Saturday, September 02, 2006

Fact and Fiction in the New Yorker

Paul Boyer’s article in this week’s New Yorker opens with the story of the summer 2003 search committee assembled to select Duke’s new president. After reading the piece, it’s hard to believe the search committee made the right choice. Richard Brodhead, a former professor of English literature, comes across as divorced from reality, searching for the appropriate Shakespeare phrase to describe his impotence as his faculty and a local prosecutor went out of control last spring.

Brodhead’s chosen passage–“Belief of it oppresses me already,” from Othello–generated a cutting satire at Crystal Mess, which concluded that the article served to “demonstrate how out of touch Brodhead is with his own out of touchedness.”

Boyer leaves little doubt about the corrupt nature of D.A. Mike Nifong’s inquiry. (Times reporters Wilson and Glater might have tried accessing Boyer’s page proofs before printing their Nifong apologia.) Nifong, Boyer notes, had been in “a sort of early semi-retirement”–at public expense, of course–until Governor Mike Easley inexplicably plucked him from traffic court to fill a vacancy. But he seemed to have little chance of his winning the party’s nomination in May 2006; he trailed Freda Black, a longtime rival whom he fired immediately after assuming command of the D.A.’s office, in both money and popular support. As Boyer dryly observed, while Black raised her public profile co-prosecuting a well known murder case in 2003, “Nifong was negotiating traffic cases.”

Then came the lacrosse case. Boyer effectively communicates, in layman’s terms, the breadth of Nifong’s procedural misconduct. He ridicules Nifong’s “extraordinary blitz of public appearances” in the weeks before the primary. He suggests that “the photo identification of the three players Nifong indicted was the result of a procedure so problematic that it may prove not to have been worth the effort.” One of the accused, Reade Seligmann, was quickly able to prove his innocence. Through “pictures, and phone records, a taxi-driver’s statement, security pictures at an A.T.M., and computerized entry documentation, [attorney Kirk] Osborn was able to demonstrate convincingly that Seligmann was on the phone or in a cab during much of the time when the attack allegedly took place.” Meanwhile, another indicted player, Dave Evans, boldly proclaimed his innocence in a press conference. In Boyer’s words, Evans’ “tone, of controlled and righteous anger, suggested someone more substantive. It was a remarkable performance, and it shifted the tenor of the public narrative once again.”

In the early days of the affair, the radical and exclusively one-sided reaction of the Duke faculty amplified the effects of Nifong’s publicity barrage. Boyer reproduces some of the more dubious quotes from Duke faculty members–such as law professor Paul Haagen’s speculation that players from “helmet sports” were more likely to commit violent crime; or William Chafe’s musings on how the case reinforced patterns in which “white men portrayed black women as especially erotic, more driven to sexual pleasure and expressiveness than white women.” (Haagen didn’t return two e-mails from me asking him to explain his remarks; Chafe e-mailed me several months ago to say that he was no longer commenting on the specifics of the case.)

In general, Boyer correctly notes, “many at Duke seemed willing to assume not only the players’ guilt but the university’s,” and the rush-to-judgment faction denounced Brodhead “for not taking decisive action against the team.” Professor Orin Starn even sought to use the incident to have Duke withdraw from Division I athletics. In this environment, the New Yorker portrays a president who “felt besieged, and a bit bewildered.”

Recalling the atmosphere of late March, Brodhead mused to Boyer,
The nature of the information kept changing, and was extraordinarily confusing. You don’t have a playbook in the drawer. And what made it hard was not only the scale of emergency—it was the combination of the extraordinarily inflammatory versions of the story with very high degrees of uncertainty.
Perhaps this confusion–combined with his inability to resist the faculty’s assuming “not only the players’ guilt but the university’s”–explains Brodhead’s disinclination to challenge false statements about the players that the district attorney made in late March and early April. The president and other top university officials knew that the residents who lived in the house where the alleged incident took place (Evans, Matt Zash, and Dan Flannery) had voluntarily submitted to hours of questioning by the police with no lawyers present, had voluntarily provided DNA and other samples to the police, and had offered to take lie detector tests. In addition, top Duke officials knew that 46 members of the team had agreed to provide DNA and other evidence, even though legal counsel had told them that they could challenge the order as an unreasonable and unconstitutional search.

On March 24, the four team captains met with top university officials, told them what had and had not happened, and stated that they were cooperating with the investigation. The next day, March 25, the president released a statement urging “everyone to cooperate to the fullest with the police investigation”–even though he knew that the players had done just that. This was one of several statements from Brodhead and other Duke administrators signaling to the public that the team was not cooperating. Journalists, engaged in their own rush to judgment, got the message, most unfortunately in Ruth Sheehan’s March 27 N&O column.

The next day, the four team captains met with Brodhead to spell out in detail the extent of their cooperation with the police and to unequivocally proclaim their innocence. The president reportedly responded with discomfort during the meeting; and shortly after, he released a statement urging everyone to cooperate with the investigation. One week later, on April 5, Brodhead published an open letter “once again” asking everyone “to cooperate with the authorities.”

Brodhead’s repeated statements reinforced Nifong’s hyperbolic claims that the team refused to cooperate with the investigation. The public perception of a “wall of silence”–a perception reinforced by a president Boyer characterizes as “besieged” and “bewildered”–helped inflame the community against the entire team.

Brodhead could have informed the public that the players had, in fact, cooperated with the inquiry and that the D.A. was misleading the Durham community. Such remarks would not have in any way represented taking a position on the players’ guilt or innocence. Instead, he not only allowed Nifong’s misleading comments to pass without challenge, but actually issued statements implying that the D.A.’s concerns had merit.

Why did he act as he did? As he lamented to Boyer, the period was all so “extraordinarily confusing. You don’t have a playbook in the drawer.” Brodhead doesn’t explain why he required a “playbook” to know that demanding that local authorities respect due process apparently was the right thing to do. Incredibly, but probably accurately, Boyer reasons that “the most liberating development for Brodhead and Duke was the dramatic turn in the public’s impression of the criminal case.” This change tempered the radical faculty activism on campus, while deflecting criticism from Brodhead toward the district attorney.

Boyer’s article, however, also features its share of fiction, since it gives extensive space to the discredited musings of History professor Peter Wood. In 2004, Wood wrote to the dean complaining about lacrosse players allegedly missing one of his classes to attend practice. In May, he was one of ten professors to appear before the Coleman Committee, where he gave an account of the players’ behavior in his class that differed wildly from that of the other nine faculty members interviewed by the committee, who recorded largely positive recollections. The committee nonetheless investigated Wood’s allegations. Not only could it find no basis to substantiate them, it pointedly observed that “the professor’s more recent statements about the behavior of lacrosse players [in his 2004 class] have been significantly more negative than what he said in the letter he wrote in 2004.”

Then, in a July interview with a local alternative weekly, 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.”

For a second occasion, the professor made an attack on lacrosse players that lacked any credibility. Seligmann’s high school headmaster, in a letter dated April 9, 2003, lavished praise on his character. A high school classmate wrote that Seligmann “has stuck out in my mind as the most caring and honorable individual I have ever met”; one of his high school teachers told the New York Times, “If I had a son, I would hope he could be like Reade. I have been teaching at the high school level for 24 years, and I have never said or written that about another student.”

At Duke, Seligmann made the dean’s list, and had a clean personal record. In the words of one fellow student, “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 described herself as “blessed to call him a friend.” In the New York Times, Duke student Katie Fisher said, “When I heard it was Reade, I knew 100 percent in my heart this was a completely false allegation.”

These portrayals of Seligmann, which are among several hundred written testimonials about him, seemed irreconcilable with Wood’s description of someone “cynical, arrogant, callous, dismissive.” Twice in July and once in August, I e-mailed Wood to ask him if he had any evidence at all to back up his attacks on his former student. The professor never replied. Perhaps he was too busy with some of his well-known hobbies–participating in a North Carolina “sideburns” club and attending reenactments of various historical battles.

Wood’s comments to Boyer, therefore, are those of a figure who not once but twice could not substantiate savagely negative attacks on lacrosse players’ character. In the New Yorker, Wood claims that in reading through teaching evaluations for a spring 2004 class, he encountered a starting comment: “I wish all the Indians had died; then we wouldn’t have to study them.” He immediately concluded that the remark came from one of the lacrosse players in the class. One might assume that a professor making such a claim to the national press would require some pretty strong evidence–perhaps recognizing a student’s handwriting, or even having the student who wrote the evaluation reveal the basis for his remarks. Such an assumption would be giving Wood far too much credit. His explanation to Boyer? “I had sixty-five students. Ten lacrosse players. Most of the students loved [the class]. It was a good class.”

Despite (because of?) such absurd reasoning, Boyer writes that Wood enjoyed “a proprietary position in the jocks-gone-wild discourse that attended the lacrosse scandal. He was invited to a meeting with Brodhead and drafted onto campus culture committees, and was one of the more forceful voices at the feverish Academic Council meeting in late March.”

As someone who sought out the counsel of figures like Wood or “intellectual thug” Mark Neal, Brodhead should have chosen a more appropriate Shakespeare reference to communicate to New Yorker readers. His record--along with that of his administration and his arts and sciences faculty--seems best captured not by Othello but by Julius Caesar, Act 5, when Messala laments:
O hateful Error, Melancholy's child!
Why dost thou show to the apt thoughts of men
The things that are not?


Anonymous said...

I am Duke parent, and when I read the New Yorker article I truly thought I would throw up. Does Brodhead have anything else to say besides quoting Shakespeare. He must be totally lacking self confidence. I mean, this is a little too much.

Anonymous said...

Boyer's article is essentially (unintentionally) a brief for Brodhead's dismissal.

One of the worst performances in modern academic history.

Anonymous said...

What do Robert Steel, Judge Kenneth Titus, and Councilman Lewis Cheek all have in common? They're all old high school friends, Durham High graduates from the class of 1969. My next reunion should be rather interesting.

Regarding Brodhead, I saw him walking across campus when I took my son back to school last month. Shakespeare didn't come to mind, but Peter Principle did. Bob shouldn't have been in such a hurry to hire him.

Anonymous said...

I am glad PResident Brodhead has chosen to stay at Duke. At least he will be the one opening the mail when the law suits and subpoenas start arriving. This would be sometime right after the outrageous case gets dropped. I am also glad that Duke has such deep pockets because they will be digging deep to compensate the valuable lives they have destroyed by not standing by their students. I wonder who holds the D&O insurance for the trustees? Happily there are deep pockets all around. The three indictees will hopefully not ever have to work again unless they choose to. Sort of like the original Duke fellow who endowed the school. Talk about Full Circle.