The Administration’s Response

“Pandering” (New York Times). “Clearly terrified of the racial and gender activists on his own faculty” (Wall Street Journal). “Did little, if anything, to defend the lacrosse players or to criticise the faculty for its lynch-mob mentality” (Economist). “Weak-kneed” (Newsweek). “Seemingly terrified of the protestors and a radicalized faculty with the power to turn him into another Lawrence Summers” (Weekly Standard).

The reviews on Duke president Richard Brodhead’s performance in the lacrosse case are less than glowing. Such a poor performance hadn’t been expected in 2004, when Brodhead arrived in Durham after serving as dean of faculty at Yale. In New Haven, he distinguished himself for his urbane, witty charm; clear intelligence; and ability to accommodate the faculty’s demands. Yet Brodhead also lacked experience dealing with a top-flight athletic program or with elite college athletes. Duke’s national reputation came from its ability to combine first-class athletics with first-class academics.

Brodhead set the tone of his lacrosse response in his initial decisions on the case. On March 25, 2006, the same day the egregiously biased News & Observer “interview” with Crystal Mangum appeared, the Duke lacrosse team was scheduled to play Georgetown. In a virtually unprecedented move for a Division I athletics program, Brodhead canceled the game with Georgetown already on the field for its pre-game warm-ups. He described the move as punishment for the team’s party – – even though, as AD Joe Alleva later admitted, the party had violated no Duke rule and Duke never before had canceled a game because of moral distaste about team members’ behavior.

Lacrosse parents believed that Brodhead’s actions conveyed an impression of guilt. But he spurned repeated requests to meet with a group of them, either on March 25 or any time thereafter.

As the crisis intensified, Brodhead’s statements increasingly minimized any reference to a presumption of innocence. On April 5, reacting to the release of a vile e-mail that administrators knew or should have known was not a direct threat, the president cancelled the entire season. In a 2,377-word statement explaining the move, he didn’t mention a presumption of innocence or the players’ denial of all charges at all.

Instead, in a passage that perfectly captured the race/class/gender mindset that dominated Duke’s public response to the case, Brodhead declared, “The episode has brought to glaring visibility underlying issues that have been of concern on this campus and in this town for some time—issues that are not unique to Duke or Durham but that have been brought to the fore in our midst. They include concerns of women about sexual coercion and assault. They include concerns about the culture of certain student groups that regularly abuse alcohol and the attitudes these groups promote. They include concerns about the survival of the legacy of racism, the most hateful feature American history has produced. Compounding and intensifying these issues of race and gender, they include concerns about the deep structures of inequality in our society—inequalities of wealth, privilege, and opportunity (including educational opportunity), and the attitudes of superiority those inequalities breed.”

This was Brodhead’s final public statement before the first two indictments obtained by Mike Nifong.

The president took a similar approach in his first public appearance after the indictments of Reade Seligmann and Collin Finnerty. Speaking to the Durham Chamber of Commerce, he stated, “If our students did what is alleged, it is appalling to the worst degree. If they didn’t do it, whatever they did is bad enough.” What, precisely, did Seligmann and Finnerty do? They attended a party they played no role in organizing, and they drank some beer.

A few months later, asked by an alumni group to speak out not on the players’ guilt or innocence but to demand that Nifong respect the rights of Duke students, Brodhead instead turned the American system of justice on its head. It would be improper, he suggested, to criticize Nifong in any way. Instead, he articulated Duke’s policy in the following way: “We are eager for our students to be proved innocent . . . which is all the more reason why we require the legal system to proceed in a fair-minded, even-handed, and speedy fashion.”

Between March and December 2006, Brodhead displayed a broad deference to the criminal justice process, implying that academic institutions should never criticize legal misconduct. He also compiled a pattern of actions that conveyed an impression that the administration believed that the lacrosse players were the kind of people who could commit the horrific crime that Nifong described. And, even as he was complaining that “the facts kept changing . . . every day we learned new things that no one knew the day before,” he spurned at least three offers from defense attorneys or the parents of indicted players to give the University Council unfettered access to the state’s discovery file, to prove that Nifong’s case was a fraud.

How to explain this pattern of behavior? A post this afternoon will offer some hypotheses.