It’s been interesting to see the differences between how most newspapers and most blogs interpreted the recent Richard Brodhead statement. Most media coverage—even from the heretofore consistently pro-Nifong Duff
Perhaps this bifurcated response was inevitable. It seems as if Brodhead currently has to satisfy several different constituencies, most of which place competing demands on him. That the state and national media focused on his call for due process suggests that, overall, the address was a positive development, despite its disappointing comments about the Group of 88.
Only the naïve would believe that last week’s filing of the Dowd lawsuit represents the last or most significant legal matter that Duke will face before this affair has ended. This case began with discussions about legal action against Duke—local attorney and Nifong backer Mark Simeon, joined briefly by high-powered plaintiffs’ attorney Willie Gary, seemed to dream of a lawsuit by Kim Roberts and the accuser against Duke.
That the accuser will never have grounds for a civil suit is hardly a revelation; indeed, it’s far more likely that she’ll face charges for filing a false report or have to fight child custody issues.
Duke, therefore, finds itself in an awkward position. The major legal threat it seemed to face last spring, when the key decisions (and non-decisions) in this affair were made, came from the accuser. Now, it faces a looming legal threat from some of its students. Counsel undoubtedly has told Brodhead that any admission of improper conduct by faculty in last spring’s classes will strengthen the next case against Duke, and that he should stress the administration’s efforts to uphold the presumption of innocence, even though this seems to have been, at most, a secondary concern in March, April, May, and June.
While legal concerns would dictate the kind of robust defense that Brodhead offered of the Group of 88’s actions, pleasing parents would pull the president in the exact opposite direction. Duke’s current tuition is more than $40,000 annually; it, fittingly, competes for student talent against the Ivies and other elite schools, like
More than 80 percent of Duke’s arts and sciences faculty did not join the Group of 88. No Engineering professors did so. In the last week, 19 Economics professors publicly stated that they welcomed all Duke students into their classes—regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, or athletic status. The Economics professors’ statement appears in today’s Chronicle. No question exists that most Duke professors care very much about their students.
But there’s also no question that one Duke professor, after suggesting—falsely—in writing that two of her own students were accomplices to rape, gave both of them an F on their final paper. (Nor is there any doubt in my mind that we’ll be hearing more such tales—perhaps not quite so dramatic—over the coming months.) There’s no question that ESPN reported that document author Wahneema Lubiano moved forward with the Group of 88’s statement fully aware that some would interpret the document as a “stake through the collective heart” of some of her own school’s students. Or that not a single member of the Group of 88 has publicly conceded doubts, in retrospect, about the timing of their statement; or its thanking of protesters whose behavior most people would consider indefensible; or its refusal to mention the due process rights of their school’s own students.
From a standpoint of reaching out to parents, then, Brodhead has every reason to concede that mistakes were made last spring—not to seek scapegoats, to challenge tenure, or to fire people, as was done to former lacrosse coach Mike Pressler. But to reassure prospective Duke parents that the administration is taking positive steps to ensure that every arts and sciences professor at Duke treats every student at the institution fairly.
Brodhead’s address did not include a discussion of the role he sees the institution’s alumni playing as part of the Duke community. I’ve corresponded with lots of Duke graduates over the past nine months, and have met a smaller number personally. It’s my sense that a significant swing in opinion has occurred—from embarrassment and concern that a crime might have occurred last spring, to disappointment that the institution didn’t do more to protect the due process rights of its students now.
Brodhead’s remarks against Nifong were the right thing to do. But they also satisfied pressure from alumni, a group that no president can afford to alienate. On the question of challenging Nifong, Duke’s institutional self-interest and Brodhead’s moral obligations are one and the same, and Brodhead’s actions over the past month seem to recognize this fact.
The principle of academic freedom in the
In recent years, however, academic freedom has been redefined by some to suggest that it should leave academics free from outside criticism of anything they say or do. This sentiment certainly appeared in the sections of Brodhead’s address dealing with blogs (I presume including, in the interest of full disclosure, this blog) that have criticized the Group of 88.
I would be surprised if many Group of 88 members haven’t already consulted counsel, and I would be even more surprised if counsel hadn’t told them the ambiguity of the statement’s language could be made, in a court of law, to show that the signatories were saying things against the lacrosse team. Because of their overall record of statements and actions, several arts and sciences professors would seem to be at least as legally vulnerable as is Kim Curtis.
Even if the threat of lawsuits didn’t exist, though, I suspect Brodhead would have denounced the critics of the Group of 88. Professors, as a whole, resent outside criticism. Duke, in particular, has aggressively recruited professors in the last 15 years with a promise of a comfortable intellectual atmosphere on campus. Unfortunately, Brodhead seems unwilling or unable to give even a mild statement of rebuke, perhaps delivered in the passive voice, regarding inappropriate faculty behavior.
At most institutions, the Trustees also would be placing pressure on Brodhead. But in this affair, BOT chairman Bob Steel has resolutely backed the president.
On one side, then, legal advice and faculty pressure suggest that Brodhead will continue with his January 7 line of wholeheartedly defending the Group of 88. At this stage, the question would seem to be whether pressure from alumni or prospective parents will force him to reconsider this approach.
But the administration seems to have embraced a policy of demanding that
After Monday’s post, I received a thoughtful e-mail from a DIW reader chastising me for appearing anti-Duke, and for leaving the impression that all professors at the school agreed with the Group of 88. The reader especially objected that my bullet-pointing four professors (Farred,
I should have been clearer in my language in that section of the post, and I apologize. I bullet-pointed these four professors not because I considered them representative of the Duke faculty (I don’t), but because they were the four Duke professors that had most recently experienced criticism from the blogs—the specific point that Brodhead had made, but without mentioning their names, in the faculty section of his address.