Duke University officials are trying to determine who hung a rope noose from a tree, what the president of the elite Southern school described Wednesday as a vicious symbol in a region where lynchings were once used to terrorize black residents.

President Richard Brodhead told a crowd of several thousand gathered in front of the university's Gothic chapel building that their presence was a rejection of that symbol. And he said that while administrators and campus police investigate who displayed the noose and why, it is up to each individual to reject racism.

"One person put up that noose, but this is the multitude of people who got together to say that's not the Duke we want," he told the crowd. "That's not the Duke we're here for, and that's not the Duke we're here to create."

Officials say the noose was found about 2 a.m. in the plaza outside the Bryan Center, the student commons building.

Black Student Alliance vice president Henry Washington said he and about 14 other students saw the noose hanging overnight after being alerted via Twitter.

"We wanted to see if it was an actual thing. And yeah, there it was," said Washington, a sophomore from Aliceville, Alabama.

Both Duke administrators and police are investigating, school spokesman Keith Lawrence said. Duke police referred all questions to the school's communications office.

Brodhead and Provost Sally Kornbluth earlier sent a joint email to students, saying the Duke campus "has been jolted over the past few weeks by several racial incidents, including a report of hateful speech directed at students on East Campus" and the discovery of the noose.

Brodhead, Washington and other members of the Black Student Alliance had previously scheduled a meeting Wednesday morning to discuss the campus atmosphere for blacks.

"Obviously the conversation needed to shift to kind of the things that happened this morning. We expressed to President Brodhead that students were just kind of exhausted. Students didn't know how to feel," Washington said.

Students Tara-Marie Desruisseaux, 19, of New York City, and Jada Gibbs, 19, of Dumont, New Jersey, said the incident came days after they helped host a recruiting weekend at Duke for talented black high school students from around the country. Duke has about 15,000 undergraduate and graduate students. It costs about $60,000 a year to attend as an undergraduate, including room and board, according to the school's website. About half of all undergraduate students receive financial aid.

"Now I feel like they're looking back at us and wondering, what were they selling me and what do they accept that they think Duke is so great?" Desruisseaux said.

While minorities may be forced to cope with racism at other selective universities, "I think the fact that Duke is in the South gives it something different from Stanford or Harvard," she said. "I think the way that racism resonates is a lot stronger here just because not that long ago Duke's campus was segregated and the only blacks on this campus were cleaning up bathrooms."

Freshman student Anika Richter said though she is half-Japanese and half-Colombian, growing up in Baltimore, Maryland, meant many of her friends were black.

"Honestly, I'm appalled and embarrassed to go to the school right now," said Richter, who saw a photo of the noose on Facebook just after waking up Wednesday. "Coming to Duke, I was very nervous about the racial tensions at the school but I never actually imagined that something so blatantly racist could happen here."