Last Tuesday, Duke announced that Donna Lisker, currently director of the Women’s Center, would become associate dean of undergraduate education. According to the Chronicle, Lisker will focus on “coordinating both the academic and social strains of undergraduate life.”
Dean of Undergraduate Education Steve Nowicki said that he pushed for the appointment because “I wanted to make sure I have diverse perspectives. Donna brings a very different perspective.”
Lisker was among the most frequently quoted Duke officials in articles about the lacrosse case. In the days and weeks following Crystal Mangum’s false allegations, she gave interviews to the Chronicle, the Baltimore Sun, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the (Toronto) National Post, and WUNC; she also gave several interviews to the New York Times.
In an e-mail to me, Lisker explained her approach to the case in the following way:
I chose not to sign the faculty statement that appeared in the Chronicle because I directed the Women’s Center, an administrative unit with the mission of serving all students. I tried never to make a public statement that would make any student feel unwelcome in my center. At a time of high emotion, we wanted to be a place for dialogue -- and I think we were successful in that.
In the weeks following the initial accusations many reporters wanted to talk to the person at Duke responsible for sexual assault support services and education. That was me, and I agreed to speak only in generalities about how sexual violence typically affects a college campus. I did not speak about the lacrosse case with any specificity; indeed, I could not, as I was not involved. And it’s not good practice for a women’s center director to speak to the media about specific student cases, as it compromises the expectation of confidentiality for the next student who might come in. I was asked repeatedly if we had student survivors of sexual violence who would speak to the media. I responded negatively (and with some incredulity) every time. My principal goal, and that of my staff, was to protect our students, both those currently connected to the Center and those who might be in the future.
The first sentence above is a commendable one—a stark contrast to the choice made by Group of 88’er Joseph Harris, who signed the statement even though he directed the University Writing Program.
Nonetheless, as I noted in response to Lisker, it seemed that her statements frequently strayed from the general to the case-specific. In the Baltimore Sun, March 30, 2006, Lisker appeared to question the value of the presumption of innocence:
“I just don’t know,” Donna Lisker, the director of Duke Women’s Center, said when asked if protesters would now feel they are being heard. “Innocent until proven guilty is a critical presumption. But these are such serious charges.”
In the Philadelphia Inquirer, April 2, 2006, Lisker appeared to presume guilt:
“Something like this takes away that sense of security” and provokes “fear and anger.”
After the DNA tests came back negative, Lisker expressed an unusual perspective on the case, to the National Post, on April 12, 1006:
“I’m of two minds,” [Lisker] told the National Post of her take on the inconclusive [?!] DNA results. “On the one hand, I’d be absolutely delighted if these allegations were proven untrue because I wouldn’t wish that [sexual assault] on anyone.”
“But as a women’s advocate, I am also concerned about the spectre of a possible false report, because people underreport sexual assault as it is,” Ms. Lisker said. “I don’t want it to deter anyone from reporting.”
By May 2, 2006—after charges already had been filed against Reade Seligmann and Collin Finnerty—Lisker presumed guilt on WUNC radio. Note the absence of “alleged” in her discussion of the “assault.”
It’s worth reiterating that this interview occurred well after the heady days of Mike Nifong’s pre-primary publicity crusade. By this point, defense attorneys—for weeks, and publicly—had denied that any “assault” of any kind occurred. Indeed, the day before Lisker spoke of “the assault,” Kirk Osborn had released a minute-by-minute alibi for Reade Seligmann.
After another panelist suggested that contemporary
I disagree with social conservatives on nearly all cultural issues. But there’s something off-putting about a university administrator suggesting that her ideological opponents are more likely to commit rapes—even if, as she hastened to add, most cultural conservatives were not prospective criminals. Imagine the outrage if Duke had appointed as associate dean a conservative who had publicly asserted that feminists were more likely to file false rape reports.
Shortly before the start of the 2007 lacrosse season, Lisker gave an interview to Newsday, where she continued to take an uncompromising stance against the team:
I’m sure there will be cheering for the team and a lot of fans, but there’s something weird about that. I don’t want to paint all the players with one brush, but there is still the issue of their behavior we know to be true: They had a party, hired women to strip, the women were (verbally) threatened and there was underage drinking. Can we talk about that part of it?
Of course, the unqualified assertion that “the women were (verbally) threatened” was hardly “know[n] to be true”—at any point in the case. That a Duke administrator publicly made such a claim as late as February 25, 2007 (the date of Lisker’s Newsday interview) is troubling.
Two of the three undeniably “known” items—a party, underage drinking—occur every weekend in every college in the country other than institutions of the religious right (whose values Lisker doesn’t support), raising questions about why Lisker would single out the lacrosse players’ party. The third—the hiring of strippers—was done not by the “players,” as Lisker suggested, but by the captains, who had repeatedly apologized for having done so, both privately and publicly. That record, of course, stands in stark contrast to the Group of 88, all but one of whom either refused to apologize or who retracted their apologies after privately doing so.
As to Lisker’s question: a strong argument exists that the players’ party was the most “talked about” college party in U.S. history
On March 14, 2007, Lisker returned to the criminal case, about which she would only concede that “it’s hard to know” the truth. She did, however, lash out at the alleged mistreatment of
Lisker didn’t say how defense attorneys should have appropriately responded to a woman whose repeated lies threatened to put three innocent Duke students in jail for 30 years. She explained via e-mail:
I never presumed guilt in this case, and said over and over that we had to honor due process as a foundational principle of our justice system. That statement rarely made it into the articles when I was quoted (reporters wanted me to say something more controversial), but I said it nonetheless.
One of the issues I did talk about was the effect the case had on survivors of sexual violence in the Duke community. In the early weeks, when the case was all over the media, we saw a sharp increase in the number of students seeking help for past incidents of sexual violence. The extensive media coverage of the case acted as a trigger and we were inundated with students in crisis. We were glad to be there for them during a difficult time.
I am absolutely delighted that the charges in this case proved to be unfounded; though these comments were never printed, I told several reporters that I would have hated to believe our students capable of such behavior. I did worry, and still do, that one of the after effects of this case -- or any case of false accusation -- is that it becomes harder for a student who has been the victim of a legitimate crime to speak up. They fear they will be met with skepticism and disbelief. That’s the context of my NY Times quote.
I’ve no doubt that Lisker is correct in noting that after any false accusation, “it becomes harder for a student who has been the victim of a legitimate crime to speak up.” Yet the blame for such a development belongs to the person who made the false allegation (Mangum) and the people who exploited it (Nifong, the Group of 88, talking heads such as Wendy Murphy or Nancy Grace, journalists such as Bob Ashley), not those who fought to expose Mangum’s lies. One wonders what behavior by defense attorneys Duke’s new associate dean for undergraduate education would have considered acceptable.
More broadly, Lisker’s comment raises questions about what case she was actually observing. For months, the mainstream media inaccurately portrayed Mangum in overly positive terms—as an honors student and working mother who had reluctantly embraced stripping because she wanted to spend more time with her children. The reality, of course, was far different.
By the end of spring, Lisker had backed off her hard line of February, telling the New York Times that she hoped the lacrosse team did well in the 2007 national tournament, since, “It’s been a trying year for Duke, and I welcome anything that contributes to healing in our community.”
As Group of 88’er Paula McClain made clear in her address last week, a call for “healing” without any accountability for those who behaved inappropriately is standard fare these days at Duke.
Lisker’s is the first administrative appointment announced since President Brodhead apologized for some faculty members’ “ill-judged” and “divisive” statements on the case. Many of Lisker’s statements could have been predicted, given her position at Duke and her long-held beliefs. And, as is clear in her e-mails to me, Lisker gives no indication of the malevolence toward some Duke students under which so many in the Group of 88 appear to operate. If the administration had made any concrete policy steps showing it had come to grips with what caused the faculty’s (and its own) rush to judgment in the case, perhaps the Lisker appointment would have passed without controversy.
But such a development has not occurred. Since many of Lisker’s statements about the case have not stood the test of time, the appointment, therefore, raises a question of management: assuming Brodhead meant what he said in his apology, why would a University president want administrators whose statements and actions were “ill-judged”? After all, administrators are paid to make good judgments.