The low point of the faculty response to the lacrosse affair came on April 6, when 88 members of the arts and sciences faculty—along with 16 departments and programs—endorsed a public statement denouncing the lacrosse players. The statement unequivocally asserted that something “happened” to the accuser. The signatories committed themselves to “turning up the volume” while saying “thank you” to campus protesters who had branded the players “rapists” and distributed “wanted posters” around campus. And the statement promised that the Group’s crusade “won’t end with what the police say or the court decides.”
In the history of American higher education, I cannot think of another example in which such a sizable segment of an institution’s faculty exhibited such reckless disregard for the welfare of their own institution’s students. The rush-to-judgment public denunciation created an image, both in Durham and nationally, that Duke’s own professors believed that a rape occurred—ironically, a few days before the DNA tests that Mike Nifong had promised would “immediately rule out” any innocent people all came back negative.
In the more than seven months since the Group of 88’s statement appeared, not a single professor has retracted his or her signature from the document. But the Group’s actions have come under increasing criticism. A cutting op-ed by the Arizona Republic’s Doug MacEachern noted that “whatever the ultimate judgment in this case, the Duke faculty has acted monstrously,” with “the actions of ‘The Group of 88’ . . . the worst.” Members of a profession that “is dedicated, supposedly, to the search for truth,” the Group of 88 instead served “their personal, hyperpolitical judgments about social oppression” and “proclaimed their indifference to the real guilt or innocence of their own students.”
Of the Group members that Duke Chronicle reporter Rob Copeland contacted for an article that appeared last Tuesday, many refused to comment. Those who did reply fell into three categories: defensiveness, denial, and defiance.
Defensiveness. Sherman James, a professor of public policy, told Copeland, “I stand by my right to express my opinion, other than that I don’t have anything to say. I think everyone should have the opportunity to express an opinion.”
To my knowledge, no one has ever said that James, or anyone else at Duke, should not have the “opportunity to express an opinion.” The criticism has focused on the “opinion” that James and 87 of his colleagues “expressed.”
The academy is supposed to involve the life of the mind. Academic freedom envisions an atmosphere in which professors first express their ideas and then modify their viewpoints based on informed criticism. To James, however, it appears that professors should simply have the right to make any statement—however outrageous—and then never have to defend its content.
Does James adopt this approach in other intellectual matters as well? Or, perhaps, does he normally operate in an environment of academic “groupthink,” where like-minded colleagues never challenge his basic views?
Denial. Alice Kaplan, professor of literature and Romance studies, claimed that “the statement was about the climate on campus, it wasn’t taking a position on the case. There’s nothing in the statement that says anyone is guilty or innocent.”
It appears that Kaplan either never read the statement or has forgotten its contents. After all, the statement did assert, as fact, that something “happened” to the accuser—which suggested that a crime occurred—and gave thanks to those who publicly deemed the players guilty. Many people, I suspect, would consider a group of faculty saying “thank you” to protesters who gathered outside one lacrosse player’s house and shouted, “It’s Sunday morning, time to confess” as “taking a position on the case.”
To the Chronicle, Kaplan offered a novel rationale for joining the Group of 88: “I signed the statement,” said she, “because I care about Duke and I care about the students and the experiences they’re having.”
Kaplan’s colleague, Michael Gustafson, replied that he
would have a better time accepting her statement if any one of the people who signed that document had spoken out against the death threats hurled at our students, against calls for our students to be “...prosecuted whether it happened or not. It would be justice for things that happened in the past,” as reported in Newsweek. But instead, there was silence - the same kind the faculty that supported that ad railed against. This is still a social disaster, but the inability to see it in its fullness has left us even more polarized than before.
It appears that the only “students” about whose “experiences” Kaplan cares are those who share her worldview. She has shown little evidence that she “care[s] about the students” who are currently subjected to Nifong’s “separate-but-equal” justice system.
Such defiance stunned a Duke alumnus from Australia, who noted that while “back in the spring the ‘famous’ professors may have believed that a rape did indeed occur, . . . the way they behave now, when the truth is known, must be known even to them, cannot be excused in any imaginable way. They do not care about the students they have vilified. They are too small to say ‘I’m sorry’.”
As she denounced the lacrosse players in April, Holloway now denounces her critics, without ever addressing their arguments:
- She claimed to have received “often vicious, frequently racist and generally poorly composed” e-mails criticizing her for joining the Group of 88—though it appears that she didn’t produce any of these e-mails for the Chronicle.
- She charged that critics “displaced the actual content of the ad for the fiction of their own meagerly articulated agendas”—but never identified precisely how critics performed this task.
- She fumed that those “who find their life’s blood in producing unending streams of blogged nonsense are probably better left to these subaltern spaces”—thus rationalizing her decision to avoid responding to those who have criticized the Group of 88.
In the Chronicle comment section, a Duke parent rendered judgment on the Group of 88. “Duke’s reputation,” the parent wrote, “is not being ruined by a group of teenagers hosting a party, but by the continued, unforgivable behavior of the professors and administration. Who wants to send their kids to a college that absolutely refuses to stand up for the civil rights of their students? After all the evidence now known, they STILL stand by their statement - just mind boggling.”