Commentaries
Ten Years Later, the Duke Lacrosse Case Still Reverberates

By K.C. Johnson

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February 22, 2016

Next month will be the tenth anniversary of the spring break party that triggered the Duke lacrosse case. That incident probably remains the highest-profile false rape claim in recent U.S. history—rivaled only by the claim against University of Virginia fraternity members leveled, and then retracted, by Rolling Stone.

That both of these false accusations occurred on a campus should come as no surprise. A general disinterest in due process for accused students combined with a one-sided intellectual atmosphere on questions related to gender make universities poorly suited to evaluate sexual assault allegations. The lacrosse case, moreover, added race and class to the mix. 

From the standpoint of a faculty dominated by the race/class/gender trinity, the purported facts proved too tempting to resist: wealthy, white males accused of brutally attacking a poor, African-American female. And so dozens of Duke professors abandoned the academy’s traditional fealty to due process to embrace the version of events offered by Durham’s unethical (and subsequently disbarred) district attorney, Mike Nifong. 

In their most prominent action, eighty-eight Duke faculty members signed a public statement affirming that something “happened” to Crystal Mangum. They actually boasted of their closed-mindedness by promising to continue their crusade regardless of “what the police say or the court decides.” 

And after high-profile protests that had urged the castration of the lacrosse captains and blanketed the campus with “wanted” posters containing 43 of the lacrosse players’ photos, the Duke faculty members had a message for the protesters: “Thank you for not waiting and for making yourselves heard.” 

Why was it so important for the protesters not to have waited until the facts were known? Not a single member of the Group of 88 has ever explained.

But perhaps the most chilling line in the Group of 88 statement was also its most banal—a notice at the bottom of the page, listing the 15 Duke academic departments and programs that chose to “sign onto this ad.” That such a wide swath of the Duke academic community officially affiliated with an inflammatory statement sent a powerful message in spring 2006. 

It turned out that, with the exception of the African-American Studies Program, none of the academic departments had formally taken a vote to endorse affiliating with the statement. Yet this breach of standard academic protocol appears to have had no consequences at Duke.

An unwillingness to engage in any critical self-reflection is the foremost legacy of how the academy responded to the lacrosse case, at Duke and beyond.

Duke spent tens of millions of dollars in settlement costs and legal fees for the lawsuits filed by the lacrosse players. (Some of that money unsuccessfully attempted to force me to reveal confidential e-mail exchanges with my sources.) It’s easy to see why Duke was so eager to settle the lawsuits before all discovery material became public. Early filings in the case attached a handful of administrators’ e-mails, including an April 2006 missive from president Richard Brodhead, musing that the movie Primal Fear might be an appropriate lens through which to view the case. 

In that film, a character played by Ed Norton convinces his lawyers he was wrongfully accused, only to accidentally confess his guilt in the closing scene. One can only imagine what the full archive of Brodhead’s 2006 e-mails would have revealed.

Since the ending of the lacrosse case, Duke’s trustees have conferred on Brodhead two new five-year terms as president.

Faculty hiring patterns similarly have displayed the institution’s unwillingness to consider why so many Duke professors so poorly served their students in 2006-7. The Group of 88, and other anti-lacrosse faculty members, were not evenly distributed on campus. Their number included virtually no economics or STEM professors. Even within the humanities and social science departments from which the vast majority of their number came, most focused on scholarship related to race, class, and gender—sometimes all three. 

And as the case to which they had attached their public reputations collapsed, Group members clung to their preconceived beliefs, unwilling or unable to process the new information showing that Crystal Mangum’s accusations were false.

Imagine the campus aftermath if an unscrupulous local prosecutor used racially inflammatory rhetoric and targeted black Duke students, all in an effort to rally the local white vote to put him over the top in a looming election. And what if dozens of Duke professors provided his cause aid and comfort? 

In that or virtually any other context, so many professors taking such an indefensible position—and at the expense of their own students—would have triggered policy changes. At the very least, it would have generated some hard questions, such as whether the university was doing enough to encourage intellectual diversity among its faculty, and whether its faculty hiring patterns, intentionally or unintentionally, were excluding scholars whose views challenged the majority.

At Duke, however, questions like that have never been asked. Brodhead promoted Group members to academic deans, and in 2012 named one of the Group’s most prominent members, political science professor Paula McClain, dean of Duke Graduate School and vice provost for graduate education. 

In an Orwellian commentary accompanying the announcement, Brodhead hailed McClain as an “outstanding university citizen” and praised “her concern for the well-being of individual students.”

Nor has Duke in any way reconsidered the hiring policies that yielded its groupthink-dominated faculty. The most recent document dealing with faculty hiring policies, the May 2015 report of the “Task Force on Diversity,” urged that the university double down on its preexisting hiring patterns.

Citing a supposed “widespread belief” that Duke—an institution obsessed with (certain types of) diversity for the past two decades—“does not have a clearly expressed vision of and sustained commitment to diversity and inclusion” the report arrived at its preordained conclusions. It recommended that Duke hire new bureaucrats devoted to pursuing (certain types of) diversity, and reorient its hiring policies to “significantly expand the allotment of faculty lines” devoted to “hiring women and underrepresented minorities.”

This is a continuation of the same hiring priorities that Duke has pursued since the mid-1990s. 

Asking why so many Duke professors uncritically accepted the musings of an almost comically non-credible accuser and then acted on those musings by publicly denouncing their own students would have required exploring the unintended consequences of Duke’s diversity obsession. It would have meant looking at how Duke’s policies created one-sided campus debates on key issues. 

Neither the Brodhead administration nor any meaningful segment of the Duke faculty had an interest in such an examination.

The decade since the lacrosse case, and especially the last five years, has featured increasingly apocalyptic rhetoric about a nationwide campus rape “epidemic” (to quote White House advisor Valerie Jarrett) characterized by college environments that are said to be hostile to sexual assault accusers.

Tell that to anyone who experienced the Duke lacrosse case.

 


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