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Duke incident reveals deep issues, United Methodist leaders say

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A UMNS photo courtesy of Duke University

A scandal involving the Duke University lacrosse team has uncovered issues of values and privilege within higher education.
April 13, 2006

A UMNS Report
By Linda Green*

The sex scandal involving the Duke University men’s lacrosse team has brought to the surface multiple issues about privilege and cultural values within higher education, the church and wider society, according to a United Methodist bishop.

Issues raised from the controversy at the United Methodist-related school “are far more systemic and widespread” than the college and its larger community of Durham, N.C., said Bishop Ken Carder, director of pulpit and pew at the Duke Center for Excellence in Ministry at Duke Divinity School.

An African-American female student at North Carolina Central University said that on the night of March 13, three white students at Duke, members of the lacrosse team, pushed her into a bathroom and raped her. The players deny any wrongdoing. Both sides agree only that they had hired her as an exotic dancer for their off-campus party. The university suspended the team’s season and cancelled all related activities.

“We have to have confidence that the police investigation will ultimately reveal the truth,” said John Burness, senior vice president for public affairs and government relations at Duke, in an April 10 statement. DNA results, released by authorities April 11, did not implicate the players whom the woman alleged raped her at the party.

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Bishop Ken Carder

The situation has pitted the university against its surrounding community over issues of gender, race, class and violence.

“ This episode has touched off angers, fears, resentments, and suspicions that range far beyond this immediate cause,” wrote Duke President Richard H. Brodhead, in a letter to alumni and parents. He stated that the situation has “underlying issues that have been of concern on this campus and in this town for some time — issues that are not unique to Duke or Durham but that have been brought to the fore in our midst.”

It was only 40 years ago that the university admitted its first African-American student, and today only 11 percent of the student body is non-white racial-ethnic. The tuition hovers around $40,000 per year, while 50 percent of Durham’s African-American population lives below the poverty line. Durham was also the site of lunch counter sit-ins during the civil rights movement.

In addition to the rape allegations, Brodhead said the issues of race and gender at the university today have been intensified by “concerns about the deep structures of inequality in our society — inequalities of wealth, privilege and opportunity (including educational opportunity), and the attitudes of superiority those inequalities breed.”

The alleged rape and “inexcusable racial slurs” reported in connection with it have brought to light “the dark realities” of systemic racism, economic disparity, sexual exploitation, alcohol abuse, “privilege-induced blindness and insensitivities and our ill-formed communities,” Carder said. “It is obvious that education and privilege do not eradicate endemic sin.”

'Culture of privilege'

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The Rev. Chester Jones

The Rev. Chester Jones, top executive of the United Methodist Commission on Religion and Race said that regardless of whether the accused members of the lacrosse team are innocent or guilty, “a culture of privilege has been revealed.”

“The stories of the lacrosse team’s privilege and elitism are echoed on campuses across the country,” he said.

Regardless of the type of team or who the students’ parents are, each college or university has a group that operates as though it is above the law, he said. “Unfortunately, often these groups are bastions of the type of behavior that is the antithesis of God’s love.”

M. Garlinda Burton, top executive of the United Methodist Commission on the Status and Role of Women, is concerned about the perception that “young white men of privilege feel that they have the right to purchase the sexual services of women of color with lesser financial means. Even if the women were paid to strip, they still had the right to say 'no' to sexual assault.”

While Duke University is undergoing public scrutiny, Carder said the school is also increasingly aware that issues of race, gender and class privilege intersect negatively with the sports culture, alcohol use and sexual mores on many campuses.

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M. Garlinda Burton

Colleges are filled with students from congregations, homes and communities from across the country who have been shaped by their experiences in those locales, he said. The institutions operate in a larger culture that does not challenge racism, economic inequality, sexual abuse, alcohol and drug abuse or elitism and fractured community.

Not only does the university fail in addressing the issues, “the church too often is silent and therefore complicit, while those without access to privilege and power are robbed of their dignity and denied the abundant life Christ desires for all,” Carder said.

Accusations of racism and sexual assault occur at colleges across the country, but Burton is concerned that a sports team at a United Methodist-related school would “invite women to debase themselves as strippers at their party in the name of so-called 'entertainment.' We have still got a long way to go in helping young men and women understand that sexual exploitation is not entertainment,” she said.

Describing church-related colleges as “nonsectarian,” Burton said a code of moral conduct should exist that “assumes that all people are children of God, made in God’s image and, therefore, we will not exploit or harm another person. Period.”

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Richard H. Brodhead

Too often, Jones said, the decision makers on a campus kowtow to the “kids will be kids” excuse, and that must be stopped. It is important for colleges to talk about the dynamics of power and privilege with students, and for staff and faculty to send a message that “using power and privilege to dehumanize others based on race, gender or any other classifications is wrong.”

“Rape is a gross misuse of power and an indication that there is neither a healthy nor positive understanding of male-female relationships and human sexuality,” he said.

Universities also must promote inclusion and understanding, Jones added.

Opportunity for healing

Carder acknowledged that Duke Divinity School shares the shame and turmoil the rape allegations created, and noted that the incident also creates an opportunity for the school to do something positive. “We have the opportunity and responsibility to be a means of repentance, reconciliation and renewal in this community, and to prepare men and women to lead congregations that will be models of compassion and justice.”

The university is attempting to begin the healing on the campus and in the Durham community. An interfaith prayer vigil was held April 12 in the Duke University Chapel, sponsored by the chapel and Duke Religious Life.

“ This is a time of questioning, of vulnerability, and of bewilderment for the whole community,” said Chapel Dean Sam Wells.

“ A lot of people are highlighting different kinds of divisions on and off campus,” Wells added. “The interfaith service is a demonstration of solidarity, a statement that people coming from a great diversity of faiths and backgrounds can still stand shoulder to shoulder in difficult times.”

*Green is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in Nashville, Tenn.

News media contact: Linda Green, (615) 742-5470 or

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