Although his remarks were brief, President Brodhead effectively apologized for five different elements of his administration’s conduct over the past 18 months.
1.) The treatment of the 47 lacrosse players and their families.
As Brodhead noted, “Given the complexities of the case, getting this communication right would never have been easy.” Yet, as he also conceded, “We did not get it right, causing the families to feel abandoned when they most needed support.”
In retrospect, the president clearly erred when he refused to meet with the lacrosse parents on March 25 (the day he canceled the Georgetown game)—especially since he did meet shortly thereafter with a host of campus or Durham groups that were hostile to the team.
The administration also erred in other ways on this front. For instance, despite the extraordinary nature of the crisis that engulfed the team, and despite the seeming good intentions on the matter of Dean Sue Wasiolek, Larry Moneta’s student life apparatus did nothing to reach out to the lacrosse players at any point in the spring of 2006. The (unsurprising) impression: that the administration cared little about their fate.
2.) The activist faculty’s statements and actions.
As Brodhead noted, “Some of those who were quick to speak as if the charges were true were on this campus, and some faculty made statements that were ill-judged and divisive.”
In one respect, the president was only conceding the obvious with these words. (How could the Group of 88’s statement not be considered “ill-judged,” or the remarks of people like Grant Farred or Peter Wood not be considered “divisive”?) That said, Brodhead had shown an unwillingness to recognize the problem until Saturday.
3.) The activist faculty’s presumptiveness in speaking for the institution.
As Brodhead noted, “The public as well as the accused students and their families could have thought that those [statements] were expressions of the university as a whole. They were not, and we could have done more to underscore that.”
In fact, Duke did almost nothing on this score—the administration’s sole action was Peter Lange’s powerful response to Houston Baker’s racist screed of March 29, 2006. Since the Group of 88’s ad (falsely) claimed the formal endorsement of five academic departments, it’s not difficult to understand why many (even on campus) might have assumed that the Group spoke formally for the institution.
4.) The failure to defend the presumption of innocence.
As Brodhead noted, “By deferring to the criminal justice system to the extent we did and not repeating the need for the presumption of innocence equally vigorously at all the key moments, we may have helped create the impression that we did not care about our students.”
In one respect, the president was only conceding the obvious with these words: whatever Brodhead’s intentions, he did not defend the presumption of innocence—at all—in his key statements from April 2006. That said, Brodhead had shown an unwillingness to concede this fact until Saturday, and his accepting the truth is a positive step.
5.) The failure to defend due process.
Brodhead had an opportunity to avoid this problem in July 2006, when the Friends of Duke open letter explicitly asked him to comment not on the players’ guilt or innocence, but to demand that they be treated just like any other
Brodhead’s apology contained one clear absence: he didn’t apologize for his administration’s failure to investigate the credible spring 2006 reports that several several arts and sciences professors had behaved inappropriately toward lacrosse players in their classes. On that front, however, the president probably was restrained from speaking out by University counsel.
What long-term effect will the president’s statement have? Brodhead had three targets for his remarks.
1.) The trustees. Board deliberations are, obviously, private; and no Trustee except Bob Steel has spoken out one way or the other regarding Brodhead. But several Trustees attended the speech, and it’s hard to believe that the Trustees aren’t thinking hard about what the administration did right and wrong.
2.) The 2006 lacrosse players and their families. No family members commented publicly on Brodhead’s speech. But given the president’s apologetic sentiments, it’s hard to believe that the remarks were not a precursor to a settlement with the families of the unindicted players.
3.) Duke alums and students. Brodhead’s fate, like that of any major university president, will ultimately be decided by alumni support (and donations). Jay Bilas, who last week became the highest-profile Brodhead critic among Duke alums, told the N&O that Brodhead’s apology was appropriate but “woefully late . . . The confidence in his ability to lead has been eroded. While Dick Brodhead is a terrific person and would make a wonderful head of the English department, he has demonstrated his ineffectiveness and his inability to lead, especially in a crisis.”
The question now is whether Brodhead will demonstrate effectiveness and an ability to lead in implementing the principles laid out in his apology.
For instance, he’s admitted that members of his faculty made “ill-judged and divisive” statements about their own school’s students. It would seem obvious, therefore, that the administration needs to ask some hard questions about why so many Duke professors so readily rushed to judgment.
Have the staffing patterns in many humanities and some social sciences departments made these departments unusually susceptible to the shortcomings of groupthink? What concrete steps will the administration take to remedy the situation, to ensure that Duke’s faculty in future, if not in the past, is staffed by professors who don’t tend toward divisiveness, and who exercise better judgment?
Students and alumni should expect answers to such questions as the University moves forward from Brodhead’s remarks; and hopefully, given the tenor of his statement, Brodhead will be equipped to supply the appropriate responses.