Race and grades: a point of contention

Questions of race and civil rights have been on everyone’s mind this week as UNC celebrated the anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s birth. Sadly, however, Duke’s own celebrations have been overshadowed by controversy.

A study by Duke researchers, which was written in June but has only recently gained attention, claims black students at Duke pursue less rigorous academic paths than their white classmates. It also suggests that this is why black and white students at Duke have similar GPAs.

Duke’s black students have every right to be outraged and stage protests. But they could do more.

It seems that the students and faculty caught up in this controversy could use a refresher course in the philosophy of Andrew Young, who spoke here on Tuesday as part of UNC’s MLK Day.

Young’s advice was simple: Don’t stir up trouble, but don’t run from it either.

As Young sees it, his accomplishments — Civil Rights leader, U.S. Congressman, Atlanta mayor and United Nations ambassador, to name a few — are the product of a life long adherence to this philosophy.

Duke students would do well to keep Young’s advice in mind as they continue to respond to this study. Just as Young insisted on facing obstacles head-on, these students must not be content with easy avenues of complaint if they hope to create meaningful change.

Now that the initial outrage has passed, the Duke community — black and white — needs to start asking some questions. A good place to start would be why the study exists in the first place.

The study, which was used to support an anti-affirmative action brief in the U.S. Supreme Court, found that black Duke students switch from difficult to easier majors with far greater frequency than white students.

It goes on to assert that this switch is the reason that, in “virtually all” cases, black and white students at Duke have similar GPAs as upperclassmen, but not earlier in their careers.

In doing so, the study discounts the possibility that black students are able to close the achievement gap for other reasons. Like learning. Or improving study habits. Or getting the hang of college life. Or any number of other reasons.

The study was doomed to stir up controversy from the moment it was conceived. But Duke’s students now have the opportunity to go beyond the knee-jerk reactions that usually accompany such charged inquiries.

They need to strive to be proactive instead of reactive.

Students’ responses could include a call for another study to investigate why black students switch majors at Duke. I hate to state the obvious, but there are a million reasons other than GPA that a college student might switch majors.

America needs scientists and economists, but it also needs other specialists.

So for those who took “easy” classes and are offended, stick it to the study: Use your education to improve communities for future students. After all, the average English major is probably better at writing petitions and lobbying than the average engineer.

Thanks for reading.

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