Wednesday, July 05, 2006


With Houston Baker having officially departed Duke for Vanderbilt, the lacrosse team’s two most outspoken critics on the Duke faculty are Orin Starn and Peter Wood. The duo have something else in common: they both taught Reade Seligmann, one of the three targets of Mike Nifong’s quixotic crusade. In the last week, Starn and Wood again went public about lacrosse matters. But disappointment awaits anyone hoping the professors might find time to ask how, in the Alice-in-Wonderland world of Durham “justice,” charges could still be pending against one of their former students who has provided multiple, unimpeachable sources that he is demonstrably innocent. Instead, the Starn/Wood tag-team continued to do some volunteer p.r. work to boost support for Nifong’s viewpoint.

On Sunday, Starn published an op-ed in the Raleigh News&Observer responding to two recent statements by Coach K. In the first, the men’s basketball coach spoke admiringly of former lacrosse coach Mike Pressler, who was forced out this spring, and rebuked professors who had criticized the role of athletics at Duke. He also, quite correctly, dismissed the findings of what he termed the “skewed” Bowen/Chambers report, and noted that, by and large, race relations on campus were good. Then, in a series of more direct comments to Bloomberg News, Coach K admitted that as “there are going to be parties” on campus, this situation just as easily could have happened to his team. He added that the Duke administration hadn’t done enough to protect the rights of Nifong’s targets: “They're your responsibility, whether they're lacrosse players, basketball players or normal students.”

With these remarks, Coach K became just the fifth person in the employ of Duke University (joining women’s lacrosse coach Kerstin Kimel, who was the first to speak out; interim men’s lacrosse coach Kevin Cassese; and law professors James Coleman and Robinson Everett) to speak up in any way for the lacrosse players, either as students or simply in terms of their due process rights.

Orin Starn would not be the sixth. The cultural anthropology professor chastised Coach K for daring to criticize the Bowen/Chambers report—which he, incredibly, deemed “thorough, thoughtful and even-handed.” (He didn’t say how he reached that conclusion.) Here’s how Stuart Taylor, far more perceptively, characterized the efforts of Bowen and Chambers:

They went out of their way to slime the lacrosse players in a report . . . that is a parody of race-obsessed political correctness . . . They especially liked Brodhead's "eloquent" statements implicitly associating the lacrosse players with rape and "dehumanization," with "memories of ... systematic racial oppression," with "inequalities of wealth, privilege, and opportunity ... and the attitudes of superiority those inequalities breed.” . . . Bowen and Chambers were not asked to evaluate the lacrosse team. That did not stop them from implying that its members did not show "respect for other people.” . . . Or from uncritically parroting unnamed "community" members' views that the lacrosse team is "a manifestation of a white, elitist, arrogant subculture that was both indulged and self-indulgent." This last quotation might be an apt description of, say, William Bowen. As applied to the lacrosse players, it was an ignorant smear. Indeed, it flew in the face of the carefully researched May 1 report of the seven-member faculty committee that Brodhead had appointed to investigate the behavior of lacrosse players over the five years preceding the alleged rape.

Much like Bowen and Chambers, Starn refrained from mentioning the Coleman Committee—which, under procedures almost wholly unfavorable to the lacrosse team, found no pattern of sexist or racist behavior on their part and many commendable personal traits. Nonetheless, Starn criticized Coach K for suggesting that one undeniably objectionable remark by a lacrosse player (the “cotton shirt” statement, which, as Taylor has reported, came after an equally vile, racially charged, statement from the second dancer) shouldn’t imply that either all 46 lacrosse players are racists or that Duke has a significant campus problem with race relations.

Starn’s only comment about Nifong’s activities came in a bizarre statement that the district attorney would owe Seligmann and the other indicted players “a major apology” if—as even Starn now concedes appears likely—the case was brought in bad faith. (What would Nifong say: “Oh, by the way, sorry that I abused my powers and ruined a year of your life to further my political self-interest; have a nice day”?) Starn is more concerned with his crusade to turn Duke into a Durham version of Swarthmore or Haverford, elite liberal arts schools with token athletic programs, than with the local authorities’ indefensible treatment of a student he actually taught. That seems to me a very odd conception of a professor’s job.

Distressingly, Starn comes across as temperate compared to History professor Peter Wood, who continues to speak out in ways directly contradicted by evidence publicly available to others. Wood’s distaste for the lacrosse team dates from 2004, when he complained to the Duke administration about a practice being scheduled during one of his Friday classes. (Wood was a former college lacrosse player, and many members of the team made what clearly was the bad mistake of taking courses from him.) On April 1, the professor told the New York Times that issues of class, not an anti-athlete bias, explained his dislike for the lacrosse team. “The football players here,” he mused, “are often rural white boys with baseball caps or hard-working black students who are proud to be at Duke,” unlike the upper-class lacrosse team. (Three lacrosse players are sons of New York City firefighters. I don’t know if they wear baseball caps.) While avoiding any comment on Wood’s peculiar description of football players, the Coleman Committee noted that the lacrosse team’s high academic performance and solid rate of community service contradicted the professor’s claims. The committee report also made clear that Wood’s new and expanded attacks on the lacrosse players were unsubstantiated by any other professor who had taught significant numbers of players—and that even Wood’s T.A. couldn’t back up his allegations.

Wood resurfaced last week in an interview with Hal Crowther, a writer for the Triangle’s alternative weekly. (After the Coleman Committee’s conclusions about his credibility, neither the Times nor any other mainstream media outlets seem willing to give Wood additional opportunities to attack the lacrosse players.) The Indy article represents a new low in media coverage of this affair. Those who have criticized Nifong’s handling of the case, Crowther states, need to “catch a glimpse of your inner racist in the mirror”; the lacrosse players themselves, he asserts, are “subhuman.”

In the interview, Wood revealed for the first time that he taught two of the indicted players, one of whom was Seligmann. (Seligmann's transcript is on-line; he took Wood’s “Era of the American Revolution.”) Right after the mention that Wood had Seligmann in class, Wood described the lacrosse players’ personal character: “Cynical, arrogant, callous, dismissive—you could almost say openly hostile.” Wood also posed for a photo—in front of the lacrosse field.

As with his remarks before the Coleman Committee, however, Wood’s statements to Crowther appear to lack credibility. Seligmann’s high school headmaster, in a letter dated April 9, 2003, told him:

what a great job you have done as an exemplar and a leader here, in just being your friendly, kind, and righteous self . . . I cannot help but notice the respect and admiration your teammates have for you; no, more than teammates, all the kids here, and maybe especially the younger kids.

In high school, Seligmann participated in a community service project in Kentucky’s Appalachia region; he also worked in a program sponsored by his high school that brought food and clothing to the homeless in New York City. (A high school classmate wrote that Seligmann “has stuck out in my mind as the most caring and honorable individual I have ever met.”) At Duke, Seligmann made the dean’s list, and had a clean personal record. One fellow student noted, “He's the most amazing person I have ever met, with the biggest heart. He is full of love and considers everyone before himself”; a second commented, “Reade is one of the most amazing guys at Duke, and I would bet my life” on his character; a third described herself as “blessed to call him a friend.”

These portrayals of Seligmann seemed irreconcilable with Wood’s description of someone “cynical, arrogant, callous, dismissive.” So, last Wednesday, I emailed Wood to ask him (a) if he had any evidence to back up his attacks; or (b) whether Crowther had misquoted him, and that his remarks hadn’t been meant to apply to Seligmann.

Wood never replied. That a professor would publicly mischaracterize the personal traits of one of his own students—at a time when that student is facing extraordinarily serious, if procedurally dubious, charges—is beyond belief.

The behavior of Wood, Starn, and their colleagues from the Group of 88 (each of whose signature, to date, remains on the so-called “listening” statement) is shameless. Hopefully, at some point, they will be held accountable for their willingness to take actions that aided and abetted Nifong’s campaign against their own students.

Update, 12.14pm: John in Carolina has just posted a comparison of Coach K's actual words to Prof. Starn's "interpretation" of those words. It's hard to disagree with the conclusion that "what Starn told readers Coach K said is the opposite of what the coach actually said," and that Starn should "owe Coach K an apology and N&O readers a correction."

Also, two excellent posts looking at broader aspects of the case: Betsy Newmark on Duke's inappropriate response; and Lead and Gold on the media's inexplicable timidity.

[Originally published in Cliopatria.]

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