Monday, September 11, 2006

Peter Wood's Distorted Campus Culture

One of the five committees announced by Richard Brodhead last April lurches forward, with a December 1 date to issue its preliminary report. It doesn't take a clairvoyant to determine the committee's message. Campus Culture Initiative (CCI) director Bob Thompson recently indicated that over the summer, the initiative divided into four subgroups. The race subgroup is chaired by Group of 88 signatory Karla Holloway—who considers herself a “victim” of the lacrosse affair. Further revealing the CCI's one-sided nature, Thompson announced that co-chair of the gender/sexuality subgroup is yet another Group of 88 member, Anne Allison—who last attracted attention when she violated Duke policies by using departmental funds to pay for an anti-war advertisement.

Thompson’s most shocking revelation, however, came in the announcement that Peter Wood will chair the athletics subgroup.

In the April 1 New York Times, Wood offered an interpretation of athletics at Duke dripping with the condescension of a figure safely ensconced in the upper middle class. “The football players here,” he mused, “are often rural white boys with baseball caps or hard-working black students who are proud to be at Duke.”

Duke’s arts and sciences faculty includes nearly 500 professors. The president selected 10 to serve on the Campus Culture Initiative. Is it Brodhead's contention that Duke's world-class faculty doesn't contain even 10 professors who, at the very least, hadn’t engaged in such embarrassing class-based stereotypes?

Wood’s next unfortunate moment came with the release of the Coleman Committee report. In spring 2004, Wood wrote a letter to the dean complaining about “the decline in classroom behavior of lacrosse players in particular and athletes in general.” But in 2006, he decided to offer a far more negative tale of lacrosse players' behavior in his 2004 class. The problem? Coleman Committee members found no evidence to corroborate this revised version of events. Wood's teaching assistant conceded that she couldn't back up his tale; nine other professors who taught extensive numbers of lacrosse students presented a wholly different version of their in-class behavior than did Wood.

Then, in a June interview with the local alternative weekly, Wood revealed that he taught two of the indicted players—one of whom was Reade Seligmann. He described the lacrosse players’ personal character: “Cynical, arrogant, callous, dismissive—you could almost say openly hostile.” The problem? Nothing exists to substantiate this characterization of Seligmann’s character, while overwhelming evidence exists that Wood’s portrayal was slanderous. Four times over the past three months, most recently two days ago, I emailed Wood requesting even one piece of evidence to substantiate his attack on Seligmann’s character. He has never replied.

Wood recently proved that Seligmann isn’t the only student about whom he’s made dubiously reasoned assertions. In the New Yorker, Wood claimed that his teaching evaluations for a spring 2004 class included the following startling 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. His evidence? “I had sixty-five students. Ten lacrosse players. Most of the students loved [the class]. It was a good class.” I certainly hope Wood utilizes greater care in his scholarship or in his classroom lectures.

In light of Wood’s apparently slanderous comments regarding Seligmann, his unsubstantiated assertions to the Coleman Committee, and his bizarre speculation to the New Yorker, I recently asked Duke Senior Vice President for Public Affairs and Government Relations John Burness whether Brodhead had requested Wood’s resignation from the Campus Culture Initiative. Burness responded, “Professor Wood is one of 25 members of the CCI and is free, as are its other members—and all members of this community—to exercise his rights of free speech.”

The First Amendment, of course, isn't the issue here. I'm unaware of any university in which professors possess the right to make slanderous attacks against their students. Nor are faculty members entitled to serve on presidential committees. The president certainly has the right—even the obligation—to consider a professor's behavior or statements in evaluating that professor's fitness for a committee assignment.

Consider the following counterfactual scenario. A member of the Campus Culture Initiative—let's call her Professor "Paula Tree"—attacks in print the character of Nick Shungu (an African-American undergraduate whose views on the lacrosse case the administration, in vain, attempted to promote). Professor Tree then refuses to produce evidence to substantiate her claims, even as hundreds of other people publicly attest to Shungu’s character. Professor Tree subsequently tells a national magazine that in an anonymous student evaluation form, an African-American student in her class expressed a wish that the Holocaust had succeeded. When asked for evidence of this claim, Professor Tree replies, “I had sixty-five students. Ten were black. Most of the students loved [the class]. It was a good class.”

Does anyone seriously believe that in such a case, Duke would respond, “Professor Tree is one of 25 members of the CCI and is free, as are its other members—and all members of this community—to exercise her rights of free speech”? Or would Brodhead—quite appropriately—demand that the hypothetical Professor Tree step down from the CCI?

Campus Culture Initiative members, Bob Thompson wrote, envision “a culture where all community members take responsibility for their behavior and respect the rights of others.” As far as I can tell, Wood has yet to take responsibility for his making unsubstantiated attacks on the lacrosse players in his classroom. And he certainly hasn’t respected the rights of many of his students. Based on his conduct over the past six months, it’s hard to see how Wood, in any way, reflects the values that the CCI claims to promote. His continued presence on the CCI makes it hard to take seriously any recommendations the initiative produces.

My sister received two M.A. degrees from N.C. State, one in public history, the other in education. I have no doubt that Wolfpack fans like her are delighted that Brodhead first placed, and now retains, a figure like Peter Wood in a position not only to try to dismantle the men’s lacrosse team but to shape Duke’s entire athletics policy.

How, though, do Duke alumni and the school's current students feel about Brodhead’s support for Professor Wood? I was always under the impression that athletics—and especially basketball—are of some significance to the Duke community. Brodhead and Wood seem to believe differently. Wood chairs the CCI's "athletics subgroup," not its "lacrosse subgroup." He will help shape Duke's future policy in all sports, not just men's lacrosse.

Thompson has promised "to seek input from the Duke community throughout each phase of our work.” Given the prominent presence of Group of 88 members in the CCI and Brodhead's refusal to demand Wood's resignation from the initiative, the CCI process appears to be rigged to produce a predetermined result. Maybe it’s time for those Duke students and alumni who support athletics to find other venues to make their opinions known, before it's too late.


Anonymous said...

Peter Wood is chairing the athletics subgroup of the Campus Culture Initiative? I shudder to think what he'll come up with. He doesn't exactly have an open mind.

His comments about the lacrosse players in his class are at direct odds with the findings of the Coleman Report. His comments do seem slanderous towards Reade Seligmann. But you point out that he has taught not only Reade but another of the indicted lacrosse players. Aren't the comments slanderous towards that person as well? They would seem to be unless "cynical, arrogant, callous, dismissive - you could almost say openly hostile" is an accurate description of that person.

Anonymous said...

It would have been nice if Brodhead had excercised his free speech rights to -- at a minimum -- publicly condemn Nifong's behaviour.

Anonymous said...

The faculty act as if they have taken a vow of silence about any injustice done to their own students, and any illegal procedures done in Durham.

There is no other way to explain their absolute refusal to even comment about the blatant perversion of the judicial system in this case, and the obvious railroading of three of their own.

About the only thing we can conclude about them is that they are not readers of Dr. Martin Luther King, who said:

In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.

He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetrate it. He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it.

The hottest place in Hell is reserved for those who remain neutral in times of great moral conflict.

The time is always right to do what is right.

I guess that time has not yet come for the Duke admin. and faculty.

Anonymous said...

"My sister received two M.A. degrees from N.C. State, one in public history, the other in education. I have no doubt that Wolfpack fans like her are delighted that Brodhead first placed, and now retains, a figure like Peter Wood in a position not only to try to dismantle the men’s lacrosse team but to shape Duke’s entire athletics policy."

I have a master degree from N.C. State and I am a Wolfpack. I read your web site everyday and like your articles. However, as a Duke parent and a member of Friends of Duke University, I do not agree with the above paragraph. Why are we delighted with the poor choice of Brodhead? Don't we know the character of these two people? I hope you are joking. If not, please explain. Thanks.

kcjohnson9 said...

To the 11.53: I was being sarcastic! (Though, of course, Wood's policies, if implemented, will unintentionally benefit other programs in the ACC, as Duke athletics decline.)

Anonymous said...

Thank you Dr. Johnson. That's what I thought.

Anonymous said...


I'm more concerned athletic recruits will be told Durham is the only place in America that if you are seen in close proximity to an open container you run the risk of being rousted from bed, cuffed and hauled off to jail.

The donors and Board of Trustees will pressure Brodhead to ignore the faculty recommendation.

Anonymous said...

How in the world is this guy qualified to chair the athletic subgroup of the Campus Culture Initiative? I suppose if someone has an opinion or coached women's club lacrosse or his dad was a famous college athlete makes them qualified.

Anonymous said...

Have Peter Wood and others of the infamous 88 left themselves open for legal action? Did he slander Seligmann, for example?

Anonymous said...

the teacher actually taught reade and some of the lacrosse players and knew them personally unlike a lot of you defending them. how many of you can honestly say you have seen reade or any of the other players as often as 3 times a week like at a class? this teacher had first hand knowledge of them and it was not pretty. he has a right to his opinion as america is a free country. just because it is not in the coleman report does not make what he said not true. the coleman report was a whitewash to try to make duke and the players look a little better to the public.

Anonymous said...

Peter Wood is emblematic of the history profession as a whole. He's made a career out of race hustling and in a time when race hustling is trendy, he's been able to build a successful career at Duke when he probably should have ended up teaching at South East Louisiana Community College.