Yesterday’s post traced events between March 16 and March 26, when the Duke administration possessed considerable freedom of action.
The post made three major points:
- While the issue was fast-moving, Duke administrators had learned a considerable amount about the evening’s events, both from their reported discussions with local law enforcement and through their meeting with the captains. All this information pointed to the dubious nature of the accuser’s claims.
- The last-minute cancellation of the March 25 game, after assurances the previous day that the game would be played, only intensified the public pressure it was meant to temper. The very act of cancellation implied guilt, as did Brodhead’s statement highlighting the assertion that “physical coercion and sexual assault are unacceptable in any setting and have no place at Duke.”
- Judged by Brodhead’s own recently stated standards—a commitment to due process and the presumption of innocence—the administration’s conduct in this 11-day period fell short.
In his March 25 statement, Brodhead made clear that the last-minute cancellation did not imply a conviction in the players’ guilt. But the move certainly implied that Duke would do little or nothing to defend team members, despite administrators consistently (if privately) expressing their belief in the players’ innocence.
As the workweek started,
“In this case,” said Nifong (covering all his political bases), “where you have the act of rape—essentially a gang rape—is bad enough in and of itself, but when it’s made with racial with racial epithets against the victim, I mean, it’s just absolutely unconscionable . . . My guess is that some of this stonewall of silence that we have seen may tend to crumble once charges start to come out.”
To this day, the leadership of Duke has not commented on Nifong’s habitual disregard for the bar’s ethical canons in dealing with Duke students.
The Herald-Sun published an editorial remarkable in both its factual errors and its conviction that a rape occurred: “When police officers arrived at the house with a search warrant on March 16, none of the players would cooperate with the investigation [sic]. Later, under threat of further penalty [sic], 46 members of the team were DNA-tested by police . . . the allegations of rape bring the students’ arrogant frat-boy culture to a whole new, sickening level . . . We agree that the alleged crime isn’t the only outrage. It’s also outrageous that not a single person who was in the house felt compelled to step forward and tell the truth about what happened [sic].” Duke, which knew the first and last statements were false, remained silent.
Facing Nifong’s verbal assault and the Herald-Sun’s defamatory writings, Duke folded almost immediately. Brodhead announced that the team would be suspended from competition until Nifong completed his work. In effect, this decision canceled the season. The move also contradicted assurances that lacrosse parents had received at the March 25 meeting that, until the legal process was completed, the team would resume play after the two canceled games.
The statement the president read at a press conference doesn’t appear on the Duke archive of Brodhead statements; but according to the N&O, the president said, “Sports have their time and place, but when issues of this gravity are in question, it is not the time to be playing games.”
The very same “issues of gravity,” of course, had been in question four days when the captains met with Duke administrators and had received word that the
The Herald-Sun editorial page, which had already deemed the players guilty, celebrated Brodhead’s remarks. The editors commended the president for “doing the right thing,” adding that the players “have themselves to blame for the current trouble.”
Public relations, not a presumption of innocence, dictated the administration’s reversal of course. As Bob Steel, chairman of the Board of Trustees and Brodhead’s most vehement supporter, informed the New Yorker, “We had to stop those pictures [of the players practicing]. It doesn’t mean that it’s fair, but we had to stop it. It doesn’t necessarily mean I think it was right—it just had to be done.”
Steel’s comments, perhaps unintentionally, offered the most powerful evidence yet to appear that public relations concerns, not a presumption of innocence, motivated Duke’s response throughout. There certainly seem few other credible explanations for the reversal, within 24 hours, of the March 24 assurances that the
On campus, Brodhead’s decision to suspend the season only emboldened faculty ideologues. Indeed, Duke’s arts and sciences faculty was revealed to possess an unusually large bloc of professors for whom advancing their personal, curricular, or ideological agendas appeared to have more importance than upholding the the well-being of Duke students.
A public letter from English and African-American Studies professor Houston Baker opened the floodgates. Lamenting the “college and university blind-eying of male athletes, veritably given license to rape, maraud, deploy hate speech, and feel proud of themselves in the bargain,” Baker denounced the “abhorrent sexual assault, verbal racial violence, and drunken white male privilege loosed amongst us.” To act against “violent, white, male, athletic privilege,” he urged the “immediate dismissals” of “the team itself and its players.”
That evening, the African-American Studies Department transformed a forum on black masculinity into a discussion of the case. ESPN reported that “there were two white women in the room, [Wahneema] Lubiano remembered, a few Latino and Asian students and a couple of white faculty members. Everyone else was black.” Anonymous student remarks allegedly made at this meeting would appear eight days later, framing the Group of 88’s statement denouncing the players.
Meanwhile, Faulkner Fox continued to facilitate linkages between extremist voices among the faculty and in the community. Her pot-banging protests attracted considerable media attention, and she used the opportunity to pronounce the players guilty. “The arrogance and bravado that they were above the law or they could think this woman is below the respect of the human community really outrages a lot of people,” Fox told WRAL. Displaying the kind of logic that would manifest itself in the coming Group of 88 statement, she declared, “The students need to realize they live in a community, and people are going to talk back if they do something, or potentially do something, that is disrespectful to women.” [emphasis added]
Events of the day, alas, demonstrated to Brodhead a basic lesson from history: appeasing irresponsible ideologues rarely yields positive results.
Less than 10 percent of Duke’s full-time faculty members attended an emergency meeting of the Academic Council, allowing the lacrosse team’s most extreme critics—who appeared in full force—to dominate the affair. To give a sense of the meeting’s tone, Paul Haagen (“helmet sports”) was among the gathering’s most moderate faculty voices. And, in fairness to Brodhead, administrators, especially Executive Vice President Tallman Trask, cautioned against precipitous action at the meeting. No administrator, however, proved willing to confront the faculty extremists.
From administration members came three announcements that would foreshadow events to come.
1.) At Brodhead’s request, Trask replied to faculty assertions that the lacrosse players had an excessive amount of problems. The executive vice president said that, based on inquiries into the matter he had conducted the previous summer, he had not seen anything in the lacrosse team’s university discipline records that didn’t seem to have been dealt with appropriately or that required further intervention on the administration’s part. (He reportedly prefaced his remarks by saying that he reached this conclusion “as much as I would have liked to have found something,” suggesting that Trask was not a figure who would sugarcoat data in the lacrosse players’ favor.) Since the players tended to do things in a group, he explained, if one was found with an open container, several others would be cited for the same offense.
Trask’s remarks previewed the conclusions of the Coleman Committee report, which revealed that the team as a whole consisted of good students with good records of on-campus behavior who had a disproportionately high number of minor alcohol-related offenses, joining hundreds of other Duke students in such offenses.
2.) Brodhead warned that the institution needed to be wary of disciplining the lacrosse team in a way that was consistent with Duke’s past performance regarding underage drinking parties, the hiring of strippers, or even a student using a racial slurs. The president noted the danger of creating a new policy and making an example of the players.
The administration, however, had already contradicted these admirable sentiments five days before; Brodhead’s canceling the
3.) Brodhead suggested that saying Duke could fix its cultural problems by hammering the lacrosse team would admit to the world that Duke’s problems were somehow more serious than what is normally reflected in society.
Exactly one week later, 88 of his faculty members did exactly what the president had cautioned them to avoid. Brodhead would say nothing.
Meanwhile, most assembled professors leveled vitriolic attacks against the team. One speaker claimed that Duke, as an institution, practiced drinking and rape, and the lacrosse incident reflected a University problem from the top down. Another suggested punishing the team by suspending lacrosse for three years and then making it a club sport. A third asserted that the team embodied the “assertion of class privilege” by all Duke students. A fourth called on the University to do something to help the “victim.”
Three professors overpowered the meeting:
- Houston Baker stated as a fact that African-American women had been “harmed” by the lacrosse players and claimed that students in his mostly white, female class were terrified of the lack of an administration response. In an e-mail to me, Baker denied that he was suggesting that the accuser had, in any way, experienced physical harm (he had, of course, implied otherwise in his public letter). Rather, he said, his use of the verb “harmed” referred to the situation at the house eventually revealed in “the disgusting Ed Bradley 60 Minutes piece with those disgusting photos that looked like white privilege meets exotic dancers in a horrible circle of degrading (yes, of course, legal) labor.” It’s not clear how the situation in these photos would have terrified a class of white female Duke undergraduates.
- Wahneema Lubiano alleged favoritism by Duke toward the team and demanded a counter-statement from Duke denouncing the players. Lubiano would later edit the final version of the Group of 88’s statement. I e-mailed Lubiano to ask what evidence she possessed for the claims she made to the Academic Council. She refused to supply any, and replied, “Do not email me again. I am putting your name and email address in my filter.”
- Peter Wood asserted that two years previously, the team was out of control, and demanded a hard line against the athletic director, coach, and team. Wood has refused to respond to repeated e-mails requesting substantiation for his allegations against team members.
Wood’s remarks, according to several people who attended the meeting, received robust applause.
Perhaps emboldened by the adulation from his colleagues, Wood granted an interview to the New York Times; in an April 1 article, Wood described the lacrosse players as “surly,” “hostile,” and “aggressive.” The Coleman Committee investigation found no evidence, even from his former teaching assistant, to substantiate Wood’s claims. (To my knowledge, despite the provisions of Chapter Six in the Faculty Handbook, the administration has not disciplined Wood for making unsubstantiated public statements about Duke students.) It would be interesting to know how many of the speakers at the March 30 meeting had taught lacrosse players, and what grades those supposedly immoral players received in the professors’ classes.
Duke Provost Peter Lange has been the only figure in the administration whose acts suggested a recognition that promoting due process and the presumption of innocence in what amounted to a witch-hunt environment required going beyond for-the-record rhetorical formulations. Lange issued a public statement terming Houston Baker’s diatribe “a form of prejudice,” the “act of prejudgment: to presume that one knows something ‘must’ have been done by or done to someone because of his or her race, religion or other characteristic.”
Brodhead, meanwhile, met with an unspecified number of professors from the African-American Studies department. Participants in that meeting have refused requests from me to divulge contents of their discussion, but it seems inconceivable that the professors did not mention the pending release of the Group of 88’s statement. That document would appear on April 6.
By this point, the story had exploded. The suspiciously timed release of the McFadyen e-mail led Brodhead to demand Coach Mike Pressler’s resignation. The latter act, of course, could not be seen as consistent with an administration devoted to upholding the presumption of innocence for its students.
Later Chances for Brodhead to Defend Due Process
April 6: The Group of 88 issued its statement, thanking protesters who had branded the players rapists and asserting definitively that something “happened” to the accuser at the party. In sharp contrast to Lange’s willingness to confront publicly Houston Baker, Brodhead remained silent amidst the Group of 88’s assault on the presumption of innocence. Even six months later, he couldn’t bring himself to question his faculty’s rush to judgment. Instead, he rationalized the Group of 88’s actions on the grounds that “these charges engaged people’s deepest fears, deepest anxieties, and dreads.”
Membership in the Group of 88 disproportionately included Brodhead’s closest academic colleagues, perhaps reinforcing his disinclination to challenge the Group. Brodhead is a professor of English and an affiliate of the Women’s Studies program (whose core faculty is overwhelmingly female); as a scholar, the president has written that he devoted his career toward “working in a more socially-oriented fashion, looking at the historical context that produced the texts we study while also seeking out the then-absent voices of women, African Americans, Native Americans, Asian Americans and others.”
Only the African-American Studies program produced a higher percentage of faculty who signed the Group of 88’s statement than did Women’s Studies, where 72.2 percent of the professors joined the Group. English, meanwhile, had the sixth highest percentage (32.2 percent) of faculty members who signed the statement.
The Group of 88, in short, consisted of the professors with whom the president shared the greatest intellectual bonds of any on campus: upholding the presumption of innocence for his own school’s students against this group of faculty members’ actions would have required him to go against his own pedagogical and academic values.
April 14: Acting under the direction of supervising investigator Nifong, the
April 20: After the arrest of Reade Seligmann and Collin Finnerty, Brodhead addressed the Durham Chamber of Commerce. His take on the allegations against the two players? “If they didn’t do it, whatever they did is bad enough.” (Like his March 28 statement suspending the season, these remarks do not appear on the Duke archive of Brodhead statements.)
A few weeks ago, in an e-mail sent to a parent of a former lacrosse player, Brodhead asserted that “the right role for the university is to speak forcefully for due process.” But his administration has failed to perform this commendable role, unless he mistakenly believes that “due process” constitutes demanding that even the most procedurally tainted cases go to trial.
Having committed himself to speaking “forcefully for due process,” moreover, Brodhead indicated that he would not join Professor James Coleman in demanding a special prosecutor. “It is my understanding,” relayed the president, “that in
Brodhead’s conception of due process thus appears to be limited to asking for things that an ethically challenged prosecutor might accept. (Imagine if, during the Civil Rights Era, university leaders had adopted this position, and spoken up for due process only on matters that they believed racist Southern sheriffs would endorse.) Since Nifong himself created the “separate-but-equal” system of justice for Duke students in Durham, Brodhead seems to believe that Duke’s role is to “speak forcefully for due process” by not challenging Nifong’s policies.
This conception of due process is Orwellian. In the Wonderland that is contemporary
In all fairness to Brodhead, in late March and early April, he faced a poisonous combination:
- a “minister of justice” who viewed himself as above the law, and seemed determined to arrest someone—anyone—before the primary;
- a group of professors whose intellectual interests overlapped with his own; and who appeared determined to exploit their students’ plight to advance their own personal, pedagogical, and ideological agendas.
It would have taken a strong leader to have withstood these combined pressures.
Although he has refused to admit so publicly, I’m sure that Brodhead would do many things differently if he knew how events would develop. Nonetheless, the administration cannot erase the record of what it did and did not do in late March and early April. Moreover, whatever excuses existed for Brodhead’s behavior then, his subsequent refusal to demand that local authorities treat all Duke students according to the same procedures as all other
“Facts,” John Adams once said, “are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.” The facts in this case stubbornly prevent an interpretation that Brodhead acted to defend either due process or the presumption of innocence. The record of his actions, and that of how his actions were interpreted by key players at the time, suggests a radically different thesis.