The Group of 88

Professors like to think of themselves as aggressive defenders of due process. In theory, the academy exists for the pursuit of truth. And faculty members are, in an ideal world, more inclined to embrace the dispassionate evaluation of evidence than the passions of the mob.

The behavior of activist members of the Duke arts and sciences faculty during the lacrosse case contradicted all of these myths about the academy. And most other professors at Duke elected to remain silent as their extremist colleagues rushed to judgment and refused to reconsider their actions.

In March 2006, less than a week after Crystal Mangum’s rape allegation became public, Houston Baker, a professor of English and African-American Studies, penned an open letter demanding the immediate expulsion from Duke of all 46 white players on the lacrosse team. (Several lacrosse players, in fact, hadn’t even attended the party.) Baker mocked the “tepid and pious legalism” that resulted in “male athletes, veritably given license to rape, maraud, deploy hate speech, and feel proud of themselves in the bargain.”

Two days after Baker’s missive, the former dean of faculty, History professor William Chafe, published an op-ed in the campus newspaper, the Chronicle. Entitled “Sex and Race,” Chafe’s op-ed suggested that the whites who kidnapped, beat, and murdered Emmett Till provided the appropriate historical context through which to interpret the behavior of the lacrosse players. In an unintentional commentary on the article’s intellectual seriousness, Chafe (a historian of civil rights) misidentified the year for Till’s murder, one of the crucial events in the development of the civil rights movement.

Then, on the 6th of April, 88 members of the arts and sciences faculty took to “the most easily seen venue on campus,” the Chronicle, to publish a full-page ad filled with guilt-presuming anonymous quotes, allegedly from Duke students. In their own voice, the professors asserted unequivocally that something “happened to this young woman” (Mangum). Following up on protests that had featured a “castrate” banner and the widespread distribution of a “wanted” poster with lacrosse players’ photos, the signatories said, “To the protesters making collective noise, thank you for not waiting and for making yourselves heard.” And the ad, paid for by the African-American Studies Program, claimed the endorsement of five academic departments—even though none of the departments had actually voted on the issue.

Months later, when asked about the propriety of the ad, statement author Wahneema Lubiano (a Literature professor and 1987 Ph.D. who has never published a scholarly monograph) unintentionally testified to the groupthink evident in many Duke departments: “In the moment when the ad came out, I did not hear from one colleague that there was something wrong with the ad.”

The signatories, who came to be called the Group of 88, were of differing races, genders, departments, seniority, and interaction with the lacrosse players. But they had one thing in common. Disproportionately housed in the humanities and a few social sciences departments, an astonishing 84.1 percent of Group members describe their research interests as related to race, class, or gender (or all three). Some featured research agendas that came across more as parodies than serious scholarship. To take some extreme examples: Kathy Rudy published a scholarly article reminiscing how, when she arrived in Durham, she and fellow radical feminists oriented their activities around “the ideas that women were superior and that a new world could be built on that superiority.” Grant Farred’s most recent book looked at the controversy over ex-Rockets’ coach Jeff Van Gundy’s claim a few years back that officials were making too many calls against the team’s star center to wildly assert that Rockets player Yao Ming “represents the spectral presence of Chinese capital within America. He is, precisely because of his complicated ideological heritage, the most profound threat to American empire.”

For those whose intellectual approach presupposes an American society deeply oppressive on grounds of race, class, and gender, the lacrosse episode was too tempting not to exploit. As Group member Mark Anthony Neal explained two days after Nifong obtained his first indictments, the allegations proved that Duke needed to rework its curriculum in “an innovative and brave” fashion, so as to teach students to behave “in a progressive manner.”

The most striking aspect of the faculty’s reaction, however, came not in the rush to judgment but in the professors’ utter closed-mindedness as Mike Nifong’s case collapsed in late 2006. A post later today will discuss the issue.