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Big Duke and Me

Updated: May 13

My first interaction with “Big Duke”, the interlocking system of protocols and procedure, offices and administrators, that together comprise Duke’s response to campus sexual violence arrived two months after I first stepped foot on campus. I woke up on a Sunday morning to find panicked texts in a group chat composed of students living in my dorm. I had gone to bed early the night before; while I slept, one of my closest friends was sexually assaulted in the woods outside of a fraternity party. That night, the police were called, a rape kit completed at the Duke Hospital. At that point, I trusted Duke to do the right thing. When my friend came to me for advice, unsure of what to do next, I encouraged her to file an official Title IX report with the university. Duke can help, I thought.


Four years later, and I have seen the ins and outs of how Big Duke deals with sexual violence, beyond what most undergraduates get to see. I’ve been in a hearing room for a Title IX investigation, questioned witnesses, tapped out a closing statement on my laptop. I listened as a verdict of “Not Responsible” was returned, despite the evidence that was, in my opinion at least, overwhelming. Fueled by anger and guilt, I ended up on the Sexual Misconduct Task Force, and listened as administrators talked about “finding the timing” or “creating more subcommittees”. I left most of those meetings more angry than when I began. I started working on a Bass Connection project, aimed at identifying effective sorts of training and new prevention models. I wrote and spoke about sexual violence on our campus; I stood in front of rooms of hundreds of fraternity men and asked them to consider what it really means to experience sexual violence. Despite the time and energy we poured into our research, our efforts, nothing seemed to change.


Broken trust is a contagious phenomenon; when friends came to me in the years after, asking whether or not they should report to the university, I wasn’t sure what to say. I always encourage those friends to get the accommodations they need: housing, academic, a no-contact order. But when I’m asked about the hearing process—the single most disheartening and difficult thing I have ever witnessed—I remain unconvinced that there is a right thing to say. How can I recommend a hearing process that is dehumanizing and debilitating? I suppose I could, in good conscience, recommend that my friends submit themselves to this process if I believed it would yield some sort of positive result. Many of the survivors I know are looking for some sort of validation, someone to say “I know you were hurt. This shouldn’t have happened to you. There will be accountability”. If I thought the hearing process would provide that validation, I would be willing to encourage more people to go through it.


The name Big Duke encapsulates the way I have come to feel about how Duke deals with sexual violence. Big Duke is cold, unfeeling, calculating. Big Duke is not the senior administrator who teared up, listening to a monologue about surviving sexual assault. Big Duke is not the therapists at the Women’s Center who have dedicated their lives to healing. Big Duke is not the many, many well-meaning individuals on this campus who don’t want this epidemic to continue. But for better or worse, all of these individuals who I have come to know over the past four years, students included, are caught up in the bureaucracy that is Duke. Sexual violence on this campus won’t disappear because there are well-meaning people who want it to disappear. If we are to truly eradicate sexual violence from our campus, that effort must be a top priority, not an afterthought, on a scale that might be difficult to imagine to those who believe a once monthly task force meeting is the best we can do. I don’t mean to sound ungrateful towards the students and teams I have worked alongside of, even as I air these frustrations. I think we have much to be proud of—I just wish that our progress had been alongside the broader Duke administration and not in spite of it.


My friends and I are seniors, and graduation marches closer day by day, even if the ceremony looks nothing like what we were expecting. For better or worse, there isn’t anything more Duke can do for us, Duke will have to count up successes and failures of this class and tally the results. When I think about sexual violence on Duke’s campus now, I don’t think about my friends, but about the students that will follow us and the students that will follow them. I think about the high school freshman who believes Duke is her dream school, who will one day feel the same sense of awe that I did looking up at the Chapel for the very first time. Duke can help, I thought back then. Help me understand what I want, who I’m going to be. Duke can help me get to where I want to go, Duke can help me make this world a better place somehow, some way. Again, when I first faced the ugly realities of this campus, I thought the same thing. Even now, in the midst of this crisis, Duke can help. I still believe that’s true. The question isn’t whether or not Duke can help, it is whether or not Duke will.