Friday, January 24, 2014
A Duke Professor on the Group of 88
This morning’s Duke Chronicle features a highly unusual faculty op-ed, penned by English professor Victor Strandberg, criticizing the Group of 88. Yet the op-ed’s odd framing distracts from the criticism.
Strandberg’s basic thesis: since the money Duke spent on settlements with the falsely accused lacrosse players would have been better spent on virtually any matter relating to the university’s academic mission, and since the Group of 88’s record played a key role in convincing Duke that it had to settle, the extremist faculty’s conduct had a real cost for Duke students.
Strandberg recalls events of spring 2006, when “a boiling tsunami of faculty rage” culminated in the Group of 88’s ad; he now deems it “a mistake to launch this ad into so supercharged an atmosphere.” Strandberg partially excuses the Group of 88 on grounds that they were relying on Mike Nifong’s good faith. But that rationalization, he notes, can’t apply to the “clarifying” statement—when, after Nifong’s case had imploded, almost all of the Group chose to “republish their earlier statement, as though no second thoughts were necessary.” The “clarifying” statement, in fact, not only reaffirmed the Group of 88 ad. It also maintained that in spring 2006, they had wanted to thank protesters whose stated motivations were fighting “discrimination and violence,” motivations that the “potbanger” protesters with their “castrate” banner had claimed, and affirmed that the signatories would never apologize for their actions, as, indeed, they have not.
Strandberg concludes in the following manner: “Someone else paid for that exercise of free speech, namely the phantom students who might have become real Dukies with the help of that hundred million dollars. I believe in free speech as much as anyone, but I do hope we will all consider who pays for it if and when some similar situation again arises.”
This is a welcome, if belated, criticism of the Group’s extremism and its effects. It’s hard to know how much covering for the faculty—as opposed to covering for former SANE nurse-in-training Tara Levicy or ensuring that Richard Brodhead, Larry Moneta, and other senior administrators would never be cross-examined—accounted for Duke’s decision to settle. But given that the settlement explicitly shielded the faculty from individual lawsuits, it’s clear that protecting extremists in the ranks played some role in Duke’s legal strategy.
Other sections of Strandberg’s op-ed, however, are a little odd. Strandberg incorrectly suggests that payments to the falsely accused lacrosse players were $20 million each. (Bernie Reeves of Raleigh Metro, who Strandberg doesn’t cite, long ago reported the total settlement was in the neighborhood of $18 million, a figure I have no reason to dispute.) Strandberg argues that even half the actual amount, however, would have been too high, since “innocent men who have spent 15 to 20 or more years actually in prison have received less than a million.” Is Strandberg suggesting that Duke administrators or faculty or employees behaved maliciously in helping to send other “innocent men” to prison for 15 years? If not, the comparison makes little sense. Payments in such cases revolve not merely around the actual innocence of the accused, but around the misconduct of the state or other parties.
Was any settlement necessary? According to Strandberg, no. The university should have “quietly let the legal system do its work.” Why didn’t Duke take this course? As he notes a couple of sentences later, “there was too much talk from faculty and administrators of an inflammatory and legally liable nature.” In other words: Duke faculty and administrators were legally liable, and the university elected to pay rather than fight. That doesn’t seem like an unreasonable calculation.
A final oddity from Strandberg: he goes out of his way to say that he doesn’t “blame our President.” His grounds for such an evaluation? He recalls Brodhead “saying on television as the media were going hysterical, ‘The three captains tell me they are innocent.’” (Strandberg evidently doesn’t recall Brodhead saying about Seligmann and Finnerty that whatever they did was bad enough, or the President’s guilt-presuming letter to the Duke community in April 2006.) That said, Strandberg correctly recalls that no faculty publicly stood up for the presumption of innocence in spring 2006, though women’s lacrosse coach Kirsten Kimel did so.
All that said, and despite Strandberg’s very strange accounting of the nature of the legal harms faced by the three falsely accused players, it’s good to see someone point out that the Group of 88’s conduct had consequences.