Not Illegal. Not Immoral. Just Hypocritical.

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.

Last 5 posts by Patrick Non-White


  1. says

    Ha. Crass, but typical. There is only one thing worse than a tyrannical regime, it's a tyrannical regime posing as a democracy/free country/tolerant nation/whatever. "We love free speech, and that's why you must shut up" ; "we are for bold thoughts, and that's why yours are inacceptable" ; "we guard freedom, and that's why we must repress your ass", etc.

    But in fact, it's all normal. After all, Freedom is Slavery. So it logically follows that Conformity is Intelligence.

  2. Randall says

    Clearly, the school administration has been reading the necronomicon. That explains the loss of sanity, which in turn explains any number of policies and events.

  3. Old Geezer says

    Or, perhaps, we don't know the entire background here. Perhaps, (although we don't know) the program was structured precisely to prevent any expression of an opinion counter to their own. Perhaps, (although we don't know) the university engaged in discussions with DSFL in the hope of presenting a more balanced program on campus that would "…advance the frontiers of knowledge…" Perhaps, (although we don't know) there is nothing in the mission statement that actually supports free speech on this private university campus. My guess is that they are very selective about programs advancing the cause of sedition, child pornography and any number of other topics. But, of course, we don't know. We can only criticize from afar.

  4. says

    I like free speech. I don't like ideological orthodoxy. That said . . .

    I'm a little unclear on the exact nature of the Duke Women's Center. Is it more like a "public forum" (sort of, within the context of a private university) at large, or is it more like a forum created for a particular student group or set of groups?

    FIRE is currently advocating strongly and skillfully, in a matter accepted for review by the Supreme Court, that public schools violate the First Amendment rights of free speech and free association of student groups when it forces those groups to accept students for voting membership even when those students hold views antithetical to the group's views. In other words, FIRE argues (correctly, I think) that Christian groups are exercising free speech and free association rights when they deny voting membership to non-Christians or people who engage in practices antithetical to those groups' interpretations of Christian doctrine.

    If the Women's Center is more like a resource for a single group or confederation of groups, rather than a resource for the student body as a whole, it's not clear to me why this isn't analogous. I might entirely disagree with the Women's Center's decision. I might think it betrays one of the worst and self-destructive elements of academic feminism, which is ideological orthodoxy and intolerance for dissent. I might think (strike that, I do think) that it's an approach that subtly suggests that women are delicate creatures who can't handle opposing views — even on a college campus — and therefore perhaps ought not be trusted to handle your IPO or Supreme Court argument or heart surgery or whatever. But ultimately, if the Women's Center is a resource "belonging" to just one group or set of groups, this is an exercise of free association and free speech that I think is comparable to the ones that FIRE defends elsewhere.

    Now, I may be entirely wrong in my interpretation of the Women's Center — perhaps it's supposed to be a resource for the entire student body for any activities related to "women's issues." If that is so, then not only do the criticisms in the previous paragraph apply, but I also agree wholeheartedly with Patrick that it's a betrayal of Duke's stated values, and of the values one ought to associate with a University.

    To summarize, my view depends on whether the Women's Center is an asset for the entire community that Duke has turned over to one group to administer, or whether it's that group's own asset to administer.

  5. says


    Thank you for your thoughts. In FIRE’s press release and letter we deal with this issue directly. The Duke Women’s Center promises in its mission that it “welcomes discordant viewpoints from varied experiences” and that it exists to "promote[] a campus culture that ensures the full participation and agency of women students at Duke." Duke Women's Center Gender Violence Prevention Specialist Martin Liccardo told Duke Students for Life directly that the reason the event was cancelled was because it was associated with the pro-life group and their “Week for Life” events. It was a case of ideological discrimination by a university institution that claims not to ideologically discriminate on that basis.

    Luke Sheahan
    Director, Campus Freedom Network
    Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE)

    Duke Women’s Center mission:

    FIRE press release:

    FIRE’s letter to Duke:

  6. says

    Luke, I saw that. Obviously there's no doubt that the Women's Center staff canceled the event for failure to abide by rigid ideological orthodoxy. I think it's also clear that the cancellation contradicts the Women's Center's own mission statement. That, alone, is worthy of critique.

    Respectfully, though, that doesn't quite answer my question. I still don't know whether the Women's Center is an asset controlled by the women's groups, or by Duke. Therefore I don't know if this represents just the Women's Center betraying its own putative commitment to "discordant viewpoints", or whether it represents Duke doing so as well. Put another way, I don't know whether this is analogous to women's groups exercising freedom of association (albeit in a way we find contemptible), or analogous to a university suppressing alternate viewpoints. To press the analogy further, if a Christian group at a state university professed to welcome diverse viewpoints, but was hypocritical and actually excluded open gays from leadership, I assume that FIRE would still stand by its stance that the group was exercising protected freedom of association rights, hypocrisy aside.

    It's a difficult matter to suss out because we're treating for the sake of argument as a First Amendment situation even though it's a private university.

    And allow me to express, as I have before here, my abiding respect and admiration for FIRE, even though I occasionally disagree with its analysis. FIRE does a better job than any entity I know in pursuing the goal of ideologically even-handed protection of free speech, as seen in the recent Corpus Christi incident.

  7. Patrick says

    To answer your question Ken, the Women's Center is owned and controlled by Duke. Not by a private, Duke-affiliated organization like a fraternity or a a religious fellowship.

    As for how I know this. Well, you know how I know this. 'Nuff said.

  8. says

    Yes. I hope the front porch wasn't too cold.

    Given that answer, which I accept (and interpret as saying that the Women's Center is not analogous to a resource turned over to a student group for its own discretionary use), I agree with your assessment and FIRE's.