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Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Karen Owen and the Duke Horizontal Academics

If you were applying to Duke University, you would read this message from the Dean of Undergraduate Admissions as an answer for "the kind of student Duke is looking for."

"We want to find the ambitious and the curious, students who want to tackle issues head-on and are open to change. Duke is a community of talented learners, and we look for people who have unique qualities, who can challenge us as much as we challenge them. We want some bumps. We want some students who are well-rounded, some with sharp edges. We want people who are not afraid to undertake things that are messy, complex, and extremely difficult to do well—because they love it. We like students who already know what it means to succeed and those who know what it means to reach and not succeed and reach again. We like students who make intelligent and interesting mistakes, students who understand that only in risking failure do we become stronger, better, and smarter." (, 2010)

When Karen Owen read the admissions statement, she must have read it very carefully and confidently.With an estimated cost of a little over $53,000 a year, Duke is costly to attend, but many of its graduates have attained outstanding status. And now, Karen has discovered a sure-shot method of paying off her college loans and gain permanent notoriety. One has to wonder if all Karen's story is simple irony.   

Owen put together what was basically supposed to be a joke PowerPoint presentation breaking down her love life and actually giving every man she had slept with on campus (most members of the Duke lacrosse team) a certain grade; however, she couldn’t possibly have known the 42 page PowerPoint presentation would go viral, or could she?

Treating her sex ranking as a full-on thesis, Owen wrote, “Senior year and college in general often bring about certain situations that result in the seeking of so-called ‘sex.’ Until now, no studies have succeeded in developing a methodology for quantifying and ranking these so-called horizontal academics. In this study, we used data from four years at Duke University to create evaluation criteria for such encounters and applied these criteria to evaluated subjects.” She called her presentation "An Education Beyond the Classroom: Excelling in the Realm of Horizontal Academics." Let's get down to details.

It all started like this. In May of 2010, Owen e-mailed the document as a joke to a few friends. One of those friends, she says, began forwarding the presentation to others via e-mail. It wasn't long before her tongue-in-cheek “unofficial senior thesis” on sex with Duke athletes spread from the three friends she had originally e-mailed to the whole 14,000-strong student body. Then, others forwarded others and they forwarded others... and at some point her presentation leaked over the Internet for that entire world to view.

Owen left little to the imagination in creating her 42-slide PowerPoint presentation, detailing sex in the university library during finals week, sex in cars and, most of all, sex while inebriated. It contains a lot of unprintable activities and graphic details, some taking place in locations like stairwells, couches, and libraries. She ranked each lover's sexual skills on a scale of 1 to 10 in colored charts and an “official f---” list. For added realism and flavor, Owen crammed in all the dirty talk she could remember.

In addition, Owen provided the names, dates, photos, and particular physical attributes such as length and girth of the hardware entities. Each man was rated on his "pros" and "cons": attractiveness, size, talent, creativity, aggressiveness, entertainment ability, and athletic ability. And, she even awarded extra points for an Australian accent or surfing skills.

Whether Owen was serious or not in her clinical rankings of her lovers’ sex skills, she may have done a regrettable deed: The friends she e-mailed couldn’t keep it to themselves and began hitting the “forward” button on their e-mail accounts. So Owen now finds herself one of the most infamous authors in the country. But infamy sells, doesn't it?

“It’s so important when we see these stories to not think your child is immune, because your child is not immune to any Internet dangers,” Owen later told Meredith Vieira on TODAY. “We need to teach our kids; they need to think before they post. They really need to think twice about whether or not they even want to send to a personal friend.”(Michael Inbar, "Duke Coed's Scandalous Sex Ratings Are Viral Sensation," TODAY show, October 7 2010)

Karen Owen (on left)

Lists like this were widespread long before the Internet. In 1977, students at MIT produced a similar list, ranking 36 male undergrads. They wanted to "turn the tables" on male objectification, but were put on academic probation instead. The difference is that with the Internet today, what began as a private joke can quickly end up being known around the world while hurting people and institutions like Duke.

According to Karen Owen, her thesis was not meant to ridicule Duke male athletes. She tells that wasn’t her intention. The Duke University graduate has issued an apology to the men on her list, but she still thinks that she didn't do anything wrong in documenting, in a digital PowerPoint presentation sent via email to friends, all private details of male classmates she had “befriended” in her four years at Duke.“I regret it with all my heart. I would never intentionally hurt the people that are mentioned on that,” Owen said in a statement.

Later, Karen Owen sent a copy of this e-mail to 
“As the author ashamed of these slides, horrified I choose to include all the names that you did. While I can not stop you from their publication, did not mean that the item be seen from the outside a very small circle of people. Obviously, it has gone viral . However, the inclusion of your real names that cause this terrible situation to escalate even further and is already affecting people’s lives in ways that go far beyond mere embarrassment. remove names immediately, or I will be adding another blog to your list of things to discuss with the my lawyer when we meet. If you want to talk more information, please include your numbers in your reply and I will contact you as soon as I can. again, including the real names are simply cruel and you will black them out immediately, ”

Some people even see Owen as an unchosen woman's rights leader of sorts. "It's the age-old double standard," Duke senior Nicole Queathem told The New York Times. "People are more critical of what she did because she's a girl.”

And, there's Dr. Ian Kerner, a sex therapist, who agreed that maybe Karen Owen's thesis was just what men might have needed to see. "Now here is a woman who feels empowered to rate and rank men in much the same way. It's giving men a dose of their own medicine." Unfortunately, Kerner doesn't see the double standard as disappearing anytime soon. He does see a silver lining; however, he thinks the list will serve as "[A] wake-up call for men and women to treat each other respectfully." (Lauren Le Vince, "Why Karen
Owen's Horizontal Studies Thesis Is Good For Women,", October 8 2010)

But, we must not forget Owen’s lack of discretion has also made her a very hot property. After posted her sex presentation, the site heard from several publishers looking to contact her. “Even though I’m sure she’s horrified that her, uh, presentation, which was intended for a small group of friends, has gone viral, she’s a very good, funny writer, and I’m wondering if she has any interest in writing a book,” a HarperCollins editor wrote to the site. Of course, there is the chance of a mini-series, a movie, then a sequel....

Let's see, Duke:

Ambitious - yes
Curious - yes
Unique - yes
Not Afraid to Undertake Things - yes
Makes Intelligent but Interesting Mistakes - yes

And, our 2010 valedictorian is Ms. Karen Owen.

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