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Study’s race claims rile Duke students

Asserts that black students switch to easier majors

RALEIGH, N.C. - An unpublished Duke University study that says black students are more likely to switch to less difficult majors has upset some students, who say the research is emblematic of entrenched racial problems.

The study, which opponents of affirmative action are using in a case they want the US Supreme Court to consider, concludes black students match the grade point averages of whites over time partially because they switch to majors that require less study and have less stringent grading standards.

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About three dozen students held a silent protest Sunday outside a speech by black political strategist Donna Brazile that was part of the school’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day observance. And members of the Black Student Alliance have met with the provost to express their unhappiness with the study.

“I don’t know what needs to happen to make Duke wake up,’’ said Nana Asante, a senior psychology major and president of the Black Student Alliance.

The reaction surprised one of the researchers, who said he wanted to show the need to find ways to keep minorities in difficult majors such as the sciences, economics, and engineering.

‘It’s not just a Duke issue. It’s a national issue.’

Peter Arcidiacono An author of the study
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Peter Arcidiacono, an economics professor, wrote the paper in May with a graduate student and Ken Spenner, a sociology professor. Spenner and Arcidiacono are white. The paper has been under review since June at the Journal of Public Economics.

The statistics would probably reflect trends at other schools, Arcidiacono said. The study notes that national science organizations have spent millions to increase the ranks of black science students.

“It’s not just a Duke issue. It’s a national issue,’’ he said.

The researchers analyzed data from surveys of more than 1,500 Duke students before college and during the first, second, and fourth college years. Blacks and whites initially expressed a similar interest in tougher fields but 68 percent of blacks ultimately choose humanities and social science majors, compared with less than 55 percent of whites.

The study’s claim that majors such as natural sciences required more study time was based on students’ responses to survey questions about how many hours they spent each week on studying and homework. The study found that those fields required 50 percent more study time than social sciences and humanities courses.

Affirmative action opponents cite the study in briefs involving a challenge of the undergraduate admissions policy at the University of Texas at Austin.

“What kind of image does this present not only of the academic undertakings of black students at Duke, but also of the merit and legitimacy of our degrees?’’ Asante asked. “And then, of course, it’s calling into question . . . the legitimacy of how we even got to Duke in the first place.’’

Duke, a private university, has about 6,500 undergraduates, about 47 percent of them white and 10 percent black. The largest minority group is Asian-American, at 21 percent. Duke has no formula for admitting students, spokesman Mike Schoenfeld said. Instead, the admissions process takes into account many factors, including race and ethnicity. The school selects about 1,700 students each year from more than 31,000 applicants.

The study is the latest issue to trouble black students at Duke, Asante said. She said administrators have not responded to questions about plans to renovate the Mary Lou Williams Center for Black Culture and have not given support for the black student group’s recruitment weekend.

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