Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Group Profile: The Deutsch Files

My Cliopatria colleague Ralph Luker recently attended an academic conference at Duke, where he encountered Group of 88 member Sally Deutsch. Luker recalled that Deutsch

seemed to think that I should know better than to be found blogging with KC Johnson. She bristled noticeably when I said that, after all, he’d turned out to be correct about the lacrosse case. “You mean about the charges being dropped?,” she asked. I started to say: “No. Read my lips: ‘There was no rape.'" But the hairs were already standing up from the back of her neck up over to her eyebrows and her eyes were flashing. It’s a good thing that KC and I are not looking for a job at Duke. Professor Deutsch has just moved from chairing Duke’s history department to dean of [social sciences of] the college of arts and sciences.

For the record, as Ralph pointed out, neither he nor I are seeking employment at Duke.

Some members of the Group of 88, of course, fit the caricature of faculty extremists. Take, for instance, Grant Farred, who has ridiculously asserted that by loud partying that bothered their predominantly white, upper-class neighbors in Trinity Park, “at the heart of the lacrosse team’s behavior is the racist history of the South.” Or the statement’s principal author, Wahneema Lubiano, whose “books” appear to be in the perpetually “forthcoming” mode and whose prose is virtually impenetrable, except when she reports that she will press ahead “regardless of the 'truth’.”

Deutsch, on the other hand, casts a more moderate persona. She has published two well-reviewed books with a prestigious press (Oxford). She isn’t inclined to intemperate public statements of the type we have seen from Farred or Lubiano. She has had fellowships at mainstream entities, such as Harvard’s Charles Warren Center; the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, D.C.; and the Huntington Library. And, as Ralph pointed out, Deutsch is a figure of considerable influence at Duke—dean of the social sciences within Trinity College.

Deutsch’s affiliation with the intellectual mainstream only goes so far, however. Given her status as both a Group of 88 member and a signatory to the clarifying faculty statement, it should come as little surprise that Deutsch adheres to the race/class/gender worldview so pervasive among Duke’s arts and sciences faculty. A member of Duke’s “Working Group in Feminism and History,” she describes her research interests as “the United States from 1870 to 1940, focusing on issues of [naturally] class, race, gender, and ethnic differences.”

Ralph, for understandable reasons, was taken aback that a figure such as Deutsch—someone who doesn’t cut an extremist profile—could appear unwilling, even at this late stage, to admit the obvious: that no rape occurred. Those who recalled her activities last spring, however, might have been less surprised.

Unlike some members of the Group of 88—Lubiano again comes to mind—Deutsch had actually taught lacrosse players. In fact, last spring, several lacrosse players were in her class. The week after Mike Nifong began his pre-primary publicity barrage, Deutsch deviated from the syllabus and announced that she would use class time to discuss how white men, especially in the South, had disrespected and sexually assaulted black females.

“We all knew what she was doing,” one lacrosse player later recalled. “A couple people asked questions to try to get her off track, but she persisted. It lasted a half hour. She clearly wasn’t sympathetic.” After the class, several non-lacrosse players came up to team members and told them how inappropriate they had considered Deutsch’s behavior.

I contacted Deutsch several weeks ago to ask whether, in fact, she had taken such an approach. She said that she had—but didn’t see anything wrong with her behavior. She asserted that because her course spent “extensive time on [naturally] race and gender relations,” it was appropriate for her to use class time to contextualize the incident, thereby helping to “explain why people were so upset.”

At that point, of course, the only information about the incident was supplied by Mike Nifong and his underlings, such as Cpl. David Addison. Deutsch does not appear to have considered whether it was appropriate for a college professor to accept Nifong’s word so uncritically that she would deviate from the scheduled topic of the lecture and instead conduct a guilt-presuming discussion of the case in her class, especially since several of the affected students were at the receiving end of her lecture.

Indeed, the type of background she elected to explore reflected a presumption that a crime occurred. When asked whether she had also had adjusted her planned topics to examine the case through the equally relevant historical legacy of race-based prosecutorial misconduct in the South, Deutsch did not reply.

Despite Deutsch’s claims, the course that she taught was not described as focusing exclusively on issue of race and gender, calling into further question her decision to deviate from the syllabus. The course, instead, was a survey: U.S. history from 1870 to 1914. Here is the course description from the Arts&Sciences Course Bulletin (which is, for the record, considered a contract between a student and the University):

Industrialization, immigration, westward migration, and increased United States involvement in world political and economic affairs. The resulting political upheavals and the efforts of various groups to promote, control, or alter change. Not open to students who took History 129B.

For a professor intent on providing context to the charges, nothing in that description would have suggested ignoring the long Southern tradition of race-based prosecutorial misconduct, and instead choosing to focus on a context identical to that offered at the time by Mike Nifong.

At the end of the semester, another surprise greeted the players in the class: each noticed that their marks were one- or two-thirds of a grade lower than they had expected, apparently due to the subjective “participation” component of the grading.

That a figure such as Deutsch still seems unwilling to admit that no rape occurred is not surprising. That, however, she could—months after the fact—continue to justify her decision to use class time to effectively present Nifong’s preferred foundation of the case against the players is depressing. It’s no wonder that the Duke administration never investigated allegations last spring of improper behavior by professors toward lacrosse players.