The mission statement published by the Duke University Board of Trustees proclaims the school's object as follows:
the mission of Duke University is to provide a superior liberal education to undergraduate students, attending not only to their intellectual growth but also to their development as adults committed to high ethical standards and full participation as leaders in their communities; to prepare future members of the learned professions for lives of skilled and ethical service by providing excellent graduate and professional education; to advance the frontiers of knowledge and contribute boldly to the international community of scholarship; to promote an intellectual environment built on a commitment to free and open inquiry; to help those who suffer, cure disease, and promote health, through sophisticated medical research and thoughtful patient care; to provide wide ranging educational opportunities, on and beyond our campuses, for traditional students, active professionals and life-long learners using the power of information technologies; and to promote a deep appreciation for the range of human difference and potential, a sense of the obligations and rewards of citizenship, and a commitment to learning, freedom and truth.
Unfortunately, the university's conduct often undercuts that noble statement, even toward students who don't play lacrosse.
For instance, Duke students who don't follow the approved line on abortion may find their ability to engage in "free and open inquiry" significantly limited.
Duke University's Women's Center has canceled an event about motherhood because the sponsor was engaging in pro-life expression elsewhere on campus. A Women's Center representative told Duke Students for Life (DSFL) that "we have a problem" and an ideological "conflict" with the event, which was supposedly canceled to protect Duke women from encountering the event during the group's "traumatizing" pro-life "Week for Life."
As a private university, Duke of course has the freedom to allow or prohibit any message it favors or opposes. The protection the First Amendment provides to students at state schools from an overbearing administration does not apply to Duke, any more than it applies in my living room. If you say something I don't want to hear about a hotbutton political issue at my house, I can silence you or kick you out. If you say something Duke doesn't want to hear about abortion at its women's center, Duke can do the same. The police and the courts will back them up.
But here's a difference. I most emphatically do not promote my living room as a forum for providing a superior education, liberal or illiberal; as an intellectual environment built on a commitment to free and open inquiry; or as a place deeply appreciative of human difference. My house is a tyranny of the mind, ruled by a primitive troglodyte king who demands intellectual obeisance from all who enter.
Duke, on the other hand, does not promote itself as a tyranny of the mind, but more as an idealized, modern version of Plato's academy, or John Cardinal Newman's Idea of a University come to ivy walled life. The school promises its students, the parents who pay its outrageous tuition, and the governments that subsidize it, "wide ranging educational opportunities" and a "commitment to freedom."
As long as they say the right things. Celebrating National Coming Out Day, or reading Bitch magazine, as the women's center's website suggests, are all a part of a wide ranging education rooted in intellectual freedom.
But dissenting about abortion? Well there's a lovely Holiday Inn down the road where you can hold your event. Hope you don't get mugged in the parking lot.
Of course, the fundamental hypocrisy is this. Professors and administrators will tell you that one of the goals of a Duke education is to make students confront ideas with which they may be uncomfortable. To shock them out of their complacent little worlds into a new, larger world of ideas, where students learn to weigh those ideas and hopefully come closer to something resembling the truth.
Unfortunately, it appears that the shocks run all in one direction at Duke, or at least at its women's center. The stated reason for the cancellation of this event is precisely that it makes students uncomfortable. While in the world at large the idea that some women might not think abortion is a liberating experience, or even that it should be illegal, isn't controversial at all, at Duke it goes beyond the pale. A pro-life message is forbidden knowledge, to be guarded as closely as that damned Necronomicon kept under lock and key at the university library.
Again, this form of censorship at a school which merely promotes itself as a free forum for education and the exchange of ideas, is not illegal. It may not even be immoral. But it most certainly is hypocritical. And it's misleading. Parents considering Duke as a four year home for their special snowflakes should be warned that if they really want a school where free speech and open debate are the rule, they should shop elsewhere.