With a new bowtie, I attended the latest of “A Duke Conversation” events, which last night was held in
Last night’s faculty member was a reminder of Duke’s extraordinary strengths in the sciences. Dr. Barton Haynes is Professor of Medicine and Immunology and Director of the Duke Human Vaccine Institute; he spoke, extemporaneously, about his work with the Center for HIV/AIDS Vaccine Immunology. Haynes had no difficulty making science understandable for a general audience.
The two Duke students, Rob Harris and Claire Lauterbach, likewise were very impressive: both were remarkably good speakers who had compiled records at Duke that combined academic achievement with copious amounts of community service.
Brodhead was very effective at the gathering; he came across as intelligent, a polished speaker with a self-deprecating sense of humor. He spoke without notes, both in his introductory remarks and in his conversation with the students. In his comments about Duke, he outlined an ambitious future, celebrating an improved financial aid campaign and campus facilities, and promising that the remodeling of Central Campus would transform the University.
On more controversial matters, the president opened with a summary of the lacrosse case and briefly mentioned the Campus Culture Initiative; his comments were as notable for what he did not say as for what he did.
He conceded, ruefully, that the case had attracted extraordinary press attention—much more, he noted, than international topics such as the North Korean nuclear weapons program. Brodhead said that events last spring placed the University in an “extraordinarily difficult situation,” because it was forced to act upon “radically imperfect information.”
He described the crisis in the following way: a party occurred, followed, shortly thereafter, by an accusation. The media seized upon the claim, along with a district attorney who gave at least 40 interviews expressing with certainty that a rape occurred. Brodhead noted that Nifong’s boasts do not correspond with the evidence as it now seems to exist.
Notably absent from this recapitulation: any mention of the statements and conduct of the Duke faculty. No mention of Houston Baker’s open letter. No mention of William Chafe’s saying that the whites who lynched Emmett Till provided the appropriate historical context through which to interpret the lacrosse players’ behavior. No mention of the Group of 88, or Karla Holloway’s remarks, or Peter Wood’s apparent reign of slander.
Obviously, all of these statements look terrible in retrospect. But it seems they have to be acknowledged as part of the story, just as Nifong’s misleading statements must be so acknowledged.
Brodhead went out of his way to say positive things and only positive things about the lacrosse players. He noted their impressive rate of community service. He expressed his joy at the team returning to competition. He called new coach John Danowski a mensch. The tone of his comments was remarkably different than, say, his June 5 statement about the team, which seemed to go out of its way to put the team in the worst possible light.
Brodhead’s portrayal of the Campus Culture Initiative also raised eyebrows among those who had been following the debate. He told the audience that the CCI’s central elements were proposals dealing with housing, dining, and improving social space, especially for activities that didn’t involve alcohol. No mention of the CCI’s athletics proposals for a de facto withdrawal of Duke from the ACC. No mention of the Group of 88 Enrollment Initiative, the CCI recommendation that all Duke students be forced to take a class dealing with US “diversity,” courses disproportionately taught by Group members.
These remarks essentially continued his less-than-enthusiastic response to the CCI's most extreme proposals.
Finally, in his conversation with the students, Brodhead said that he would be “depressed” to work at a University where the administrators set student values; such work, he declared, should be performed by the students, with administrators setting the basic parameters, as if through a pitch pipe. It will be interesting to see if he meant what he said: certainly this vision clashes with the attempted values indoctrination of the CCI.
The Q+A session dealt with general matters; if I could have asked a question, two sprang to mind.
1) If—understandably—the University had to act upon “radically imperfect information,” why did Brodhead decline at least two offers from defense sources to give the University access to the entire discovery file? This decision remains one of the real mysteries, to me, of the case: it’s hard to fathom an argument why the University would not have wanted to obtain as much information as possible, if only to better inform its decisionmaking process.
2) Do some Duke faculty members—those whose views on race, class, and gender reflect the faculty status quo at Duke and most other campuses—not have to adhere to the Faculty Handbook, which requires Duke professors to treat with respect all Duke students, not just those whose race, class, or gender faculty ideologues find agreeable? It appears, based on the last 10 months, the answer to this question is that the Group of 88 and its allies do not have to adhere to the Faculty Handbook, but I remain puzzled as to why.
All in all, a most enjoyable evening (Haynes’ speech was fascinating), one that reinforced the sense that Brodhead’s reaction to the CCI’s most extreme proposals isn’t positive but continued his pattern or refusing to acknowledge in any way the misconduct by some members of the arts and sciences faculty.