The Duke Conservative Union wanted a dialogue about what it perceived as an overwhelming prevalence of registered Democrats teaching in the humanities.
Instead, the group lit a political firestorm.
In the five days since the group bought a $500 full-page ad in the Duke student newspaper -- The Chronicle -- highlighting "massive discrepancies" between the number of registered Republicans and Democrats in several departments, the campus has become embroiled in a spirited debate about political bias both in the classroom and in faculty hiring.
The debate has played itself out on the back pages of The Chronicle and across the campus -- from dining halls and dorm rooms to the president's office -- securing Duke a place in an ongoing national debate about academic freedom and the role of ideology in the classroom.
In the ad, the DCU published the political affiliation of faculty from several departments, including history, literature, sociology and English. Its claim was that the departments had a ratio of 32-to-0, 11-to-0, 9-to-0 and 18-to-1, respectively, in favor of registered Democrats over Republicans.
A similar study by The Center for the Study of Popular Culture found large disparities in political affiliation at Duke, as well as at 31 other elite colleges and universities. The California-based center is dedicated to taking politics off the college campus, according to its Web site.
"Basically, it's sheer hypocrisy that on one hand racial diversity is important in education, but intellectual diversity isn't," Duke senior and DCU member Madison Kitchens said Thursday. "In a sense, [the departments] have been caught with their pants down."
Kitchens, a Libertarian, said he's concerned that the disparities in political affiliation have trickled down to the classroom, where some students have complained that their conservative viewpoints are either ridiculed or ignored.
Several Duke officials and faculty countered that assertion this week, questioning the validity of the numbers and saying the departments mentioned make up a small fraction of the 97 departments and programs at Duke. They also said Duke doesn't make hiring decisions based on political affiliation and that being affiliated with a party doesn't necessarily mean someone has a liberal or conservative agenda.
Robert Brandon, philosophy chairman, drew the ire of several students and garnered national attention when The Chronicle quoted him Tuesday as saying:
"We try to hire the best, smartest people available. If, as John Stuart Mill said, stupid people are generally conservative, then there are lots of conservatives we will never hire. Mill's analysis may go some way towards explaining the power of the Republican Party in our society and the relative scarcity of Republicans in academia."
In a Thursday statement, Brandon said he received "venomous, hate-filled e-mails" in response to his comments, but he denied that there was any political bias involved in the philosophy department's hiring. He also clarified the statement that he made to The Chronicle.
"I will go on the record as saying that some conservatives are stupid, but so are some liberals; there is plenty of stupidity to go around," he said.
Brandon, however, did suggest that a larger proportion of academics might be liberal. But to change the long-term political landscape of academia, conservative Duke students who object to being taught by liberal professors should "study hard, do well in school, go on to get a Ph.D and get yourself a job teaching at a university," he said.
Duke President Nan Keohane also weighed in Thursday and acknowledged the importance of the debate.
"For me, the question is not the personal political views of members of our faculty or their party affiliation, it's the quality of their scholarship and the strength of their teaching," Keohane said in a statement released Thursday.
Keohane said most Duke professors are careful not to let their own ideologies color their teaching.
"But I am concerned when I hear, as I occasionally do, from a student who reports that he or she feels hesitant about raising an issue or viewpoint because of a fear of ridicule by classmates or a teacher," she said.
Robert Munger, chairman of the political science department, said he was impressed by Duke's intellectual diversity, which he called "relatively healthy" compared to other universities.
Still, Munger recalled a recent meeting in which he heard a fellow department chairman say it was Duke's job to confront conservative students with their hypocrisies and that they didn't need to say much to liberal students because they already understood the world.
"There was no big protest [at the meeting], and that was wrong," Munger said.
Munger said the history department's political makeup surprised him, however.
"Thirty-five Democrats and no Republicans? If you flip a coin 35 times, and it ends up heads every time, that's not a fair coin," he said.
The people who say, 'I don't think ideology is appropriate in hiring would have to look at the process that provides such a skewed outcome," he said.
Duke freshman Stephen Miller, president of Duke's chapter of Students for Academic Freedom, called for Duke to be more transparent about its hiring process.
While that's unlikely, Miller said North Carolina lawmakers would do well to adopt an Academic Bill of Rights. Colorado legislators are considering such a bill now, he added. The Center for the Study of Popular Culture, led by activist David Horowitz, is urging federal and state lawmakers to adopt the bill.
Intended to depoliticize universities, the bill, in part, calls for taking steps to promote intellectual diversity whether through faculty hiring or the selection of campus speakers. Critics claim the bill would stymie academic freedom, however, because a university's administration or a state government then could meddle in academic matters.
Horowitz has set off controversies at both Duke and UNC in recent years. At Duke, he placed an ad in The Chronicle that attacked the concept of reparations for slavery. He also ripped UNC, calling it a "one-party school," where conservative opinions are stifled.
Regardless of a person's party affiliation or ideology, many Duke students welcomed this week's debate.
"One of the great things about college is open dialogue, regardless of affiliation," said senior Alex Niejelow, a registered Democrat and member of Duke Student Government. "To see something in the paper like that and hear the conversations at lunch, it's exciting. It should be embraced at a campus like this."