Explaining Brodhead

As a high-profile case of prosecutorial misconduct affected his own institution’s students, how is it possible to explain Duke president Richard Brodhead’s passive response?

A few explanations can be eliminated. Duke officials did not – – at least privately – – initially believe Crystal Mangum’s fantastic lies. Duke cops told their superiors the case would go away quickly, because Mangum wasn’t credible. The lacrosse captains met with four senior administrators, including Brodhead, and not only denied the allegations but laid out the scope of their cooperation with police. The president, the executive vice president, the AD, and the dean of student affairs all expressed confidence the captains were telling the truth. (Brodhead has subsequently denied saying this.)

Nor were Brodhead’s actions consistent with his own publicly stated justifications. In an interview with Stuart Taylor for our book, the president explained that he remained silent in face of Nifong’s dubious procedural behavior because “I do not believe the day ever comes when private individuals have the right to take public judgment back into their hands.” Yet between 2000 and 2005, Brodhead twice had spoken out on behalf of his own students in legal matters (both times at the urging of leftists on campus). And, indeed, in the lacrosse case, he ultimately did “take public judgment back into [his] hands.” After Nifong dropped rape charges on December 22, the president publicly called for appointment of a special prosecutor. Sexual assault charges were still on the books.

So what did explain Brodhead’s actions? First, the president appears to have reacted with a deep, visceral disgust at the captains’ decision to hire strippers. In June 2006, when he met with the lacrosse team, he told them that all needed to accept responsibility for the party (the captains, who had hired the strippers, had already apologized), even though he knew that some players hadn’t even attended the party. In his October 2006 interview with 60 Minutes, he described the evening as one of “highly unacceptable behavior.” Brodhead, it’s worth noting, did not have a record of strongly denouncing other spring break parties. It was as if he had spent a lifetime on college campuses and only realized in March 2006 that college students drank and had wild parties during spring break.

Second, and more important, Brodhead appears to have been cowed by extremists within his faculty. (It’s worth remembering that this case began just over a year after Larry Summers lost a vote of no-confidence in Harvard’s Faculty Council.) A turning point event came in an emergency meeting of the Academic Council on March 30, 2006. The president urged caution and asked faculty to wait for the facts to come in. But the assembled professors, around 10% of the arts and sciences faculty, responded with vitriolic attacks against the team. One speaker claimed that Duke, as an institution, tolerated drinking and rape, and the lacrosse incident reflected a University problem from the top down. Another suggested punishing the team by suspending lacrosse for three years and then making it a club sport. A third asserted that the team embodied the “assertion of class privilege” by all Duke students. A fourth called on the University to do something to help the “victim.”

Three professors overpowered the meeting: Houston Baker stated as a fact that African-American women had been “harmed” by the lacrosse players and claimed that students in his mostly white, female class were terrified of the lack of an administration response. Wahneema Lubiano alleged favoritism by Duke toward the team and demanded a counter-statement from Duke denouncing the players. And Peter Wood asserted that two years previously, the team was out of control, and demanded a hard line against the athletic director, coach, and team. These remarks, according to several people who attended the meeting, received robust applause.

One week later, when Brodhead cancelled the lacrosse season, he appointed a “Campus Culture Initiative” to explore issues raised by the case. Wood chaired one of the CCI’s four subcommittees. Two other subcommittees (race and gender) were chaired by Group of 88 members Karla Holloway and Anne Allison. And one of the four student members was Chauncey Nartey, an African-American student who had sent an e-mail to the Presslers that the former coach’s wife considered a threat against their daughter. The Presslers filed a police report and told the administration what Nartey had done; the appointment went ahead anyway.

Brodhead’s disinclination to challenge faculty extremists extended to issues that nearly all academics would recognize as improper. For instance, on April 6, 2006, women’s lacrosse coach Kerstin Kimel told the president that multiple instances of in-class harassment of lacrosse players had occurred, with professors using class time to bully their own students. Yet neither Brodhead nor anyone in his administration ever investigated Kimel’s claim; in summer 2006, Duke spokesperson John Burness conceded that he had heard “rumors” of unprofessional behavior but suggested the problem had been handled by a dean sending out an e-mail reminding professors to treat all students fairly. The book documents several of these events.

Similarly, the Group of 88’s ad presented the administration with a ready-made opportunity to stand up to the worst of its faculty: after all, the ad claimed that five departments had officially endorsed its contents, even though none of the departments had actually voted on the question. Yet Brodhead not only remained silent in the face of this obvious breach of academic protocol, but he thrice, in early 2007, defended the Group of 88’s statement as a banal, even welcome, expression of the concerns of race/class/gender faculty on campus.

In the end, it’s hard to imagine that his mishandling of the lacrosse case will not overshadow the other events in Brodhead’s first term as president.

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