Forum: May-June 2006

In Praise of Holley

I enjoyed your short "Update" on Dr. I.B. Holley in your recent issue [January-February 2006].

When I entered Duke as a freshman in 1948, his class was the first I attended on the first day of classes. What a start to college!

I had a number of fine teachers at Duke, but I consider him the best. We have corresponded occasionally over the years. At the Class of 1952's 50th reunion in 2002, Bob Hudson '52 and I had lunch with Dr. Holley and agreed that, for us, it was the high point of the reunion. I hope he meets his goal of teaching to 100. His students will be the richer for it.

Malcolm Murray B.S.E. '52, Baytown, Texas

Admission Impossible?

As I was reading the latest issue [January-February 2006, "Top of the Crop"] of Duke Magazine, my heart was racing and the thought in my head was, "How in the world will I ever get into my beloved school, the one I grew up cheering for, the one I always said I would attend whenever someone asked me where I wanted to go to college? I will never measure up to these standards!" Then I realized, wait, I already got in and graduated. Nothing to fear.

It seems like standards for admission to Duke have risen substantially over the past few years, and I find myself thankful that I graduated from high school in 1999, not 2006. However, I'm also proud that my alma mater is growing and garnering the attention it deserves. Thanks for a great article.

Dorsey Rickard '03, Nashville, Tennessee

I just finished reading the January-February 2006 issue of your magazine and feel compelled to respond to the article that makes Duke's admissions process "transparent" (a word that folks like to use in the academic world). My response is complicated by the fact that my 30th class reunion is this April, and I am trying to tempt myself to fly across the country and attend.

I have been remembering what I liked about my years at Duke: I sang in Chapel Choir, directed by the eccentric and passionate Ben Smith; I walked through the Duke Gardens at every season; I became a foreign- and classic-movie addict at BioSci films; I flirted with the idea of being a political-science major; and I discovered comparative literature as a field of study.

But I also clearly recall a sense of feeling different from many students at the university. I used to attribute this sense of liminality to my background and my undergraduate major. I am a native North Carolinian from a small town (almost everybody I knew at Duke was from New York, New Jersey, or Pennsylvania). Plus, my family was lower-middle-class, by economic standards.

A work-study student with loans and grants, I woke up one day to find I was an English major--neither pre-med nor pre-law.

I am still not sure how that happened, but I am positive George Williams' Shakespeare classes and Reynolds Price's Milton class were factors in the conversion process.

After reading "Top of the Crop," I have realized that the actual cause of my outsider status had nothing to do with my geographic identity or my economic class (unfortunately, my English major is still not exonerated). In admissionspeak, I was apparently what is called an "angular student"--exhibiting a particular breed of angularity which apparently makes a person "lopsided," a.k.a. "the intellectual" or the "intellectually lopsided student."

Now that the admissions staff has cleared up my confusion, I am also relieved to know that "the atmosphere now is more open for the lopsided student, and probably the more intellectually lopsided student." After all, those intellectually lopsided types can grow up, as I did, to be college teachers for those well-rounded, nonangular types.

Karen A. English '76, San Jose, California

I wonder if there are other alumni of my vintage who have mixed reactions to "Top of the Crop."

On the one hand, any alumnus/alumna would naturally be pleased with the standing that Duke has achieved in the heady world of higher education....

On the other hand, there is an uncomfortable concomitant to admissions dean Christoph Guttentag's generally glowing report as to how Duke is doing. It goes something like this:

So, "Duke is in an orbit now that it was not [in] a decade ago." (One is left to speculate as to what orbit was Duke in five or six decades ago--perhaps one a kite's height from Earth.)

So, "the university received 18,089 applications" in the fall of 2004--"setting a university record for the fourth straight year."

So, "Duke's acceptance rate fell for the eighth straight year, to 22.1 percent, the second lowest rate ever."

So, "applications boasting [SAT] scores above 1400 have taken off, increasing markedly from 1996 to 2002 to 2004, and again this year."

So, a New Jersey mother of a Duke senior and a member of the Parents Advisory Council says that "she does not recall having any knowledge of Duke when she was growing up in New Jersey in the Seventies." (What! Really? What orbit was she in?...)

All of the kind of admissions statistical puffery reflected in Mr. Dagger's article, although no doubt pretty firmly grounded and supportable, is quite familiar. There is nothing new about the pronouncements of alumni and students everywhere that "[name the school] is one of the toughest to get into in the country." That's an ongoing game that no doubt has its genesis in the seventeenth century, when Harvard and William & Mary came into existence.

I suspect that part of the sub rosa come-on in Duke's admissions process, like that of so many of its competitors, is to tout the fact that admission to Duke gets more rigorous and more competitive each year....

Consider this: If the reports from the admissions office, today and in the past, are to be believed, it seems that every year Duke makes quantum leaps into the academic stratosphere enabling it now (as it did in the 1960s, the '70s, the '80s, and the '90s) to rank itself among the "elite" and "most selective" colleges and universities. (Admissions jargon run riot!)

Hmmm, a little projection here indicates that in, say, 2106, the number of applicants will have reached 187,342 and out of that number only four--all off-the-charts Einsteins--will be admitted.

But, of course, that's ridiculous. So, let's see: If we accept the notion that each year from, say, 1947 to 2006, the across-the-board statistical "quality" of each entering class exceeded that of the preceding year's entering class by 1 percent, then, upon close analysis, a mathematician might well arrive at one of two conclusions: either (a) the class entering in the fall of 2006 is composed of individuals whose average I.Q. is around 500 and whose average SAT score is a flat 1600 (beyond which one cannot go), not to mention an average GPA of 10.0 (reflective of the current standard grade-inflation, of course); or (b) those of us who entered Duke in the 1940s and earlier were, and presumably remain, low-grade morons barely capable of grasping the intricacies of third-grade subtraction....

Mr. Guttentag's report appears, in short, to make it clear, as so many prior such reports have, that the members of the Class of 2010, to be selected for admission during 2006, will be light years ahead of the members of any class of the 1950s; that we sad products of the 1940s and '50s were, and are, in truth, academic dolts, dismally slow, low-IQ, sub-basement-SAT failures; that we are no match whatever for those who will grace Duke's freshman classrooms during the coming academic year; and that, indeed, all we poor old alums of the '50s and earlier should by now be housed in institutions devoted to the care and keeping of congenital idiots.

In sum, while the glowing reports from the admissions office issued virtually every year certainly serve to cheer all alumni and current students, at the same time they also serve, although perhaps unintentionally, as a condescending put-down to those of us sad, intellectually vacuous wrecks whose visitations on campus during daylight hours Duke should now probably discourage in order to avoid conveying the impression to visiting prospective students that its older alumni were deliberately and carefully chosen for admission only from the lowest quartile of the worst public schools in America.

John A. Carnahan '53, J.D. '55, Columbus, Ohio

Creature Query

In the January-February issue there is a photo of the most darling creature ["Portfolio: A Life in Photos"]. It is only a little larger than the thumb of the hand it is holding on to. Please tell me what it is. I am a former high-school biology teacher, and I am dying of curiosity.

Paula Frohman '61, Rockville, Maryland

Elwyn L. Simons, senior primate biologist and head of the Duke Primate Center's division of fossil primates, responds:

The odd-looking creature in my hand is a newborn Collared Lemur, born at the Duke Primate Center in April 1983. She received the name Chiclette. For several reasons, Chiclette was a captive-breeding triumph. The forests in Madagascar that this kind of lemur inhabited are almost completely gone. There are very few of her species or subspecies in captivity, then or now.

In 1983 her mother, Yvette, was already a very old animal but of uncertain age. While lemurs don't cease breeding in old age, the newborns from each successive pregnancy are born weaker and smaller as the mother ages; eventually the infants don't survive. This had already begun to happen to Yvette's later offspring. Chiclette's father, Chico, had been a pet since infancy in a village in southeastern Madagascar and had never been around adult male lemurs. We had reason to believe that he didn't know how to breed. It was, therefore, sort of a fluke that Yvette got pregnant.

When born, Chiclette was far below a normal body weight. She had to be hand-fed and was not growing. Two weeks later, another Collared Lemur had a normal-sized baby. We tried a scheme that had worked in other cases, and, since a lemur mother often raises twins, we gave Chiclette to the second mother. This is called cross-fostering. Somewhat miraculously Chiclette began to prosper. She had, in time, nine offspring that survived.

Chiclette died in December 1997, while her almost indestructible mother, Yvette, survived until 1992, when she must have been between thirty and forty years old.

Close, but No Cigar

A few fellow alumni are old enough to remember the famous line from the cigar commercial, where the prize fighter has bought his mom a new home with his winnings: "Have a Muriel, son, but don't get the ashes on the rug."

Seeing the unveiling photo of J.B. Duke's newly cleaned statue, I just had to admit how it tickles me to once again see the famous tobacco magnate from an angle that hides the politically incorrect source of his endowment fortune. In this case, relying on my own memory for reference, lacking any recent photo showing the cigar, I believe the photographer managed to place the evil symbol as far as possible from the viewer's position.

Although it may be purely coincidental, it is a reminder that, even in ways more subtle than revisionist history, we seem to be a society unwilling to accept the realities of our past. While today both tobacco use and ruthless competitive practices in business are no-nos, they were in J.B.'s day fair game to exploit en route to a fortune. And while the university today may find the funding of its beginnings an embarrassment of sorts, it isn't offering to give back the endowment monies and start over from scratch.

It should be noted that Duke is not alone in this situation, as alcohol monies have certainly helped fund other institutions and so have huge profits from extracting natural resources from Third World countries or from merely predatory business practices. We may remain socially conscious without hiding how our ivory towers were financed. In fact we could choose to be proud of the fact that fortunes so amassed were then dedicated to the betterment of mankind by improving higher learning--that they were but a step on the ladder to enlightenment.

But I have to admit the unveiling photo eased one of my concerns. The fact that we didn't get a full frontal view at least indicates that the cleaning and refurbishing didn't somehow result in the cigar being reshaped into a fountain pen.

George Fidelman '70, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

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