Friday, September 01, 2006

More Student Activism

Fresh from their sharp performance on Greta Van Susteren’s Fox News Channel show, Christiane Regelbrugge and Emily Wygod, the two spokespersons for Duke Students for an Ethical Durham, were profiled in yesterday’s Duke Chronicle. On Van Susteren’s show, the duo predicted a snowball effect of other Duke student groups coming to Students for an Ethical Durham to help out in the voter registration drive, which seeks to register 2000 Duke students in time for the November election.

Wygod and Regelbrugge explained more about the group’s motivation in their Chronicle interview. "We want students to be politically involved--after all, we are Durham residents for four years," Wygod said. Stresssing the inclusive nature of the organization’s goals while trying to move beyond the town/gown tensions exacerbated by D.A. Mike Nifong’s rhetoric, Wygod noted that added removing from office someone with a "history of unethical behaviors” will benefit all Durham residents.

Beth Brewer, spokesperson for the Recall Nifong-Vote Cheek campaign, seconded Wygod’s inclusive rhetoric. She deemed the Cheek effort a "unifying campaign. We don't think that Nifong is good for anyone regardless of race.”

The potential effect of Students for an Ethical Durham? As Regelbrugge observed, "Students feel passionately about this election,” so her group’s efforts “might help kick things off.” Nifong, it’s worth remembering, captured the Democartic primary by a mere 881 votes–a contest in which Durham County’s 27,070 registered Republicans could not vote. Even assuming that most of the support received by third-place finisher Keith Bishop goes to Nifong, the district attorney enters the November contest in a somewhat precarious position. Another one or two thousand anti-Nifong votes from the Duke campus could very well make the difference. And even if not, as Wygod recognized, the effort will remind Nifong “that Duke students are also part of Durham”–something he appeared to ignore last spring.

Regelbrugge and Wygod aren’t the only Duke students demanding more ethical behavior by Durham authorities. In Monday’s Chronicle, Stephen Miller, a passionate critic of Nifong last spring, intensified his arguments.

“The more information that surfaces,” he correctly noted, “the more apparent it becomes to fair-minded observers that our lacrosse team was railroaded and that three of our fellow students are being put on trial not because of evidence but because of a DA's incompetence and malice.”

What steps should be taken this fall by the Duke student body? First, according to Miller, “we must demand justice,” while ensuring that “we do not allow our personal prejudices to overwhelm our ethical mandate to observe due process and protect the innocent.”

Second, Miller believes that students need to speak up to correct the record: “As a student body,” he maintained, “we have a moral duty to act with dignity and to demand fair and just treatment for our peers-no slander, no abuse, no prejudice tolerated,” if necessary confronting professors or classmates who make “unsubstantiated charges” or insist “that the players are guilty no matter what the evidence says.”

Duke campus organizations are also speaking up. ACLU@DUKE head Daniel Bowes recently wrote, “As the initial facts concerning the case became clear, it was obvious to the ACLU@DUKE’s members that what D.A. Nifong was doing was unethical, inappropriate, and illegal.” Professors Erwin Chemerinsky and James Coleman, both of whom have criticized Nifong’s handling of the case, will appear on a related issue at a fall-term ACLU@DUKE forum, and I’ve been invited to speak to the group in late October.

Such student activism conflicts with the agenda offered by Richard Brodhead, whose convocation address urged Duke students to learn the appropriate lessons from last spring’s events: “Taking care not to treat [others] boorishly or coercively or offensively,” practicing the “arts of human respect” to “get us to civility, a value vastly underrated in contemporary culture.” This description would seem like a condemnation of the Group of 88–though somehow I doubt that the Duke president considered it in this fashion.

What type of student activism does Brodhead want to see? Not much: he urges the student body to put the events of last spring behind it. “As you know, Duke was visited by a great trouble last spring. The resulting legal accusations remain unresolved, and we pray that they will be resolved in speedy, fair and decisive fashion.” While it’s comforting to see the Duke president no longer suggesting that the purpose of a trial is “for our students to be proved innocent,” prayer seems like a rather ineffective option when compared to the recommendations of Regelbrugge, Wygod, Miller, and Bowes.

But, then again, Brodhead seems to have a different set of priorities than do most students. After all, this is the same man who, asked to comment after the arrests of Reade Seligmann and Collin Finnerty last spring, replied in the following way: “If our students did what is alleged, it is appalling to the worst degree. If they didn’t do it, whatever they did is bad enough.” It’s now apparent that what Seligmann and Finnerty did was to attend a party that they played no role in organizing and to drink some beer. If that conduct “is bad enough,” so is the behavior of probably 65-70 percent of Duke’s student body. It’s unfortunate to see a college president with such a low opinion of the students that he claims to lead.

While Brodhead and his administration are focusing on implementing Duke’s draconian new student code of conduct, his student body seems determined to rectify the effects of last spring’s silence or rush to judgment by the faculty and administration. There seems to me little doubt which side understands the most significant issue at stake.

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