Sunday, August 13, 2006

Mobbing Duke Students

Tweaking a motto of extreme anti-lacrosse protesters from last spring (“Men’s Lacrosse? Not fine by me”), the administration of Duke president Richard Brodhead announced its revised student conduct policy through a full-page ad in the Duke Chronicle. The slogan? Behavior prohibited by the new code—“Not fine by Duke.”

In several pathbreaking volumes, Canadian sociologist Kenneth Westhues has analyzed the concept of “mobbing” in the academy. Westhues borrowed from the work of psychologist Heinz Leymann and ethnologist Konrad Lerenzo; the latter’s work described how chickens “ganged up” among a weaker member of the brood, eventually killing it through shunning, depriving it food and water, or pecking it to death. Westhues documented the frequency of mobbing in higher education, almost as if it is the academy’s assassination technique of choice. As one scholar noted,

Mobbing is normally carried out politely and non-violently. The participants are so convinced of the rightness of their exclusionary campaign that they usually leave ample written records, proudly signing their names to extreme deprecations and defamations, without noticing how thin or non-existent is the supporting evidence. The object of the process is the same as among chickens; crushing the target’s identity and eliminating him or her totally from respectable company.

The targets of mobbing usually are individuals—faculty members who for some reason have crossed an invisible line and need to be shunned and expunged from the academic brood. The continued response of the Duke administration and faculty to the lacrosse crisis, whose latest manifestation comes in the new student conduct code, suggests a mobbing process targeting a group of students, something perhaps unique in the history of the academy.

Given the variety of criticisms directed against the lacrosse team, the code itself is necessarily an ideological mish-mash. Reflecting the Group of 88’s public assertions (“something happened” to the accuser; “thank you” to protesters who believed an accusation implied the players’ guilt), the code’s sections on sexual harassment draw upon extreme versions of feminist theory. As more facts emerged in the lacrosse case, some Group of 88 members continued condemning the players, though now for excessive alcohol use—creating the irony of a far-left faculty bloc espousing arguments most often associated with right-wing moralizing institutions. Nonetheless, stern anti-alcohol provisions appear in the code. From a non-ideological standpoint, the code features the timeworn complaint of professors that their students aren’t intellectually serious enough.

A unifying theme does, however, exist: its extraordinary vagueness will allow the administration in to apply the code arbitrarily. And as the code has been marketed with a slightly modified anti-lacrosse team slogan, little doubt exists of which Duke students can expect the most arbitrary treatment.

The code’s alcohol section, almost laughably vague, informs students that they could be expelled from school for alcohol-induced “unsafe/irresponsible behavior” or for “violation of community expectations.” What, exactly, are “community expectations”? Those of Mark (“thugniggaintellectual—one word”) Neal? Those of Brodhead?

As for “unsafe or irresponsible behavior,” this prohibition “is defined as actions that are harmful or potentially harmful to one’s self or others involving the use of alcohol.” Such a definition, of course, could apply to almost anything. To clarify, the code points to “consuming an excessive quantity in a short amount of time.” What is an “excessive quantity”? A “short amount of time”? The code offers no guidance.

The code also tightens restrictions on groups, who “will be held accountable if the group failed to take appropriate precautions” in holding an alcohol-related party. “Appropriate precautions must include . . . adequate and accessible non-alcoholic beverages and food.” Three cans of Pepsi per every can of beer? Four hot dogs and two bags of chips per every bottle of beer? The code provides no answer: enforcers can define its provisions any way they want.

Then there’s the “Emma Willard rule”: “Except at events in a licensed facility providing a cash bar, no spirituous liquor or fortified wines may be served to undergraduates.” The prohibition is absolute: an earlier section makes clear that the code’s terms apply on or off campus, to all Duke students at all times. The code contains a number of “real-life” examples (which come across as if they’re written for 12-year-olds); sources inform me that the following illustration could very well have been dropped for lack of space in the bulletin:

Dick and Jane, who met on their first day at Duke, have been in an ongoing relationship for three years. Typical overachieving Duke students, they spent two years after high school working for anti-poverty NGOs. To celebrate their third anniversary, 23-year-old Jane prepares a special meal, and Dick, who’s the same age, brings a bottle of vodka, which he has legally purchased. As they conclude their meal, Dick pours vodka into Jane’s glass, when Professor Peter Wood bursts into Jane’s off-campus apartment, searching for lacrosse players he claims had walked out of his class. This is a violation of the Alcohol Policy. Dick was serving vodka to Jane, an undergraduate, ignoring the code’s clear statement that “no spirituous liquor or fortified wines may be served to undergraduates.” The fact that Professor Wood might have trespassed or given false testimony against the lacrosse players does NOT mean that Dick won’t be expelled for violating the Emma Willard rule.

The code’s final bow to the far right’s behavioral standards comes in what could be called the “Ralph Reed rule”: Duke policy prohibits all forms of gambling, “with the exception of the state lottery. A person/organization is guilty of gambling if he/she/it operates, plays, or bets at any game of chance at which any money, property, or other thing of value is bet.” This rule will, perhaps, be enforced by Professor Orin Starn, who can roam the campus each March searching for Duke students participating in NCAA bracket pools. Offenders who are athletes will automatically be expelled, thereby hastening Starn’s dream of transforming Duke into an athletic equivalent of Haverford.

In his April Chronicle of Higher Education column, History professor William Chafe called for procedures aimed at “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.”

In honor of Chafe, the code features the “Amtrak Acela noise rule.” Whenever I travel to Washington, I always sit in the Acela’s quiet car, which prohibits all cell phones and conversations conducted above the noise level of a library. On East and West Campuses, according to the new code, “Quiet hours are in effect at all times” except 5:00 pm-7:00 pm Monday-Thursday; 5:00 pm-2:00 am Friday; 1:00 pm-2:00 am Saturday; and 1:00 pm-6:00 pm Sunday, when “reasonable levels of noise will by permitted.”

Continuing its recurring pattern, the code supplies no definition of what constitutes “reasonable levels of noise”—the permitted level for the 20.8 percent of the week when “quiet hours” are not in effect. As for the rest of the time: the “Acela rule” will no doubt make Duke the nation’s capital of text-messaging and e-mail, which appear to be the only forms of communication other than whispering still allowed in 133 of the week’s 168 hours.

The code’s sections on harassment, meanwhile, are at best meaningless and at worst ominously one-sided. “Harassment of any individual for any reason is not acceptable at Duke University,” the code piously declares. Surely if any group violated this provision, last spring’s pot-bangers and poster-distributors did. Yet as that the new code has mimicked their motto, these protesters would seem to have little worry from it.

“Harassment,” however, “must be distinguished from behavior that, even though unpleasant or disconcerting, is appropriate to the carrying out of certain instructional, advisory, or supervisory responsibilities.” This caveat no doubt explains the administration’s blasé response to one of lacrosse player John Walsh’s spring-term professors.

After Walsh asked for some flexibility in assignments to accommodate a meeting his attorney, the professor replied, “Yeah, well if you guys really were innocent, I would feel sorry for you.” The response of John Burness, senior vice president for public affairs and government relations? “We did hear rumors early on, reports early on, that some faculty members were permitting a potentially hostile situation within a classroom environment.” He gave no indication that these “rumors” were investigated.

Imagine a counterfactual situation in which “rumors” existed that “some faculty members were permitting a potentially hostile situation within a classroom environment” toward gays and lesbians; or towards ethnic, religious, or racial minorities. The Group of 88 would be whipping out their pens to sign a new statement in no time at all. It appears, alas, that enforcement of Duke’s “harassment” policy depends on the targets of the alleged “harassment.”

While the alcohol and gambling sections of the code represent the type of rules common at colleges like Liberty, the code’s sexual harassment provisions feature the thinking prevalent among the most extreme left-wing members of the Group of 88. As a result, the code’s description of sexual harassment offenses all but invites vague and arbitrary enforcement.

The section begins with a peculiar statement: “The tenets of the university’s Community Standard (honesty, trustworthiness, fairness, and—especially—respect for others) are essential components of healthy interpersonal relationships.” Why does Duke consider “respect for others” more important than “honesty” or “trustworthiness” in interpersonal relationships? The code declines to say, but this decision provides a clue into the thinking that governs the section’s terms
Duke University,” the section continues, “is committed to providing an environment free of personal affronts against individuals.” What exactly constitutes a “personal affront”? Yet another vague term is left undefined. More generally, how (or even should) colleges prevent “personal affronts”? The rhetoric of the contemporary academic left is filled with passages claiming that heightening students’ discomfort should serve as a primary educational goal. So it appears as if some types of “personal affronts” are acceptable, while others are not. How are students to know the difference? Perhaps they could ask a member of the Group of 88.

According to the code’s terms, the sexual harassment policy is based on several “fundamental principles,” including the assertion that “real or perceived power differentials between individuals may create an unintentional atmosphere of coercion.” Perceived power differentials yielding an unintentional atmosphere of coercion? It would seem that absolute innocence doesn’t qualify as a defense against this provision—the “guilt” of the “perpetrator” would depend entirely on how the “victim” perceived his “unintentional” acts. Since this clause addresses “perceived power differentials,” it would seem as if only white males could be found guilty under its terms.

“Sexual misconduct,” continues the code’s litany of arbitrary provisions, “also includes sexual exploitation, defined as taking non-consensual, unjust sexual advantage of another for one’s benefit or the benefit of another party.” So: two women are talking on Central Campus. (They’re whispering, so as not to violate the “Acela Noise rule.”) One looks up and sees an attractive male student across the way. Both comment appreciatively; one even chuckles to herself, with a low whistle. Interpreting the code literally, this act would constitute “sexual exploitation” at Duke. The action certainly was “non-consensual,” and the two women—especially the one who chuckled to herself—could be deemed as taking “sexual advantage of another for [her own] benefit.” The only possible defense for the women? Claiming that they took “just sexual advantage” of another. Does a difference exist between “just sexual advantage” and the “unjust” variety? The code doesn’t say, but the use of the “unjust” modifier suggests a distinction does exist.

Bringing together the far-right and far-left provisions of the code, the sexual harassment section notes that prohibited “acts may or may not be accompanied by the use of coercion, intimidation, or through advantage gained by the use of alcohol or other drugs.” Well, they “may or may not” be accompanied by a UFO sighting, too. But even stranger is the implication that alcohol constitutes a “drug”—i.e., “the use of alcohol or other drugs.” But the code’s alcohol section makes no attempt to define alcohol as a “drug.” So: does Duke now consider alcohol a “drug”? If so, on what legal basis has it reached that judgment?

In the end, it seems as if the entire response of what Chemistry professor Stephen Baldwin termed the campus “righteous” revolves around an attempt to exploit the crisis to transform Duke's curriculum. “Educational and preventative measures,” affirms the code, “are necessary components of the university’s commitment to reduce sexual misconduct in its community.” The specific nature of these measures, of course, remains undescribed, yet it’s not hard to imagine what the code’s authors have in mind. The Group of 88 has been issuing similar demands since the spring; Neal, for instance, pushed for using the lacrosse affair to adopt radical curricular changes “that will allow our students to engage one another in a progressive manner.” Coming from someone who describes himself as an “intellectual thug,” this goal is hardly reassuring.

Duke students—or, at least, those Duke students viewed with disfavor by the administration and faculty—will begin this fall term in a highly vulnerable position. They will confront a disciplinary code of stunning vagueness, one whose enforcement will depend solely on the arbitrariness of student life officials. The code’s sole ideological consistency is a hodge-podge of all the criticisms directed against the lacrosse team. By this stage, we’ve come to expect nothing less from Brodhead and his administration.


Anonymous said...

This is a very complex piece which perhaps needs to be broken down more to be well-understand, by folks like me.

My one clear impresssion after reading is that Professor Neal is a ridiculous fool.

He is about as gangsta as Emily Bronte.

Anonymous said...

Come on, the code is just a satire, right? Like something out of Jonathan Swift?

(Please tell me it is. . .)

Anonymous said...

This is better than Jonathan Swift did.

Anonymous said...

The Nifong-Simeon-Bell axis is old-style Richard Daley racism.

Buy off a few black politicians with favors, then demand tribute in return for their complicity

BTW, Simeon is on record proclaiming that the Lacrosse case was his oppportunity to get the political influence and graft that had eluded him in his failed attempts to get elected.

At least, he's upfront about it.

Anonymous said...

It is one of those ironies of modern life that, whenever either the extreme right wing or the extreme left wing obtain positions of power, the prime victim is the First Amendment guarantee of free speech.