Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Duke-in-Wonderland

In the upside-down world that has prevailed in Durham for the last five months, Duke students have increasingly risen to the challenge as the institution's arts and sciences faculty has sunk to progressively lower depths. Two developments yesterday reinforced the pattern.

On the positive side, a new student group emerged: Duke Students for an Ethical Durham. We often hear faculty and administrators championing participatory democracy, or expressing their hopes that students will demonstrate greater civic involvement. Normally such statements amount to little more than cloaks to advance various curricular agendas.

Duke students, however, have taken the advice literally. Students for an Ethical Durham is conducting a voter registration drive on the Duke campus, so that Duke students can have a voice in restoring a sense of civic justice to the community in which they live. The group is a bipartisan one: its two spokespersons, Emily Wygod and Christiane Regelbrugge, disagreed on the better candidate in the 2004 presidential, but they have no doubt that Duke students need to participate in the Durham political process if they expect fair treatment from local authorities. As Regelbrugge noted, "The people that Durham residents elect need to be held accountable to treat every resident fairly. Those who've been elected have really not been held accountable at all." The spokespersons said they hope to register 2000 Duke students by the deadline for the November election; currently, less than 10% of Duke students are voters in Durham County.

At a time when D.A. Mike Nifong plows forward with a case created on a tissue of ethical violations and his chief investigator submits an after-the-fact typed report than even a high school reporter might consider fradulent, Durham clearly is a city in need of ethical improvement.

The contrast between the Duke students group and a citizens' group just announced on behalf of D.A. Mike Nifong's campaign is telling. The Nifong effort is also headed by two people: Kim Brummel, who isn't even a resident of Durham County; and Victoria Peterson. As blogger John in Carolina has noted,
Peterson flanked Malik Zulu Shabazz, the national chairman of the New Black Panthers Party, as he announced during a visit to Durham, "We are mad and fired up. We demand justice, and we will have justice, one way or the other." These are the people Mike Nifong (who said "it made me feel good" when Peterson and Brummel pledged their support) wants to chair his citizens' committee? Duke Students for an Ethical Durham didn't appear a moment too soon.

While Students for an Ethical Durham offers a vision of undergraduates at their most idealistic, looking to change society through collective action, this week's ESPN Magazine provided an example of a faculty that has lost its moral compass. The well-written story examines how the events of last spring affected six people on the Duke campus.

One is women's lacrosse coach Kerstin Kimel, and the ESPN article provides yet another reminder of why Kimel is one of the few genuine heroes of this affair. In the early stages of the crisis, reporter Jon Pessah notes, Kimel
wondered why no one at Duke was looking out for the players. This was not a Duke that Kimel recognized, not the one she fell in love with more than a decade ago, not the one that gave coaches the resources to build elite programs. Certainly not the one she told parents about while she sat in their living rooms. "You're not joining a team," she'd say. "You're joining the Duke family."

Kimel recalled an e-mail she received from one of her students: "One of my teachers knows there are six male lacrosse players in the class and said some things that were very out of line this morning. The boys ended up leaving, which made me rather emotional. It just makes me so sad. I feel like the boys are going to feel unsafe in this class from here on out"; in another e-mail, a player told Kimel that her professor calling lacrosse players "animals." Kimel demanded that the Duke administration do something to stop the harassment--a demand, from all accounts, that came from no other person at Duke. To date, there is no evidence that Duke has even investigated any of these incidents, much less meted out punishments to professors who engaged in such unprofessional behavior.

What sort of academic culture can exist in which faculty members see nothing wrong with such behavior? One, apparently, that fosters professors such as the Group of 88. The group's "Social Disaster" ad, which appeared in the April 6 Duke Chronicle and remains posted on the Duke African-American Studies program's webpage, is the low point of the institution's response to this crisis.

  • Ignoring the academy's celebration of dispassionate analysis of all available facts, the Group of 88 relied solely on Nifong's words to definitively state that "something happened" to the accuser.
  • Setting aside the academy's commitment to due process and procedural regularity, a cardinal principle of higher education at least since the McCarthy era, the Group of 88 said "thank you" to campus protesters who had created "wanted" posters of the lacrosse players and had banged pots and pans outside one player's residence, shouting, "Time to confess."
  • Bypassing the academy's promise to do whatever is ethically possible to shield our students from harm, the Group of 88 contributed to what Times columnist David Brooks has termed a "witch-hunt" atmosphere at a time when Nifong had made no indictments.

In recent weeks, some Duke professors have tried to backtrack from the straightforward wording of the Group of 88's statement. We heard that the professors really worried most about an alcohol culture--even though the statement contained not a single mention of Demon Rum. From others came the claim that the Group of 88's statement "has nothing to do with the LAX case." Privately, I've been told, some faculty were even framing the statement as a benevolent expression of common principles--no more, no less.

Such arguments, of course, required a considerable suspension of judgment: in effect, 88 faculty members at a great university wanted observers to believe that they didn't mean what their own words said. In light of the ESPN article, these claims can be fully dismissed.

The publication reveals that the point person for the Group of 88 statement was Wahneema Lubiano, a professor of African-American Studies. Lubiano looked over the final draft--it appears that at least some of the signatories didn't even know which student quotes and which specific faculty wording would appear over their own signatures. No matter--the student gathering from which quotes were culled was hardly representative. According to ESPN, the meeting had two white women, "a few Latino and Asian students and a couple of white faculty members. Everyone else was black."

Lubiano, reports the magazine, "had heard for years about the poor reputation of the lacrosse team, heard some of her students call them racists. A Facebook photo of a male student in blackface, believed to be a lacrosse player, had been e-mailed around before and after the alleged rape." That the Coleman Committee investigated such allegations and found no evidence to substantiate them seems to have had no effect on Lubiano's certitude.

The Group of 88 reflected broader faculty culture. In late March, a meeting of about 200 anti-lacrosse faculty members occurred, at which "a senior professor stood and berated the team, saying the school needed to flush it down the drain and start over." The African-American Studies professor, meanwhile, entertained no doubt about the significance of the Group of 88's action: "Lubiano knew some would see the ad as a stake through the collective heart of the lacrosse team." She didn't care. At a time when the district attorney was threatening to indict not just alleged rapists but the entire team--and on a day, as we know now, that Nifong understood he had no DNA evidence to move forward--a professor holding such sentiments about her own students is chilling.

Lubiano's hostility to the lacrosse players only intensified after the Group of 88's statement appeared. On April 13, three days after public revelations that no DNA evidence implicated team members, she dismissed the news as part of a "demand for perfect evidence on the part of the defenders of the team." (It was actually not team defenders but Nifong who had first stated that “DNA evidence requested will immediately rule out any innocent persons.”) But if the case wasn't moving forward as she might have hoped, the campus culture was turning in Lubiano's direction. She was pleased "that the Duke administration is getting the point”: the banging of pots and pans had hammered home that a specific claim to innocence in this case mattered little. "Regardless of the 'truth' established in whatever period of time about the incident at the house on N. Buchanan Blvd.," she mused, "the engine of outcry in this moment has been fueled by the difficult and mundane reality that pre-existed this incident." To Lubiano, the "members of the team are almost perfect offenders in the sense that [critical race theorist Kimberle] Crenshaw writes about," since they are "the exemplars of the upper end of the class hierarchy, the politically dominant race and ethnicity, the dominant gender, the dominant sexuality, and the dominant social group on campus."

If Duke had more people who conceived of their roles as has Kerstin Kimel and less who acted like Wahneema Lubiano, I suspect the institution could have offered a successful moral resistance to Nifong's behavior. If the school spawned more groups like Duke Students for an Ethical Durham and less like the Group of 88, perhaps Duke could even have publicly demanded that local authorities treat Duke students according to local procedures.

In the short term, Duke's failure has harmed three of its students, one of whom is demonstrably innocent and the other two who almost certainly are. In the long term, it will be up to the students--people like Emily Wygod and Christiane Regelbrugge--to revitalize the institution's moral core that their administrators and faculty have sacrificed.

7 comments:

Anonymous said...

It's interesting that you note that Ms. Brummell is not a Durham County resident. In her letter to the editor that was published in the Herald Sun, Ashley & Co. identified her as being from Durham. Do you suspect the deception was on the part of the Herald Sun or on the part of Ms. Brummell?

Anonymous said...

Another excellent piece here
by Stephen Miller. You'll recall he was often Nancy Grace's show early in the hoax. He was one of the few voices on our side who got face time.

Walter Abbott

AMac said...

On 8/28, blogger Jane Galt of "Asymmetrical Information" commented on a New Yorker article on the Duke Hoax. It's online and due to be published in the Sept. 4 magazine.

Author Peter Boyer tosses softballs to President Brodhead, who hits some singles and doubles (it was windy at the ballpark that day). The article covers many of the talking points that The Group of 88 probably now wishes they'd made: whatever the guilt of lacrosse players, the case uncovers deeper truths about the corruption of athletics and of Duke.

JVJ said...

AP article in Charlotte Disturber today identifies Kim Brummel as a Durham resident “….organized by Durham resident Kim Brummell” and fails to mention anything about Victoria Peterson associations except that she’s a “community activist”. Does anybody know where Kim Brummel does reside?

Anonymous said...

I'm just glancing at this information, and have not kept up with the case since I learned of the cab ride timing. I have to say I have not been surprised by the behavior of the police and D.A., having just had some "mindboggling" interactions with the Longmont, CO police department. But I wonder if the issue of hiring strippers comes up among those ready to defend the accused students. I know one student spoke out in a press conference to defend his 'good name,' but was he contrite about his friends hiring strippers? This seems so immoral and inappropriate-- and I wonder if defenders of the students are failing to note this.

Anonymous said...

It doesn't matter where Kim Brummell is from. Everybody is not against Mike Nifong. You bloggers don't know the whole story behind the Duke Lacrosse Case. Brummell is leading by example, so other African American women in Durham can step forward and do the same thing when crimes happen against women and make their voice heard.

Anonymous said...

What hurts me most about everything I've read on this blog is that you seem to be using the verdict on the case as an excuse to drag excellent professors through the mud. I took classes with Wahneema Lubiano and Peter Wood many years ago as an undergraduate. They were two of my most attentive, hardworking and brilliant teachers. The information I have on the sexism and racism of a number of lacrosse players at Duke is damning, but not germaine to what happened in this particular case with these particular students. It seems to me unfortunate that everyone felt the need to choose sides in a case where, for a while, there simply wasn't enough evidence available. The way race works at Duke ensures that an event like this brings out the familiar hurt blindness in liberals, and the familiar defensive racism in folks like yourself. I'm glad the students are vindicated. But the way you present these professors who are, at once, good scholars and good people, is horrifying.