In 1940, the American Association of University Professors published its statement on academic freedom and tenure. A ringing defense of academic freedom that was subsequently endorsed by over 200 organizations, the statement reminded professors that academic freedom “carries with it duties correlative with rights.” In the AAUP’s words:
College and university teachers are citizens, members of a learned profession, and officers of an educational institution. When they speak or write as citizens, they should be free from institutional censorship or discipline, but their special position in the community imposes special obligations. As scholars and educational officers, they should remember that the public may judge their profession and their institution by their utterances. Hence they should at all times be accurate, should exercise appropriate restraint, should show respect for the opinions of others, and should make every effort to indicate that they are not speaking for the institution.
Few of the Duke professors who have spoken out about the lacrosse case have fulfilled the obligations laid out by the AAUP statement. The Group of 88 appears to have given little or no thought to how their own rush to judgment would affect how the public would “judge their profession and their institution.” Faculty members such as Thomas Crowley, Peter Wood, and Orin Starn have sacrificed accuracy in pursuit of their personal or ideological prejudices. And few, if any, reasonable observers could contend that Karla Holloway, William Chafe, Houston Baker, Wahneema Lubiano, Thavolia Glymph, or Grant Farred have exercised “appropriate restraint” in what they have said or done about the case.
Academic freedom is not an end to itself: it is supposed to provide a means to the end of free exchange of thought on campus. Perhaps because the Group of 88 and their supporters so flagrantly have failed to respect the “duties correlative with rights” of academic freedom, on the Duke campus over the last several months, few arts and sciences professors have been willing to publicly challenge the vocal minority.
This situation is especially unfortunate in that those professors who have overcome the chilling effects of “groupthink” have had important things to say. The latest example—Engineering professor Michael Gustafson, who has offered a comprehensive critique both of his fellow faculty members and of the media/legal climate currently prevailing in the Triangle.
Most Duke faculty members have either given Mike Nifong a pass or acted as his de facto cheerleaders as he established a “separate-but-equal” system for Duke students and Duke students alone. But Gustafson interpreted the evidence in the only way possible: “The current DA will allow nothing - even the law - to get in the way of securing his tenure as District Attorney, and anyone who wants a public office so much they are willing to undermine the legitimacy of that office to get it, doesn’t deserve it and cannot be allowed to hold it.”
On Election Day, the “minister of justice” jokingly said that he might have “prejudged” a young man wearing a lacrosse T-shirt, to whom he refused to speak. This comment all but passed without notice among Duke’s faculty. (Imagine the appropriate outrage if a district attorney had uttered a similar comment about an African-American student wearing, say, a T-shirt celebrating the African National Congress.) Gustafson, however, was appropriately outraged. After summarizing Nifong’s procedural misdeeds, the professor expressed amazement that “he has the arrogance to make a JOKE about that - about prejudgment? The chasm into which Mr. Nifong’s professionalism continues to sink apparently knows no bounds.”
Gustafson similarly has taken on the poor media coverage and the inappropriate actions of the Duke administration, but he has reserved his most penetrating insights for his colleagues in the faculty. He acknowledges that underlying issues of race, class, and gender exist on the Duke campus (as they do everywhere in the country), but has chastised Group of 88 members’ refusal to devote “critical thought about what is happening to the three men under indictment.”
“One thing the ‘Social Disaster’ poster did early on in the case,” Gustafson astutely noted, “is couple, to some, the ideas of the students’ guilt and the still-pressing problems we have on campus regarding class and gender and color and everything else. Unfortunately, by co-opting the energy of the moment in March, those faculty members and others may have pinned their hopes for a real discussion of important issues, knowingly or unknowingly, on a case that to me is not holding up well at all under the scrutiny that such a case rightly deserves.” And as the case collapses, the Group of 88 and their allies have refused to concede the error, because to do so will require asking some hard questions about their own behavior and beliefs.
Gustafson agrees that Duke has experienced “a social disaster,” but not the one that the Group of 88 has imagined. This disaster
involves three men who have been used by the media and others as a personification of Houston Baker’s “white, male, athlete, privilege” rather than being three men. It involves three men whose civil rights have somehow become far less important because of their color, and gender, and perceived place in society. It involves three men whose due process is apparently not the stuff of “critical thought” but rather secondary to a study of “broad social implications” . . . I must say one of the broadest social implications of this case has been the academy’s abandonment of the defense of civil liberties for these three men based on their social markers . . . We simply cannot allow our students’ civil liberties to be trampled so that we can extract the energy of the events of March 13th to effect change on this campus. To do so would be a violation of the very trust that we have been given to educate the men and women who come to this place seeking to become critical thinkers.
For the past six months, Duke’s faculty has claimed to be conducting a comprehensive examination of “campus culture” while avoiding the most breathtaking cultural flaw the lacrosse case has revealed: the willingness of a vocal minority of the faculty to effectively endorse a prosecutor’s corrupt campaign against their own university’s students because of those students’ race, class, gender, and athletic status.
There seems to be little hope that the Campus Culture Initiative will address the questions that Gustafson has posed. But I hope his writings force other, more reasoned, members of the Duke faculty to consider what the reaction to the lacrosse case says about the institution at which they teach.