DURHAM, N.C. – A Duke University study that explores the performance of allegedly low performing black students has set off a firestorm among alumni along Tobacco Road and stoked the argument over affirmative action. The study found that black students who have lower high school grades than whites close the gap in college through changing their initial majors.

“The study opens with a bold statement that affirmative action admissions in higher education allow for the college admission of minority students who have ‘weak’ preparation for college-level work,” a group of black Duke alumni wrote– in the Durham Herald Sun on Monday. “This implies that students of color are not as intelligent or prepared as their white counterparts.”

The study, entitled “What Happens After Enrollment? An Analysis of the Time Path of Racial Differences in GPA and Major Choice,” was conducted by economics professor Peter Arcidiacono, sociologist Ken Spenner, and graduate student Esteban M. Aucejo. It stated that among students who initially majored in economics, engineering, and the natural sciences, 54 percent of black men and 51 percent of black women ended up switching to the humanities or another social science.

“We are greatly alarmed that members of the academy would publicly belittle the utility and value of the humanities and social sciences,” said Bianca Williams, who received both her bachelor’s and doctorate at Duke.

“There is a great danger in qualifying some disciplines as being more difficult than others because it creates a hierarchy of scholarship. Are we to believe that an ‘A’ in an economics class supplants the hard work and rigor necessary for an ‘A’ in history?”

The study, which was included in a brief that was sent to the U.S. Supreme Court by affirmative action opponents, also showed that 33 percent of white women and 8 percent of white men switched to majors that are considered easier and require less study and have easier grading standards. These findings have drawn the ire of a number of black alums at Duke as well as the state’s NAACP chapter.

“The implications and intentions of this research at the hands of our very own prestigious faculty, seemingly without a genuine concern for proactively furthering the well-being of the black community is hurtful and alienating,” said Nana Asante, president of the Duke student alliance, in a letter to the North Carolina NAACP. “What image has this report portrayed to the rest of the country, namely our peer institutions, about Duke and its black students?”

In terms of college readiness, there is some basis to the study’s assertion that black students — and students of all races — are, at a startling rate, entering college unprepared. A 2011 study by the Michigan Department of Education showed that in more than half the state’s high schools, fewer than 10 percent of the graduating seniors were ready for college. Statewide, only 19 percent of students were ready for college.

In Detroit, for example, only one high school — Renaissance High School — had prepared more than 10 percent of its student body for college. It should be noted that Renaissance also had a graduation rate of 96 percent in 2010.

Cass Tech, the city’s largest high school, graduated 95 percent of its students last year. However, only 4.4 percent of them were prepared academically for college. Schools in the neighboring counties, that are far more ethnically diverse than Detroit’s, experienced similar issues with some schools having 100 percent of their seniors being unprepared.

The Duke study, which has yet to be fully published, also questions previous studies that play down academic difficulties initially experienced by those who benefit from affirmative action admissions by saying that such students eventually catch up with their non-minority peers in GPA. Their contention is that while the minority students catch up, it’s often not through the original intended major.

“Worse, by drawing conclusions about affirmative action by looking solely at black students, the study essentially equates blacks with affirmative action recipients,” said Crystal Sanders, a 2005 Duke alumna in the Herald Sun. “Affirmative action, in fact, was designed to remedy decades of discrimination and to ensure that our country’s colleges and universities had diverse student populations to enhance the learning process for all students.”

Affirmative action has been a hot-button topic for decades. The law schools at the University of California-Berkeley and the University of Michigan have been at the center of affirmative action debates for years. In 2006, Michigan passed the controversial ban on affirmative action in hiring and education admissions — Proposal 2 — by a 58 percent to 42 percent margin, joining California, Nebraska, and Washington, which have similar measures.

On July 1, 2011, a federal appeals court in Ohio struck the Michigan ban down, stating that it “unconstitutionally alters Michigan’s political structure by impermissibly burdening racial minorities.” Additionally, the Supreme Court is considering whether to hear a lawsuit challenging race-based admissions at the University of Texas.

In Durham, the outrage began to take shape in the form of protests during the Black Student Alliance’s annual Martin Luther King Day services. Dozens of members of the group, including a few white students, silently protested the study on Sunday night outside of the Duke Chapel.

The group also passed out fliers that said “Duke: A hostile environment for its black students?” and held signs that said “Does GPA have a color?” and “My roommate is white and in humanities. Is she dumb?”

The students are also demanding that the three men who conducted the studies meet with the Black Student Alliance and explain themselves to the alumni and the students.

“Using faulty research and assumptions to establish and reinforce a ‘hard’ versus ‘easy’ disciplinary hierarchy should be troubling to all students, professors and educational institutions, regardless of race,” the alumni group said. “We cannot sit idly by and allow this slander to be mislabeled as truth. We say this in defense of our hard work — across all disciplines — and on behalf of the intellectual community that is the academy.”

Follow Jay Scott Smith on Twitter at @JayScottSmith