In 1970, Richard Nixon nominated an undistinguished Florida judge named G. Harrold Carswell to the Supreme Court. The appointment was part of Nixon’s “Southern Strategy”: Carswell billed himself as a “strict constructionist,” code at the time for opposing civil rights and supporting tough-on-crime rulings.
The nomination quickly encountered trouble, in part because of Carswell’s earlier unabashed defenses of segregationism. But it also became increasingly clear that Carswell just wasn’t that smart.
In a bid to salvage the nomination, Nebraska senator Roman Hruska, the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, informed the press, “There are a lot of mediocre judges and people and lawyers. They are entitled to a little representation, aren’t they? We can’t have all Brandeises, Frankfurters and Cardozos and stuff like that there.”
The damning praise from the judge’s most prominent supporter effectively killed the nomination.
As with defending a figure like Carswell, defending the Group of 88 is no easy task. In the last few days, a few have given it a try. It appears, however, as if they’ve been channeling the spirit of Roman Hruska.
In a recent DIW comment thread, an anonymous commenter—who was clearly familiar with and sympathetic to Group members’ scholarship and the pedagogical approaches of at least a few Group members—criticized the “Group profile” series.
To date, the series has profiled 11 members of the Group. That total is unrepresentative of the professors’ accomplishments, since Group members with few or no publications can’t be profiled.
The commenter, however, criticized the series for focusing on “marginal academics rather than folks who have had long careers with stellar pedigrees.”
The eleven profiled members, it’s worth noting, include:
- The chairperson of Duke’s Academic Council;
- The dean of social sciences for Trinity College;
- A research professor who was listed as one of the University’s top recruits in 2005;
- The director of the University Writing Program.
And coming Monday is a profile of a tenured full professor and two-term department chairperson.
If “marginal academics rather than folks who have had long careers with stellar pedigrees” occupy such positions at Duke, the University has some serious problems.
Moreover, of the 11 faculty members thus far profiled, all but one (Jocelyn Olcott) have tenure. In effect, then, this anonymous commenter is defending the Group of 88 by suggesting that Duke has tenured at least ten professors who are “marginal academics” who lack “long careers with stellar pedigrees.”
Roman Hruska might be persuaded, but that doesn’t strike me as the most effective defense of the Group.
While the anonymous commenter relied on the Roman Hruska approach to defend the Group, a longtime Group enabler has employed the irrelevance defense.
Writing at Devil’s Den, Michael Corey reasoned that the Group of 88 “did not have any impact whatsoever on the pseudo-biography that the media disseminated in besmirching the lacrosse team, and specifically the Triumvirate of the indicted.”
This, in and of itself, is a remarkable line of argument: 88 arts and sciences faculty members, at one of the nation’s most prestigious universities, take out a full-page ad (“in the most easily seen venue on campus”) suggesting that their own school’s students have contributed to a “social disaster.” Despite the high media interest in all Duke-related matters at the time, and despite the virtually unprecedented nature of such an act in the history of American higher education, the professors’ effort . . . had no effect.
Defense attorneys, of course, disagreed, and the Group’s statement received a prominent place in the change of venue motion. For what is, to my knowledge, the first time in American history, the statements and actions of students’ own professors were cited as one of the main reasons they could not receive a fair trial in the college town.
Corey’s counter: “As to the defense’s disagreement with me, I believe the defense attorneys are flatly very wrong.”
So, the choice is between accepting the interpretation of Jim Cooney, Joe Cheshire, and Brad Bannon or siding with the author of article #6 on the “March Madness” list of the ten worst articles on the case.
Roman Hruska might struggle to make this selection, but for most it’s not a difficult choice.
Corey also challenged the “Group profile” series on grounds of bias, noting (of me) that “every utterance he makes is rooted in his own opinion, which is GREAT for his purposes, and great for his audience, but must be considered with an opposing interpretation (of which, of course, there is none in the blogosphere).”
These claims, too, are peculiar. I fully concede that all of my posts are rooted in my opinion: that’s the nature of any blog in which the author has identified himself or herself publicly. But the blogosphere, if nothing else, is home to a diversity of opinion on almost every issue. Nothing prevents Group members or their defenders from starting their own blog celebrating the Group’s achievements or pointing out errors of fact or interpretation in portrayals of the Group. (Available URLs include we-don’t-follow-the-faculty-handbook.blogspot.com.)
Corey subsequently clarified himself, noting that pro-Group websites “are hardly on par with Johnson’s in terms of impact and notoriety . . . There is no equivalent to K.C. Johnson’s blog from an opposing point of view regarding the professors, and that’s a fact.”
So: the quality of DIW should be diminished to allow pro-Group blogs to better compete in the marketplace of ideas? Roman Hruska might be persuaded, but that doesn’t strike me as the most effective defense of the Group.
In his previous article, Corey had denounced the “seething” and “shrieking” blog attacks against the Group of 88, who he portrayed as victims of the blogs in the same way that the three indicted players were victims of Mike Nifong. It now appears that he didn’t read too closely the blog posts criticizing the Group, perhaps explaining why his article cited not even one blog post that he considered “seething” or “shrieking.”
A Devil’s Den commenter asked Corey about his opinion of Houston Baker’s March 29, 2006 letter, probably the second-most notorious lacrosse-related document (after the Group’s statement) produced by the Duke faculty. Corey’s response? “I haven’t read Houston Baker’s letter.” What about the Kim Curtis grade retaliation against Kyle Dowd? “I’m unfamiliar with the details of the case.” How about Peter Wood’s apparent slandering of Reade Seligmann? “Again, I’m not familiar with specific remarks Professor Wood might have made against Reade.”
Roman Hruska might be persuaded by the willful ignorance approach, but that doesn’t strike me as the most effective defense of the Group. Or, on second thought, perhaps it is the most effective defense of the Group.
As with the anonymous Group defender, Corey’s comments effectively proved the critics’ case. Take, for instance, his assertion that Maurice Wallace “is one of the great young English professors in the country.” Indeed, as the profile of Wallace pointed out, the Group of 88’er received a major award from the MLA.
As the post also noted, Wallace’s writing style features excruciatingly long and virtually incomprehensible sentences that wouldn’t pass muster in most introductory composition classes, much less from a tenured faculty member at an elite institution. How many people outside the academy would be comfortable with such a figure being “one of the great young English professors in the country”? [emphasis added]
Most Group members said they wanted “dialogue” but thereafter refused to speak, despite the protections of tenure and academic freedom. Corey and the anonymous commenter deserve credit for at least trying to provide a public defense of the Group. But, as Roman Hruska discovered during the Carswell fight, defending the indefensible can sometimes lead the defender to make intellectually torturous arguments.