In the lacrosse case, perhaps no person has played a more unexpected role than Board of Trustees chairman Bob Steel. In the contemporary academy, trustees are normally quite hands-off. But when they do involve themselves in University affairs, they more often than not focus on issues such as upholding standards, promoting intellectual diversity, or working to uphold the University’s financial well-being or overall reputation.
Since March, Steel has avoided all of these customary patterns. He has been remarkably hands-on, vigorously defending the Brodhead administration’s actions to interested parties and journalists behind-the-scenes. His actions do not seem to have been designed to uphold either the University’s reputation or its long-term financial standing.
Occasionally, he has stepped out publicly, though in dubious ways. His most prominent role in this regard came when he rationalized the suspension of the season, pointing not to presumption of innocence, due process, or “victims’ rights,” but instead public relations. As he informed the New Yorker, “We had to stop those pictures [of the players practicing]. It doesn’t mean that it’s fair, but we had to stop it. It doesn’t necessarily mean I think it was right—it just had to be done.” That quote hardly inspires confidence of a BOT chairman providing moral leadership for the University.
This morning’s Washington Post provides a troubling article on Steel’s new dual role—he is serving as undersecretary of the Treasury while remaining as Duke Board chairman. In fact, the paper reveals that Steel said that he would accept the Treasury job only if allowed to remain as BOT chairman.
A charitable interpretation would contend that Steel prioritized service to Duke over service to his country. Those less charitably inclined might wonder if he feared that a new Board chairman would take a hard look at how the Steel/Brodhead administration has handled events since March, and perhaps steer a new course. A new BOT chair, for instance, might abandon Steel's policies and instead encourage Duke to take concrete actions to uphold and protect the due process rights of its own students, while even using his or her bully pulpit to challenge the more irresponsible voices among the faculty.
The Post story features a long line of quotes from specialists in government ethics denouncing Steel’s action. NYU professor Paul C. Light said that Steel should resign from the Duke board, as “the potential conflicts are significant. His positions violate the spirit of the law that separates public and private service.”
Three other ethics experts, from varying ideological viewpoints, were more direct:
“It’s a conflict of interest,” said Thomas J. Fitton, president of Judicial Watch, a conservative government watchdog group. “In his role as the chairman of the Board of Trustees, there will be decisions he will make that will be in conflict with his role as a high-level government official.”
Melanie Sloan, executive director of the left-leaning Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in
, agreed. “The concept of having a government job is that you work only on behalf of the American people, and being a trustee creates a divided loyalty,” she said. Washington
Barbara Roper, director of investor protection for the Consumer Federation of America, added: “He’s creating the very real possibility that he will face situations where he has not just the appearance of a conflict but the reality of a conflict and then will have to decide how to behave. There will always be questions about whether he handled that kind of situation appropriately.”
The obvious conflict: how can Steel avoid choosing between his fiduciary responsibilities as chairman of the Duke trustees and his position at Treasury? His
Steel claims that he will excuse himself from all investment-related decisions made by the Duke Trustees. It’s hard to see how such a recusal could work in practice: at best, Duke would have a chairman of the board who had to absent himself on the financial matters that serve as a primary Board concern. At worst, it would have a BOT chairman who had little else to do except devote his efforts to propping up the Brodhead administration.
There is, of course, another major conflict of interest that the Post article does not explore. Steel is serving two masters—Duke and the federal government. To date, he has exhibited an inexplicable unwillingness to criticize Mike Nifong’s “separate-but-equal” justice system for Duke students. In so doing, he, along with the Brodhead administration, has left in place an image of Duke as an institution whose upper leadership (much less its faculty, such as the Group of 88) does not particularly care about the school’s own students.
Steel’s course of action would seem to contradict both his moral and his fiduciary responsibilities as the Board of Trustees chairman. But his reluctance to use his position to defend Duke students makes more sense when viewed in light of a realization that taking a high profile in Durham might lead to more people noticing his continued Duke affiliation. That, in turn, would lead to more people asking the sort of troubling questions that today’s Post article raises.
As Steel surely recognizes, the Bush administration has enough political problems right now without one of its senior officials becoming involved in an extensively covered case unrelated to his government job. It’s so much easier, from Steel’s professional perspective, to remain silent.
Serving two masters is never easy. In Steel’s case, it would appear to be impossible.