In an essay published last December, Political Science chairman Michael Munger noted that the Group of 88 was out of line not “for expressing a view,” but “for (a) a rush to judgment, and (b) presuming to speak, or appearing to be presuming to speak, for Duke and Duke’s faculty as a whole.”
With Group members occupying such prominent positions (chairperson of the Academic Council, Dean of the Social Sciences faculty at Trinity College), it’s easy to forget that—as Munger pointed out—the Group does not speak for Duke’s faculty as a whole. Indeed, the Group, their new additions in the “clarifying” faculty, and their more cautious ideological allies probably comprise only 20 or 25 percent of the arts and sciences faculty as a whole. And it’s worth remembering that there were many examples of Duke professors whose behavior was a credit to the profession.
In April, Chemistry professor Steven Baldwin risked “arousing the wrath of the righteous” by asking why Duke fired Mike Pressler before the Coleman Committee completed its investigation. He paid tribute to Pressler’s personal character and the kind of students he recruited to Duke. With the Coleman Committee’s findings of Pressler as blameless, Baldwin’s words looked prescient.
Then, in October, Baldwin became the first Duke professor to publicly criticize the Group of 88. He noted, “As a Duke faculty member I regard my students in much the same way I regard my children. When my kids do something wrong, I demand accountability. When they break the rules they pay the price, whatever that might be.”
With that accountability, however, comes support. My kids know I love them and that I will do everything I can to help them through the rough times. That is what families do. I treat my students the same way. Duke students should expect nothing less from their university . . . Instead, Duke has disowned its lacrosse-playing student athletes. Their treatment has been shameful . . . The faculty who publicly savaged the character and reputations of specific men's lacrosse players last spring should be ashamed of themselves.
They should be tarred and feathered, ridden out of town on a rail and removed from the academy. Their comments were despicable. I suspect they were also slanderous, but we'll hear more about that later.
This missive did arouse the wrath of the righteous. Ignoring any pretense of desiring dialogue and debate with those who dared to challenge their agenda, the Group and its sympathizers immediately tried to silence Baldwin. “Clarifying” faculty Robyn Wiegman wrote a letter to the Chronicle bizarrely suggesting that Baldwin’s op-ed used the “language of lynching,” only to receive a history lesson from Johnsville News. Baldwin, undeterred, continued speaking up for all Duke students throughout the spring.
So, too, did Michael Gustafson. Shortly after the defense change-of-venue motion appeared, Gustafson penned one of the most powerful posts in the entire case. Taking note of the unprecedented occurrence of the statements and actions of their own faculty being cited as one reason why students couldn’t receive a fair trial locally, Gustafson understood that the motion “is sadly easy to translate.”
It seemed, he lamented, that “we have removed any safeguards we’ve learned against stereotyping, against judging people by the color of their skin or the (perceived) content of their wallet, against acting on hearsay and innuendo and misdirection and falsehoods . . . We have taken Reade, and Collin, and Dave, and posterized them into ‘White Male Athlete Privilege,’ and we have sought to punish that accordingly.”
“We have demanded proof of innocence; we have stated that even if innocent of the alleged crimes, ‘whatever they did is bad enough;’ we have established false dilemmas and presented them as deductive enthymemes—‘White innocence means black guilt.’ ‘Men’s innocence means women’s guilt.’”
The effect? “It should be clear to all that we have created an environment, both within our walls and the community that hosts them, where it may well be impossible to have a jury of one’s peers should this continue to trial. Who are the peers of ‘White Male Athlete Privilege’? Who will vote for ‘white innocence,’ if it means ‘black guilt’?
“This document is clear. Justice - for any and for all - demands distance from us.”
Even his critics have conceded that Gustafson is an extraordinary teacher, a professor whose students rave about him long after they’ve left Duke. A similar, though lesser-known, performance came from Rhonda Sharpe, who was a visitor to the Duke faculty in the 2005-2006 academic year and who now teaches at the University of Vermont.
In the spring 2006 semester, Sharpe had seven men’s lacrosse players in her Sports Economics class—at the same time as several lacrosse players were in now-dean’s Sally Deutsch course. But while Deutsch deviated from her syllabus to deliver a guilt-presuming lecture after the allegations went public, Sharpe did the opposite. She made clear she would not use her class time to imply guilt or to put her students on the spot. More important, she behaved as would be expected of a professor whose students were experiencing a crisis—she reached out personally, asking the players how they were doing, and inviting them to talk with her if they needed to do so.
Sharpe also publicly stood up for due process at a time when, as Munger pointed out, the Group was presuming to speak for Duke’s faculty in rushing to judgment. People, she told ESPN on Primary Day last May, “are so caught up in the rape issue and the racial aspect that they’re not paying attention to the legal aspect.” Where, she wondered, were the local NAACP and ACLU when Nifong obtained an order for DNA samples based solely on team membership rather than probable cause? And why had people not asked more “hard questions” about the procedural irregularities that already were apparent in the case?
Such questions, of course, should have been coming from the people most associated with standing up for due process—professors. Those players who were in her 2006 course haven’t forgotten that Sharpe did so as members of the Group rushed to judgment.
Finally, one person who signed the Group’s statement subsequently took a different path. When asked this January to sign the “clarifying” statement—which defiantly refused to apologize—Arlie Petters demurred. As he told the Chronicle of Higher Education, “Whenever something causes undue pain to people, then of course that isn’t something I would want to be a part of.”
Last January, there obviously was considerable peer pressure on Group members to remain faithful to the Lubiano/Holloway line. Yet Petters’ reaction was—much like those of Baldwin, Gustafson, and Sharpe, in different circumstances—what most people would expect, and want, of a professor. Even assuming the most benevolent intentions for the Group’s ad, by January 2007, lacrosse players, their families, and their attorneys had made perfectly and publicly clear how the ad had harmed them. Knowing that, how could any professor, in good conscience, compound the pain?
Much like Baldwin, Gustafson, and Sharpe, Petters is a teacher of whom his former students speak fondly. (I’ve heard from several, all with positive memories, since his decision not to sign the “clarifying” statement.) He’s also someone who has given back to his community—in his case, his home country of Belize.
This blog has—justifiably—focused on the dark side of academic behavior in this affair. But it’s important to take Munger’s admonition to heart, to recognize that the Group didn’t and doesn’t speak for the Duke faculty as a whole, and to remember that the past 17 months also featured some professors who reflected the best of the academy’s ideals.