Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Chafe Chimes In

This morning’s Chronicle features an opinion piece by William Chafe on conditions at Duke. I’m a great admirer of Chafe’s scholarship, which I’ve frequently used in my classes. So of all the signatures on the Group of 88’s statement, his disappointed me the most.

Many of Chafe’s current comments are common sense. He argues that based on the undisputed facts, the lacrosse team deserved “censure and disciplinary action”—which, of course, it received, in the form of a cancellation of the season, the forced resignation of the coach, and resumption of the program under restrictions, behavior-related penalties as draconian as virtually any in intercollegiate athletics over the past 15 years. Chafe urges Duke to adopt a stricter behavior code, to forbid things like students hiring strippers—a commendable idea, though probably one that’s not even needed at this stage. And he hopes for a university where alcohol plays a less significant role in students’ social lives, one “about celebrating the ‘playfulness’ and pleasure that infuse the process of debating intellectual and spiritual issues over extended lunches after class,” and “using some of our ‘party time’ to discuss the origins of the universe or existential ethics, even as we socialize at mixers.” I can’t imagine a single professor anywhere in the country would oppose this vision, and I hope Duke can achieve it. But I’m enough of a realist (and surely Chafe is as well) to know that progress along these lines will be fitful at best. Duke could make a healthy start by ensuring that all students live on-campus for all four years, as Chafe recommends, though I gather there are some practical limitations here revolving around space and town/gown tensions in the construction of new dorms.

Chafe’s article is most striking in what it fails to say. As, sadly, has become the pattern, Chafe apparently sees neither a professional nor a moral responsibility for Duke faculty to publicly demand that Durham authorities respect the due process rights of their own institution’s students. (In small progress, I suppose, at least he’s no longer saying “thank you” to student protesters who were proclaiming the lacrosse players “rapists” and chanting “time to confess.”) On police coming to campus dorms to question Duke students outside the presence of their counsel, Chafe says nothing. On local authorities conducting a photo lineup that included only Duke lacrosse players, thereby disregarding the state’s suggested guidelines, Chafe has no comment. Imagine the (wholly appropriate) likely faculty outrage if a prosecutor who needed white votes in an upcoming primary obtained a court order to get DNA, an extraordinary invasion of civil liberties, from dozens of black male students solely on the basis of their affiliation with a campus organization, before even attempting to determine whether these men were at the scene of the alleged crime. Yet on the DA’s decision to compel 46 Duke students to give a sample of their DNA solely on the basis of their membership in a group (and then deeming the results of those tests irrelevant when they didn't help his case), Chafe, again, is silent.

Chafe's attitude toward protecting the civil liberties of Duke students also appears in his demand for a policy that “any student group, on or off the campus, that promotes or engages in racial stereotyping is subject to disciplinary action.” Feminist, African-American, and gay rights groups have been known to engage in racial or gender stereotyping from time to time. Would they be subject to “disciplinary action”? How would this policy avoid the worst aspects of campus speech codes, which have similar aims? Chafe doesn’t say. Indeed, in a strictly technical sense, Chafe’s own article could be deemed guilty of “racial stereotyping.” He reports that “a student group at Duke—the lacrosse team . . . hurled racial epithets at black people.” Yet all we know for sure is that one (as yet unidentified) player, not 46 white members of “the lacrosse team,” did so.

It’s unfortunate that Chafe—as was done in the Group of 88’s statement—seems to interpret events through a preconceived lens, even when contrary evidence exists. “The events that we know took place,” he notes, “reflect underlying realities of student culture, at Duke and at American colleges and universities generally, that cry out for attention.” Chafe's article was written before release of the Coleman Committee report on the lacrosse team. After talking to 10 professors who had many lacrosse players in their classes, significant number of athletic staff of mixed races and genders, and members of the women’s lacrosse team who interacted with their male counterparts, the report did not find a pattern of (or even any evidence of) racist or sexist behavior by the team, suggesting that, other than excessive alcohol use, “the events that we know took place” didn’t reflect the underlying realities of the lacrosse players’ student culture.

Chafe concludes by placing great hope for the Campus Culture Committee—and, since it has two of the Group of 88 signatories as among its members, his confidence is probably justified. The apparent unwillingness of the Duke faculty to take a hard look of how it has responded to events since March 13 continues to disappoint.

Update, 5.15pm: Prof. Chafe emailed to note that, in the article, he specifically commented that "whether or not a sexual assault took place is something we will not know for months and is a task for the criminal-justice system to establish," and therefore it wouldn't have been appropriate for him to comment on such issues. As Cliopatria readers know, I disagree--first of all, because I don't see advocating for due process as taking a position one way or the other on the substance of the charges; and second, because Chafe's position essentially means that the "campus culture" initiative cannot explore the faculty's failure to call for duue process protections for Duke students, since the criminal case will be going on simultaneously to the campus culture initiative. By the way, the DA announced this afternoon that he doesn't expect the trial to occur until next spring--only raising further questions as to why he was in such a rush to secure an indictment.

[Originally published in Cliopatria.]

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