Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Open Letter to Brodhead

Today's Duke Chronicle features an open letter to President Richard Brodhead and Duke's Board of Trustees. Sponsored by Friends of Duke University, a grassroots organization, the letter urges the Brodhead administration to do more to speak up for Duke students, in part by "formally demand[ing] that Mr. Nifong immediately correct, to the extent now possible, the grave errors that he has committed to date." The letter also notes that beyond acknowledging bad conduct by the lacrosse team, as he has repeatedly done, Brodhead needs to "call attention to the larger, more positive, context the [Coleman] committee found” about the team. In general, the letter advocates a more robust response by Duke to the crisis, asking the institution to use its formal but especially informal powers on behalf of both itself and its students.

The letter concludes by reminding Brodhead:

One of our university's finest moments occurred 100 years ago during the Bassett Affair. When a member of the university community unfairly came under attack, the President and Board of Trustees refused to cave into momentary expediency. Instead, Duke's leaders spoke out for what was right. In the end, rather than suffer for it, Duke's reputation was greatly enhanced by the courage of the President and Board. Can we now say the same about the Lacrosse Affair?

(Disclosure: I'm a strong supporter of this organization, and the FODU website has posted links to my writings on the case.)

The open letter comes almost exactly 100 days after another full-page Duke Chronicle ad: the so-called "listening" statement, signed by the Group of 88. Even now, there seems to be no recognition on the signatories' part as to how a large group of professors issuing a public, denunciatory statement about their own school's students would have facilitated D.A. Mike Nifong's witch-hunt. Yet there are some positive developments about the campus climate regarding the statement. In a recent discussion thread at John in Carolina's blog, a commenter incorrectly identified as a Group of 88 member Professor Orin Starn, who has criticized the lacrosse team as part of his campaign to transform Duke into an athletic version of Haverford. Within an hour, Starn requested a retraction. When even Orin Starn wants to avoid association with the Group of 88, a sea change in attitudes has occurred.

The group's collective profile is revealing. To begin with, only 69 of the 88 are tenured or tenure-track faculty: seven were visitors (it's understandable why they would care little about the fate of Duke students); seven teach in the University Writing Program; and one each was a program registrar, graduate student, program administrator, clinical nurse, and "affiliate" to an unspecified Duke program. Statement sponsors haven’t explained how they determined who was eligible to sign the document.

The 69 permanent faculty signatories included only two professors in math, just one in the hard sciences, and zero in law. (It would have been difficult indeed for a law professor to have signed a statement deeming irrelevant "the results of the police investigation.") Of the permanent signatories, 58—an astonishing 84.1 percent—describe their research interests as related to race, class, or gender (or all three), in some cases to an extent bordering on caricature. One Group of 88 member stated that his current project "argues that unless we attempt to read racialized trauma according to a more Freudian, Lacanian understanding for subjectivity we will continue to misunderstand why racial stigma persists and, more generally, why the laws humans create to protect against forms of discrimination leave in place a notion of the racialized subject as emptied of interiority and the psychical." Another reasoned that "it was not merely military mobilization . . . that paved the path to war [in Iraq] but a highly gendered war talk." An example? Laura Bush’s late 2001 comments about the plight of Afghan women, which “furthered the [U.S.] imperial project in her highly gendered appeal to a world conscience.” A third signatory, after beginning her career exploring "postmodernist theory about the individual and the body," is now " working on a new project critiquing animal rights from speciesist perspective."

Some Group of 88 members, as I've noted before, have started to re-invent themselves as neo-temperance activists. But most remain mired in a classic example of what Mark Bauerlein, in his 2004 essay for the Chronicle of Higher Education, described as academic "groupthink." Under increasing criticism from Duke alums (I've been forwarded a couple dozen such emails), many seem genuinely puzzled that their actions have attracted outside attention. After all, in one respect, the statement represented a not uncommon event on campus: race/class/gender professors wielding their collective muscle, with little or no public opposition from professors who fear being branded as insensitive to the contemporary academy's Trinity. One signatory responded emphatically to whether she would consider signing a public statement urging due process for the lacrosse players: "NO." There's no need: as another signatory recently claimed, the Group of 88's statement "has nothing to do with the LAX case."

It's remarkable that anyone could argue, in good faith, that a statement asserting something "happened" to the accuser and publicly thanking protesters who distributed wanted posters and banged pots and pans while calling the players "rapists" had "nothing to do with the LAX case." After all, the issue was hardly being ignored by faculty at the time. Houston Baker's public demand for the immediate expulsion of the "team and its members" was well known; a lacrosse parent recalled a class with History professor Reeve Huston: "The week following the news of the allegations, my son was in class and was subjected to a professor's personal editorial barrage regarding the guilt of the entire team. He left the class rather than be subjected to assertions that he knew were not true."

Recent attempts to rationalize their actions have provided an unintentional, and unpleasant, look inside the Group of 88's mindset. Karla Holloway, for instance, has termed herself a "victim" of the affair—though how, exactly, the holder of an endowed chair is a "victim" of an unethical prosecutor targeting three Duke students remains unclear. Holloway also has claimed that by joining the Group of 88, she was merely expressing her support for "all" Duke students. When asked, however, whether that support extended to the lacrosse players, she declined to respond.

Then there's Hollaway's AAAS colleague, Wahneema Lubiano. Three days after revelations that no DNA evidence implicated team members, she dismissed the news as part of a "demand for perfect evidence on the part of the defenders of the team." (It was actually not team defenders but Nifong, of course, who had first stated that “DNA evidence requested will immediately rule out any innocent persons.”) While History professor Thavolia Glymph fretted that the negative DNA tests could result in the Group of 88's crusade to transform the campus "moving backwards,” Lubiano interpreted campus patterns with more savvy. She was pleased "that the Duke administration is getting the point”: the banging of pots and pans had hammered home that a specific claim to innocence in this case mattered little. "Regardless of the 'truth' established in whatever period of time about the incident at the house on N. Buchanan Blvd.," she mused, "the engine of outcry in this moment has been fueled by the difficult and mundane reality that pre-existed this incident." To Lubiano, the "members of the team are almost perfect offenders in the sense that [critical race theorist Kimberle] Crenshaw writes about," since they are "the exemplars of the upper end of the class hierarchy, the politically dominant race and ethnicity, the dominant gender, the dominant sexuality, and the dominant social group on campus."

"Perfect offenders," however, can't be innocent, as perhaps even Lubiano would concede privately. As a recent article in the New York Times noted, "It's easier to spin the narrative of race, class and [gender] when it's not attached to a real person." One such person, Reade Seligmann, seems to be a combination of demonstrably innocent and of high character. So in Lubiano's "truth," the Group of 88's statement has come to represent not an attempt by faculty to exploit the crisis to further their on-campus aims, but instead an effort to defend "students who were being told to shut up.” Who were these students? Who was telling them to "shut up"? Who even possessed such authority? These questions are irrelevant. In a groupthink world, it's obvious that students who champion a race/class/gender worldview would have to "shut up." After all, how else could one explain the apparent ideological chasm between the faculty and student body on most campuses?

The comments of figures such as Lubiano and Holloway exemplify elements that Bauerlein identified as common to a "groupthink" faculty. "Apart from the ill-mannered righteousness," he noted, "academics with too much confidence in their audience utter debatable propositions as received wisdom"; questionable assertions—like those in the Group of 88's statement—are "put forward not for discussion but for approval." The process, Bauerlein recognized, produces comments whose "tendentiousness is striking to everyone except those involved." As a result, "Instead of uniting academics with a broader public," groupthink "isolates them as a ritualized club."

Ironically, the most extreme manifestation of groupthink has come from one of the few Group of 88 members whose research eschews race/class/gender issues. Philosophy's Alex Rosenberg is the only signatory to have had Reade Seligmann in class. I e-mailed Rosenberg, said that I had blogged about the case, and asked whether the fact that he had taught Seligmann altered his perspective on the statement. Channeling the spirit of Ivan Tribble, Rosenberg dignified me with a reply even though, he revealed, in his opinion bloggers are cranks with too much free time on their hands. The sole defenders of the lacrosse players in this case, the professor suggested, are extreme advocates of the economic status quo—a revelation that no doubt will come as news to, among others, Jeralyn Merritt, a liberal trial attorney whose blog has provided the most incisive legal critique of Nifong's behavior. An article from Sunday's Times featured several of Seligmann's high school teachers issuing what could only be termed glowing descriptions of his character; a recent Duke graduate, Katie Fisher, recalled, "When I heard it was Reade, I knew 100 percent in my heart this was a completely false allegation." Rosenberg, instead, recommends the novel public relations strategy of those who know Seligmann remaining silent amidst Nifong’s deceptive publicity barrage. Perhaps the professor might want to offer his services to the second dancer—who remains without representation after being rejected as a client by a New York p.r. firm, to whom she e-mailed, "I'm worried about letting this opportunity pass me by without making the best of it and was wondering if you had any advice as to how to spin this to my advantage."

Most stunningly, Rosenberg claimed that every member of the Group of 88 believed that Nifong was motivated not by the pursuit of justice but by the looming Democratic primary for D.A. If true, this breathtaking assertion means that the Duke faculty, despite recognizing that a local prosecutor was abusing his office to railroad their own institution's students, chose to go public instead with a mass statement denouncing the students targeted by that very same prosecutor.

Duke's admissions home page promises, "Our faculty members are committed to giving students the individual attention that nurtures ideas and pushes them to excel." Ironically, two of the professors profiled on that page (Ariel Dorfman and Arlie Petters) belong to the Group of 88. If the behavior of Rosenberg, Lubiano, and other Group of 88 members typifies "the individual attention that nurtures ideas and pushes [students] to excel," Duke needs to go back to the drawing board. Following the advice of the Friends of Duke University's open letter would be a good place to start.

Update, 3.45pm: La Shawn Barber has an excellent analysis of the unsavory media aspect of this case--a point that's been nicely explicated by John in Carolina as well. With the exception of N&O reporter Joseph Neff, the local press coverage of this affair hasn't been impressive. The Duke Chronicle, however, continues its fine work, with a lengthy article of what things were like for lacrosse players this spring. The item that caught my eye:

"This is a social disaster."

That was the tagline of a paid advertisement signed by 88 members of the Duke faculty that appeared in the April 6 issue of The Chronicle.

"I think that all of us kind of checked over our teachers to make sure they weren't on that list," Carrington said.

[Originally published in Cliopatria.]


Anonymous said...

Dr. Johnson,
Great analysis on all your posts. You have consistently exposed the hypocrisy not only of DA Nifong, but the Duke administration and faculty.

I am a Duke alum who grew up in the segregated South, and after graduation in '74, worked with the Justice Department on Voters Rights projects in Missisippi and Alabama. Needless to say, I have lots of colorful cocktail party tales from those experiences. But I have made sure that my four children understood what this country was like in those days.

But the point is, we all thought that we were working for justice and due process for all. The reality that justice and due process is available to only certain ethnic groups is something that we would never have dreamed of way back when.

We never forsaw that if you were white and "privileged" and came from an affluent community, these basic rights were forsaken. It is a tragedy.

Meanwhile, I have two current students at Duke, and I am very interested in knowing the identities of the Group of 88. Somehow it seems to be no longer available on the original website. I have contacted the webmaster, but no luck.

Does anyone have a link to a complete list?

Also, although I think President Brodhead is a very nice and personable guy, he has bungled in his leadership in this case, and he has clearly failed to fulfill Duke's mission. He needs to resign. And I will be expressing that in a letter to the Duke Trustees.

Anonymous said...

Wow, what a completetly self-serving misinterpretation of comments. Congratulations on being a demagogue KC. You're a historian; you should know better.

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