On April 20, one day after the procedurally dubious arrests of two Duke students, President Richard Brodhead participated in the institution’s first public event discussing the ramifications of the lacrosse scandal. This “Conversation on Campus Culture" was designed, according to the Duke Chronicle, to “discuss issues of sexism, racism and student social life.” In addition to Brodhead, the nine-member panel included several students, the dean of students, the university chaplain, and one faculty member: Mark Anthony Neal. A professor of African and African-American Studies, Neal was one of the 88 Duke faculty members who had signed a public statement saying “thank you” to campus protesters who had shouted to lacrosse players, “Time to confess”; banged pots and pans outside the residences of team members and Duke provost Peter Lange; and distributed a “wanted” poster containing photos of more than 40 team members.
Two weeks earlier, Brodhead had issued a public statement seeming to acknowledge that a rape had occurred; at the campus culture initiative, he announced, "This is a moment to look at things and ask if those things are what we want for ourselves." (Due process and the presumption of innocence do not appear to be among the “things” the president mentioned.) Chaplain Sam Wells amplified on themes from his April 2 sermon, reproduced in full in the April 9 Herald-Sun, in which he denounced "the subculture of reckless 'entitlement', sexual acquisitiveness and aggressive arrogance” and spoke of exposing “the reality that sexual practices are an area where some male students are accustomed to manipulating, exploiting and terrorizing women all the time—and that this has been accepted by many as a given." In an e-mail to me, the chaplain denied that these statements referred to members of the lacrosse team, and said that he was simply issuing a general critique of sexual misconduct. But it seems hard to believe that many people on campus or Herald-Sun readers would have appreciated such nuance.
As the dean of students, meanwhile, expressed fear that Duke students had created a "culture of crassness,” Neal pressed for curricular changes “that will allow our students to engage one another in a progressive manner.” By this point, he already had emerged as a point person in heightening campus protests. The professor sought to help “various communities mobilize to lay claim to [the allegation’s] significance”—groups such as “activists rightfully protesting yet another incident of alleged sexual violence related to a college campus” and “members of various black communities who wanted to highlight the racist implications of the alleged assault.” Though absolutely no evidence exists that the team captain who organized the party requested black dancers (and, indeed, the second dancer specifically denied such a request was made), Neal opined, “Regardless of what happened inside of 610 N. Buchanan Blvd, the young men were hoping to consume something that they felt that a black woman uniquely possessed. If these young men did in fact rape, sodomize, rob, and beat this young women [sic], it wasn’t simply because she was a women [sic], but because she was a black woman.”
This past spring, Neal also spoke with Duke’s alumni magazine, which just published the interview. Attempting, in part, to defend the accuser’s chosen profession, Neal reasoned:
When we think about women who work in strip clubs, the key component there is that word "work." In some ways this is legitimate labor, and we need to be clear about that. And women make these decisions based on what kind of legitimate labor is in their best interest. While it's important that black women's sexuality not be exploited, at the same time, I don't want to get into the business of policing black women's sexuality, which is just as dangerous.
I have an alter ego—my intellectual alter ego. My intellectual alter ego is thugniggaintellectual—one word . . . I wanted to embody this figure that comes into intellectual spaces like a thug, who literally is fearful and menacing. I wanted to use this idea of this intellectual persona to do some real kind of "gangster" scholarship, if you will. All right, just hard, hard-core intellectual thuggery.