Friday, July 14, 2006

The Baldwin Scholars experience during the Duke lacrosse scandal

As a fan of women in science and medicine and father of a little girl, I get periodic updates from one of the country's best academic personal development programs for young female scholars: The Baldwin Scholars Program at Duke University. Named for Alice M. Baldwin, the first female faculty member at Trinity College (the forerunner to Duke University), the Baldwin Scholars program provides a curriculum and framework for young women to cultivate their leadership skills from day one on campus.

The lacrosse scandal this year has provided an unusual living laboratory in which the scholars have had to confront their own preconceptions about each other and the larger Duke community. Beyond issues of race, entitlement, and sexual violence, the greatest challenge to the Duke woman came an amazingly myopic but thought-provoking article in Rolling Stone, Sex and Scandal at Duke, by Janet Reitman.

Take, for instance, the following quote from Reitman's article:
Among Naomi and her friends, a certain weariness creeps in when discussing the whole scene. ''Girls reduce themselves a lot here in order to be able to have the sexual freedom that I think they don't have by doing that,'' says Naomi. She sighs. ''There's a big difference between the global values and feminist ideals we think we should be subscribing to and the behavior a lot of us exhibit -- and I do it too,'' she admits. But maybe not as much as some of her friends, she adds. ''One of my friends thinks she's the biggest feminist, but to me she is one of the biggest anti-feminists, just because of her sexual behavior'' -- which is hooking up with several guys in the course of a weekend, including one, a ''regular'' who ''really treats her like shit.''

This example (and there are many other more graphic examples in Reitman's article) illustrating the blurring between sexual freedom and simply being a sex toy of the jock/BMOC patriarchy led Tracy Clark-Flory to query outloud in Salon: Is feminism dead at Duke?

But, as always, how representative is Reitman's article of the collective of Duke women? The answer is never easy and the effort it takes to dissect multiple truths isn't always amenable to sound bites, or even a four-page Rolling Stone article.

The previous sentence is lifted in part from a very eloquent and frank essay on the front page of the new Baldwin Scholars newsletter that just came in the e-mail box yesterday. Co-Director, Dr. Donna Lisker, really caught my attention with her take on the rollercoaster ride of this past semester through the eyes of a program meant to celebrate and cultivate leadership and self-confidence in young women. With Dr. Lisker's permission, I'd like to reproduce it here in its entirety, just to give voice to the complex nature of the kinds of discussions we've had around town over the last few months:

An Alternative Image of Duke - Donna E. Lisker, Ph.D.

It’s been a rough few months at Duke. When the sexual assault allegations against the men’s lacrosse team broke in late March, those of us who work and study here found ourselves in the midst of a media maelstrom. Satellite trucks were lined up four deep, first on the main quad, then relocated to the parking lot of the Bryan Center. Anyone walking across campus was fair game for a roving reporter. The novelty of this situation quickly wore off, especially given the complexity of the issues rocking the campus and the deep emotions connected to those issues. How can you talk about the legacy of racism in a sound bite? How do you discuss the complicated intertwined history of Duke and Durham in 30 seconds or less?

Most reporters took the easy way out, seeking interview subjects who would declare their opinion in absolutes. This was certainly Rolling Stone’s approach; their reporter identified four undergraduate women, all sorority members, who believed staunchly in the innocence of the accused men. She then followed them around, took careful note of their social patterns, and wrote a piece that presented their social lives (focused heavily on alcohol, drugs, and sex) as typical of all Duke students.

I spent two hours with the Rolling Stone reporter when she was on campus. I agreed with her that some undergraduate women lead social lives that seem incompatible with their intelligence and ambition. We talked about why that happens, about how pleasing male peers becomes more important than staying true to one’s self. I talked about patriarchy, about effortless perfection, about some insidious aspects of female socialization. I also told her over and over and over again – that the social scene she was witnessing represented just one subculture at Duke, and that many Duke students would find it as unfamiliar as she did. Unfortunately, the reporter did not include that context in her article, which made it a one- sided piece, an incomplete and inaccurate portrayal of Duke.

What would a complete and accurate portrayal look like? I think back to how the Baldwin Scholars – 36 of them in the spring of 2006, 18 sophomores and 18 first-years – reacted to the accusations. We have a diverse group of women, nearly half of them women of color. We have varsity athletes (two from the women’s lacrosse team), feminist activists, sorority members, survivors of sexual violence, and political conservatives. Not surprisingly, they did not all agree on what had happened or on what should happen next. Different students approached the situation from different angles. Aria Branch appeared on Nightline with three other African-American students talking about the racial aspects of the Duke University situation. Our lacrosse players, Rachel Shack and Regan Bosch, appeared in an NBC piece about the success of the women’s team and the difficulty they had watching their male counterparts go through this ordeal. Rosanna Myers organized a meeting early on for women who wanted to protest the situation. Claire Lauterbach spearheaded a display of party posters, virtually all of them demeaning to women, that she and other Baldwin Scholars collected over the course of the year.

What was remarkable about this diversity of responses is that they all coexisted peacefully. The Baldwin Scholars gave one another the gift of respectful and constructive disagreement. What’s more, they did not let this highly polarizing experience split them by race, by campus affiliations, or by social class. They recognized that in a situation this complicated, there would be multiple truths, and they tried to see one another’s perspectives. In so doing, they were far ahead of most of the media professionals roaming campus throughout March and April. I spoke often of the Baldwin Scholars to the many reporters who interviewed me this spring; I wanted them to know about these remarkable young women leaders who were asking good questions and refusing to reduce the situation to its lowest common denominator. I thought they might learn something from them.

It was a stressful and difficult spring, but it convinced me of the value of the work we are doing with this program. Though the behavior portrayed in Rolling Stone is not ubiquitous, it’s true that too many undergraduate women pander to the low expectations of their peers, trading self-respect for popularity. The Baldwin Scholars provide an antidote to that phenomenon by stressing self-discovery, self-confidence, and being true to one’s own values. We were very proud of the way our Scholars handled themselves this spring and we look forward to their active participation in the campus culture conversations that will continue throughout the year.

Again, you can learn more here about The Baldwin Scholars Program at Duke University.


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