Sunday, September 17, 2006

The Arrogance of Starn

You’re sure to be disappointed if you believe that individual Duke professors will cease exploiting Mike Nifong’s procedurally dubious targeting of three Duke lacrosse players. In recent weeks, Peter Wood went out of his way to seem to slander Reade Seligmann, while adding unsubstantiated allegations against the team as a whole. Then Wahneema Lubiano conceded that she and other members of the Group of 88 were fully aware that “some would see the [Group of 88] ad as a stake through the collective heart of the lacrosse team.” Friday’s Herald-Sun features the latest in this pattern, an op-ed from Orin Starn.

Starn denounces the alleged arrogance of Duke athletics as part of his campaign to transform Duke into a watered-down version of Haverford. In the process, he imitates the Times’ Duff Wilson in superficially presenting both sides of the legal case while actually offering a one-sided interpretation hostile to the players. No wonder Herald-Sun editor Bob (“Eyes Wide Shut”) Ashley rushed the piece into print.

Like Wood and Lubiano, Starn’s ideological agenda has blinded him to the facts before: John in Carolina called out the cultural anthropology professor when he distorted Coach K’s remarks back in June. In his Herald-Sun piece, Starn again blasts Coach K, this time for having “stubbornly refused to learn the lessons of these last months. An arrogant sense of victimization and entitlement seems to have replaced any semblance of clear-thinking or self-reflection in Duke sports circles.” The description, however, is more appropriate for Starn: the cultural anthropology professor would seem the perfect protagonist for William Anderson’s fascinating piece deeming the case Duke’s “Reichstag fire.”

In a half-hearted critique of Nifong’s actions, Starn claims that there’s “plenty of reason to doubt District Attorney Mike Nifong’s fairness with the lacrosse charges” and says that he signed a petition to put Lewis Cheek on the ballot. It turns out, however, that the professor’s doubts about Nifong’s fairness are of a distinctly limited variety.

He reports that “most Durhamites want to hear all the evidence before passing judgment.” I’d be curious to know what evidence Starn would like to hear “before passing judgment” that Reade Seligmann was either on the phone, in a cab, or more than a mile away at an ATM machine—and on a videotape, no less—at the time of the alleged attack. Or what evidence Starn would like to hear “before passing judgment” that Nifong violated Section 3.8 of the state bar’s ethics code. Or what evidence Starn would like to hear “before passing judgment” that the Nifong-ordered April 4 lineup—the only evidence used to indict Seligmann and Collin Finnerty—violated multiple Durham procedures and statewide patterns and therefore must be suppressed.

Like Wilson at the Times, who contended that while Nifong’s case had holes, the DA had more than enough evidence to bring to the jury, Starn seems to believe that the public, the media, and the academy should simply stand aside while Nifong engages in what Susan Estrich has correctly termed “mindboggling” violations of standard procedure. Had Starn sat on the Warren Court, I assume he would have bitterly resisted Mapp v. Ohio, since the exclusionary rule prevents localities from “hear[ing] all the evidence before passing judgment” when police or prosecutorial misconduct occurs.

Starn promises to remain “vigilant in ensuring that both [the players] and their accuser receive fair treatment from the justice system.” A tenured professor who conflates the rights of an accuser in the “justice system” with those of defendants needs a refresher course on the Bill of Rights.

In any case, if the Herald-Sun op-ed represents a “vigilant” Starn ensuring that the players “receive fair treatment from the justice system,” I can’t imagine what he’s like when passive about protecting civil liberties. For he spends most of his time denouncing the behavior of a handful of lacrosse players—none of whom, as far as we know, are among those ultimately targeted by Nifong—to bolster his claim that Duke should abolish all athletic scholarships and retreat to club sports.

“It was revealed this spring,” Starn reminds Herald-Sun readers, “that almost one-third of the lacrosse team had been arrested on public drunkenness and on other charges.” After a week in which we’ve learned that the Durham Police Department adopted an official policy of targeting Duke students for arrest, this statistic carries considerably less weight than it once did. (I’m surprised that someone with Starn’s vigilance about judicial fairness neglected to mention this finding—but, alas, it doesn’t fit his anti-athlete thesis.) The professor also ominously notes that “good evidence suggests that a team captain gave a false name to hire strippers." (Former lacrosse captain Dan Flannery called himself Dan “Flannigan," but promptly showed his ID to the second dancer—hardly the actions of someone with a flawed character.)

Starn concludes by denouncing any player who engaged in racial slurs—a far more serious, and far different, offense than drinking. By linking underage drinking with the racial slurs Starn trivializes the latter. Moreover, he provides not a scintilla of evidence that this clear character flaw had anything to do with participation in intercollegiate athletics. Are athletes more inclined to be racists? Starn implies it is so, as if no one could deny the proposition. Why should we think that if Duke transforms itself into a watered-down version of Haverford and has only club athletics, it still won't have a few students with horrible beliefs? And, of course, Starn is selective in the behavior that he describes: he ignores the Coleman Committee report’s many positive findings about the lacrosse team—that the players were strong students (with not even one instance of academic disciplinary action); that they had impressive records of community service; that they unfailingly treated staff politely and with respect; that they showed no evidence of sexist or racist behavior on campus. These facts don’t fit Starn’s thesis; he prefers to paint an one-sidedly negative account of the players’ behavior.

“None of this,” Starn hastens to add, “means that the three indicted lacrosse players are guilty.” That he chose to preview Nifong’s opening argument to boost his own case against Duke athletics is, I suppose, an unfortunate necessity. Perhaps he’ll offer a private apology to the three players about how he needed to sacrifice their standing to pursue the greater good.

As I’ve noted before, Starn’s approach to protecting his students seems to depend on whether doing what’s right conflicts with his on-campus agenda. In the case of Yektan Turkyilmaz, a Starn graduate student arrested on procedurally dubious grounds in Armenia, the professor, commendably, traveled halfway around the world to show support for his student. In the case of Reade Seligmann, a student in one of Starn’s classes arrested on procedurally dubious grounds in North Carolina, Starn has done nothing—except pen an op-ed calling for the case to go to trial, since “most Durhamites want to hear all the evidence before passing judgment.”

Does Starn have an opinion of his former student’s personal character? Apparently the professor couldn’t find space in his op-ed to discuss that issue. Joining the chorus of those who have praised Seligmann wouldn’t advance Starn’s anti-athletics cause, since Seligmann is himself a Division I athlete who virtually everyone considers an asset to Duke. Better, I suppose, for Starn to allow Herald-Sun readers to retain a false impression of his former student’s character.

What does Starn envision replacing funding for Division I athletics at Duke? “New money should be invested in academic merit scholars,” he contends, “for deserving African-American and other applicants from underrepresented groups to strengthen Duke diversity and excellence.” Leaving aside the fact that race-based scholarships are almost certainly unconstitutional in the post-Grutter environment, Starn supplies no evidence that funding for athletics has taken away from Duke offering academic merit scholarships to students from underrepresented groups. As with his insinuation that athletes are more likely to be racists, I guess we’re just supposed to take his word for the assertion. Somehow, I’m not persuaded.


Anonymous said...

Starn sounds a bit like the kid on the block NOBODY wanted on their team, never picked, but someone had to take him 'cause he owned the bat & ball.

Anonymous said...

The Friends of Duke Website states, "Posted on September 16, 2006
The controversial Orin Starn letter which was published in Herald Sun yesterday but subsequently removed from the publication is now available online: A grand show of arrogance by Duke athletics."

Does anyone know why the letter was subsequently removed?

Anonymous said...

The kids in the Duke Lacrose team are routinely described as "priviledged". Basically, they mean that they have money and are popular with girls. One could study this sorry tale for a long time and not see one thing that their supposed "privedged" status exempted them from.
On the other hand, many of their persecutors have been tenured Professors. Res ipsa loquitor. Likewise, a District Attorney goes through life with more unilateral decision making power and exemptions from legal consequences than most people could dream about.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps Coleman should replace Brodhead as president of Duke.

Anonymous said...

Dear Mr. Brodhead,

I graduated Trinity in ‘75 and Duke University Graduate School of Business in ’78. I have written twice before and received only form responses.

I am disappointed more and more each day by the failure to demonstrate leadership in the LAX case.

You should write a letter to the Chronicle, the N&O, and the Herald. Let me help you write it:

RE: The case against 3 Duke Lacrosse Students

Dear Editors,

The following is too little too late, and for that I apologize, recognizing my apology is simply not enough.

I believe in legal due process and in our Duke Students. They are innocent. I encourage our Duke Family to assist in their defense. I personally will assist in their defense in whatever way their families would like.

I failed at a very important time in this process to meet with and offer my support the families of our students. I was wrong. I will be meeting soon with each of the students and their families involved in this case, beginning of course with the students that have been charged.

I recognize I cannot reverse the errors of the past. However, I can make sure they are not repeated and I can make sure to lead our students through example.

I will call to task myself, newspapers, bloggers, students, police, DA’s, lawyers, and all others in this case to higher standards.


President Richard Brodhead

Try it out. You might find that leadership suits you.

Anonymous said...


Cultural anthropology was one of my favorite subject areas at Duke. Thank god you weren't on staff in my day.

If there is a reason why Duke should be called "the plantation" could it be due to the haughty faculty?

I never played anything but club and intramural sports at Duke. What I've come to understand since is that intercollegiate teams enjoy close interaction with adult role models, learn to operate in structured environments, and participate in team work opportunities the rest of the student body doesn't have access to. Basically the duke athletes enjoy a more well rounded college experience than the rest of us.

Any argument intercollegiate sports is a zero sum game is simply fallacious. Duke would not have the same resources, prestige, ability to attract top-notch students, etc. to deploy elsewhere without sports. Would Duke have been able to reach near-Ivy league status without the identity of athletics, located outside of a major metropolitan area? Durham isn't Atlanta, and the Emory model wouldn't work.

I concur with the earlier poster- I'm glad my diploma is signed by one of Duke's best Presidents- Terry Sanford.

Anonymous said...

Thank You! Duke has more than it's share of snobbish professors. I think it is time to start investigating are they really teaching or just pushing an agenda.

Duke could save more money by reducing greatly the number of needless professors than cutting a wildly sucessful Basketball program that has a positive cash flow!

Let's Cut the Duke 88 for a start!

Anonymous said...

We can't really expect an apology from the media for what they wrote before the lies began to unravel. But important is what they are saying most recently and going forward.

Don't forget that New York Times article, an editorial they tried to pass off as news.

Anonymous said...

Supposedly, Reade turned down Harvard for Duke! I'm sure sports played a role in that.

Anonymous said...

College is about the intellectual experience. Frankly, no Ivy League schools grant athletic scholarships and certainly do not suffer as a result. I chose Duke over the Ivy League because it was a better VALUE, not because of the sports teams. It's so expensive nowadays I probably would have gone elsewhere.
-Member, Class of '88, non-revenue sport (soccer) participant.