DURHAM, N.C. -- Most people know Duke University for its championship basketball teams, mostly white in an era of black domination of the sport. Duke's professoriate would prefer Duke to be known as the "Harvard of the South," a school as good as any in the Ivy League and with better weather. But now Duke is known for its lacrosse team.
The lacrosse scandal hovers over Duke and Durham as a cloud of gloom, threatening to darken the surrounding forest greens, with azaleas exploding in colorful profusion and wisteria adding a lavender blush to roads and paths. Three young white athletes have been accused by a black exotic dancer hired to perform at a team party of forcing her into a bathroom for a bout of rough sex. A test of DNA was negative; the district attorney says she identified one attacker from a photograph and the prosecution will proceed. The dancer, a single mother and a student at a predominantly black college nearby, asserts that several broken false fingernails left behind are testimony to her struggle.
The plot is thickening into the Gothic tale that makes the South so irresistible to novelists. Consider the setting: Duke, sometimes called "the Plantation," stands apart from blue collar Durham. The university is a successor to tiny Trinity College, which relocated from rural Randolph County in 1859 when it agreed to train preachers in return for support from the Methodist Church, and endowed in 1924 with a new name and money from the prosperous Duke tobacco family. Durham, on the other hand, recalls "Tobacco Road," Erskine Caldwell's gritty tale of hardscrabble life and hard times in the Southern mill towns. The median income in Durham would just about pay for a year at Duke.
Most of Duke's 6,400 undergraduates, 11 percent of whom are black and who pay $43,000 a year for tuition, room and board, come from out of state. Like most of the campuses of the elites, Duke is decidedly liberal. When David Horowitz lectured here last month to promote his "Academic Bill of Rights," he was jeered and heckled for rebuking the liberal hypocrisy of the campus, scolding tenured professors for allowing their politics to take precedence over scholarship. "Didn't your mother teach you manners?" he asked the students. Jeers turned to cheers. Good manners, even on an elite and liberal campus, still trump politics in the South.