Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Duke's Dueling Reports

During the height of the Vietnam War, Foreign Relations Committee chairman J. William Fulbright established a subcommittee, chaired by Missouri senator Stuart Symington, to examine U.S. commitments abroad. Commentators jokingly referred to the Symington Subcommittee as "the Foreign Relations Subcommittee for Oversight of the Armed Services Committee," since its real purpose seemed to be challenging the viewpoint of John Stennis' hawkish Armed Services Committee.

Duke's version of the Symington Subcommittee was the Bowen/Chambers Committee, which released its report last night. Ostensibly created to review the Duke administration's response to the lacrosse scandal, the committee seemed to view itself as a "Duke Committee for Oversight of the Coleman Committee," the body that examined the behavior of the men's lacrosse team. After an investigation governed by procedures quite unfavorable to the lacrosse players, that committee sharply rebuked the lacrosse team's culture of excessive alcohol use but also praised the team members' academic achievements, community service, and on-campus behavior. That message didn't go over well with some quarters of the Duke community, many of whom were interviewed by William G. Bowen, former president of Princeton University, and Julius Chambers, former chancellor of North Carolina Central University. The duo's report challenges many of the Coleman Committee report's conclusions, though without engaging any of its rival report's evidence.

On the topic at hand—the Duke administration's response—Bowen and Chambers issue a number of common-sense recommendations (more specific codes of conduct for athletes; re-examination of the relationship between on-campus and off-campus housing; a clearer organizational chart to make sure important information makes its way to top administrators more quickly and more hard questions are asked at an earlier stage).

They also particularly press a diversity personnel agenda that seems tangential to the issues at hand. (This is probably not surprising: Chambers is a longtime leader of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, while Bowen is co-author of one of the most significant scholarly defenses of affirmative action.) Though claiming that "we are certainly not arguing for filling positions of any kind by applying a race-gender quota system," they effectively do just that, demanding creation of new positions that women or minorities are all but certain to fill. In assembling their own report, Bowen and Chambers added Duke alumna Daneille Carr Ramdath, a Mathematics Ph.D. who the report describes as an "African-American woman." (The report does not identify the race of either Bowen or Chambers.) Though Bowen and Chambers note that Carr "participated in almost all our interviews, kept her own notes, and helped in editing this report," only their signatures, not Carr's, appear on the final report.

Bowen and Chambers explain their emphasis on diversity by citing the fact that Duke administrators were too long unaware that the accuser was African-American. In today's New York Times, Paul H. Haagen, a Duke law professor and chairman of the Duke academic council, expressed puzzlement over this point, commenting, "I'm not sure that somehow or other we should have responded differently if it had been a white woman." Nor is it clear, if the Duke police didn't know the race of the accuser and therefore couldn't provide this information to higher-ups, how having more African-Americans in the high levels of the Duke administration would have made any difference in this case. Duke's upper adminnistration might (and probably does) need more diversity, but this specific episode seems like an unusual justification for the idea.

Bowen and Chambers recognize that the university appointed other committees to investigate the culture of the men's lacrosse team, Duke athletics, and the student judicial system, but they spend a good portion of their report on these issues—despite admitting that "in the time available," they couldn't speak to all the people they wanted regarding their original task. They did find time, however, to interview seven professors, including Karla Holloway and Houston Baker, signatories of the anti-lacrosse "listening" statement; and Peter Wood, who has joined Baker as the two most outspoken faculty critics of the lacrosse team. The committee did not explain why its faculty interviews were so heavily weighted toward extreme critics of the team, or why it interviewed this trio when it didn't have the time to speak to figures more relevant to its specific charge. As was the case in the Coleman Committee report, no team members were interviewed.

The direct points of disagreement between the Bowen/Chambers and Coleman Committee reports reflect poorly on the former's efforts. The first involves the complaints of Professor Wood. The Coleman Committee report acknowledged Wood as a high-profile critic of the lacrosse team. But it provided three damning contextual items. First, the report noted that Wood considerably expanded his claims about lacrosse players' behavior in his class between 2004, when the class occurred, and in recent interviews. Second, Wood's TA admitted that she couldn't cite even one instance of inappropriate classroom behavior to back up Wood's claims. (The best she could do was an assertion that they demonstrated "aggressive body language" that didn't affect other students.) Finally, the Coleman Committee interviewed nine other professors who had taught extensive numbers of lacrosse players; none had experiences even remotely resembling Wood's. In short, based on the evidence presented in the Coleman Committee report, Wood's comments about the lacrosse team are at best exaggerated and at worst not credible. Yet Bowen and Chambers accept Wood's critique without challenge: indeed, Wood is the only faculty member directly mentioned by name in their report.

Secondly, Bowen and Chambers strongly imply that Duke should have fired lacrosse coach Mike Pressler earlier, because of excessive underage drinking on the team; the duo (or perhaps trio, if we include Carr) strongly praise Pressler's forced resignation in the midst of the controversy. Yet the Coleman Committee report presents a far more complicated picture on this matter, largely faulting Duke's bureaucratic structure and overall administration tolerance of underage student drinking. It might be that, given all the negative publicity, Pressler was a necessary scapegoat; but based on the Coleman Committee's conclusions, it would be hard to term his dismissal "merited," as Bowen and Coleman do. There's a strong undercurrent of more general anti-athletics sentiment in the report; Bowen and Chambers seem to envision Duke redefining itself athletically, perhaps to become the "Davidson of the Triangle." (I'm sure most Duke alumni would love that.)

Beyond these matters, the Bowen/Chambers report provides a fascinating insight into a campus mindset that, to my knowledge, has not featured even one member of the Duke faculty publicly questioning the myriad procedural irregularities associated with the district attorney's dealings with Duke students. The problem, Bowen and Chambers reveal, was the need to balance the students' due process protections with the fact that "in the eyes of some faculty and others concerned with the intersecting issues of race, class, gender, and respect for people, the Athletic Department, and Duke more generally, just didn't seem to 'get it.'" As a result, these professors saw the lacrosse team as the "manifestation of a white, elitist arrogant sub-culture that was both indulged and self-indulgent." If the Coleman Committee report did nothing else, it wholly dispelled that image, yet Bowen and Chambers provide no mention of their colleagues' findings, no willingness to explore why a significant segment of the Duke faculty was, apparently, predisposed toward a highly negative and inaccurate view of more than 40 of its undergraduates—why, even, some faculty suggested that their own institution's students' "legal considerations" needed to be balanced against an immediate exploration of the "related issues" of race, class, and gender that they saw associated with the rape allegation. This astonishing finding should deeply trouble Duke president Richard Brodhead.

I suspect that the national media response to their effort has distressed Bowen and Chambers, since virtually all coverage has seized upon a new factual item that clashes starkly with the report's anti-lacrosse tone: that Durham police told their Duke counterparts the whole affair would "blow over" because the "accuser kept changing her story and was not credible"; she had initially asserted that 20 players on the team had raped her. It's possible, as Bowen and Chambers speculate, that the Durham police were intentionally lying, hoping to lull the Duke campus into a false sense of security. But if not, this item offers the first clue to another of this case's procedural oddities. Normally, police conduct an investigation, with the D.A. brought in to make determinations regarding arrests or indictments. In this case, however, Nifong oversaw the investigation almost from the start, and even, before it was completed, publicly proclaimed its results—the accuser was raped; three men committed the crime; the lacrosse players were "hooligans"; the guilty men committed the crime in a specific way (which he helpfully demonstrated in pre-election TV interviews). If Nifong has proved nothing else over the past two months, it has been that he considered unacceptable local authorities in any way doubting the accuser's version of events.

Apart from the diversity angle, Bowen and Chambers base their contention regarding Duke's tardy response to the situation on another factor: a Duke police officer reported seeing the accuser at the Duke Hospital "shaking, crying, and upset," which the report's authors considered a "description of behavior which doesn't suggest that the case was just likely to 'go away.'" That two prestigious academics can seriously assert that a campus administration should have considered word that the accuser was crying and upset (which, regardless of whether the claim was true or false, would certainly have been expected behavior) as more relevant than reports that the local police didn't find the accuser credible and that she had dramatically altered her story gives a sense of the odd intellectual environment in which the Bowen/Chambers report operates.

[Originally posted in Cliopatria]

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