More Depressing News from Duke

KC Johnson, Minding the Campus, February 22, 2012

For insight into the corruption of the modern academy, look no further than Heather MacDonald’s extraordinary article on the recent controversy at Duke. Two Duke professors, Peter Arcidiacono and Ken Spenner, and a graduate student, Esteban Aucejo, produced a paper showing that African-American students at Duke disproportionately migrate from science and engineering majors to less challenging majors in the humanities. {snip}

The campus crusade [against the paper] was led by two of the most extreme faculty members from the lacrosse case, Karla Holloway and Tim Tyson; that such figures could have any credibility left after being so wrong so often in their lacrosse case commentary speaks volumes about the low standards for truth on contemporary campuses. {snip} But the low point in the affair came when several Duke academic administrators published an open letter in the campus newspaper, the Chronicle. After empty language about academic freedom, the letter lamented how the “conclusions of the research paper can be interpreted in ways that reinforce negative stereotypes.” {snip}

The list of signatories included Dean Lee Baker, one of three members of the Group of 88 (the faculty who took out an April 2006 newspaper ad to proclaim something “happened” to false accuser Crystal Mangum) to be promoted to a Duke deanship since the start of the lacrosse case. (A fourth Group of 88 member was elected chair of Duke’s faculty senate.) But the letter’s most surprising signatory was Duke provost Peter Lange.

During the lacrosse case, Lange was the only senior member of Duke president Richard Brodhead’s administration to behave in a consistently honorable manner. He stood up to “potbanger” protesters who rallied outside his house. And he took action to bring to a halt the most egregious instances of faculty misconduct—in-class harassment of the lacrosse players; false claims that whole departments had endorse the Group of 88 ad, when no department had even voted on the matter—although he didn’t punish any of the faculty wrongdoers. {snip} And, it appears, Lange made a similar political calculation when he elected to sign onto the recent Chronicle letter.

Ironically, thanks to filings in the unindicted lacrosse players’ lawsuits against Duke, the controversy over the research paper coincided with the first revelations of the administration’s internal deliberations at the height of the lacrosse case. Perhaps most significant was an April 24, 2006 e-mail exchange between Brodhead, Lange, and a third senior administrator, Larry Moneta, discussing how the administration should frame its public response to events. The e-mails were penned a few days after Brodhead had traveled to the Durham Chamber of Commerce for his first public remarks after the arrests of Reade Seligmann and Collin Finnerty; even if the students were innocent, the Duke president declared to rousing applause, “whatever they did was bad enough.” What Seligmann and Finnerty had done was to attend a party they played no role in organizing and drink some beer.

In the e-mails, Brodhead implied that the movie Primal Fear represented a possible prism through which to view the lacrosse case. (In the film, Ed Norton plays a sociopath who commits a murder but fools his attorneys about his guilt.) But the e-mails’ most striking aspect came in the limited range of options about the case that administrators were willing to consider. Two weeks before the e-mails, defense attorneys had announced that none of the DNA from Mangum’s rape kit matched any lacrosse player. Given that Mangum had described a 30-minute gang rape in which her attackers didn’t use condoms, the DNA results seemed to suggest that she wasn’t telling the truth.

Yet none of the administrators appear to have considered, if only for the purposes of contingency planning, the possibility that a rape didn’t occur. Brodhead noted that he was not “confident that the players are innocent though certainly a large number of them are of criminal charges.” By this point, even Mike Nifong was conceding that “a large number” of the lacrosse players were innocent of criminal charges.

That Duke’s upper administration seemed unable or unwilling to consider inconvenient evidence (by this point, the university’s overheated response had been based on an unquestioned assumption that a crime occurred, and so the case’s implosion threatened to blow back on Duke) helps explain how the university so badly botched its response to the case. And the administration’s appeasement of the Arcidiacono et al. paper’s critics suggests that this closed-mindedness remains firmly in place at Duke.

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