. As individuals, we have to look at ourselves in the mirror. Every time we egg someone on during a drinking game or cheer for someone engaging in raucous tailgate antics, we are positively reinforcing such behavior and propagating the culture of crassness at the expense of a culture of character.

To be fair, not all Duke students embrace the culture of crassness, and most are not completely steeped within it. Rather, we all sit at varying places along the spectrum from crassness to character. Unfortunately, though, too many of us have gravitated towards the undesirable end of that spectrum. And, these are the students who receive the most public attention.

In response to the rape allegations, President Brodhead has proposed the Campus Culture Initiative to improve “the ways Duke educates students in the values of personal responsibility, consideration for others, and mutual respect.” It’s unfortunate that some students didn’t learn these values before entering college.

Approaching graduation next month, I’m sincerely thankful for the high-caliber education I’ve received. I only hope that in its upward trajectory, Duke insists upon high standards of conduct and demands a culture of character.

Preeti Aroon is a graduate student in public policy.