How was departmental support for the Group of 88's letter obtained?--

I was reading through KC Johnson's blog last night and something absolutely floored me.

A reader asks:

Take a look at the mini-script at the bottom of the Group of 88 ad. It states in part: “We thank the following departments and programs for signing onto this ad with African & African American Studies: Romance Studies; Psychology; Social and Health Sciences; Franklin Humanities Institute; Critical U.S. Studies; Art, Art History, and Visual Studies; Classical Studies; Asian & African Languages & Literature; Women’s Studies; Latino/a Studies; Latin American and Caribbean Studies; Medieval and Renaissance Studies; European Studies; Program in Education; and the Center for Documentary Studies. Because of space limitations, the names of additional faculty and staff who signed on in support may be read at the AAAS website…”

Does this mean these departments and programs approved of the ad? Was it the head of each department or program that gave assent? Was a vote taken among the faculty of each of these departments or programs approving of their support? Is the list simply reflective of the departments and programs of the 88 signatories? Have this ever been addressed? Let’s say I’m a member of the Post-Raphaelite Studies Department and strongly disapproved of a certain position. If I later saw an ad supporting that position and thanking the Post-Raphaelite Studies Department for signing onto it, I would have a thing or two to say about that.

KC Johnson responds:

In response to this question, I looked into the issue, and was deeply troubled at what I discovered.

I e-mailed all the professors in the Romance Studies; Psychology: Social and Health Sciences; Art, Art History, and Visual Studies; and Asian & African Languages & Literature departments who did not sign the Group of 88’s ad, and asked when their department formally endorsed the Group of 88’s statement. Many did not respond. Those who did, however, could not recall any formal departmental mechanism through which their department approved the ad.

For those outside of the academy, it is hard to overstate the significance of this point. Departments rarely speak as corporate bodies: in my 13 years as a professor at ASU, Williams, Brooklyn, and (as a visitor) Harvard, I have never been part of a department that formally “endorsed” any public statement. At a minimum, for such an endorsement to have been made, the department would have needed to have voted, either by e-mail or in person.

When did the votes in these four departments occur? Why is there no record of the votes? . . .

This makes absolutely no sense to me. As a former associate dean at two universities, I have trouble understanding how this state of affairs could be true.

The first two possibilities are that those professors who responded to KC Johnson are simply wrong, that there were official departmental votes, but (1) that they were unaware of them or (2) that they are lying to Johnson to try to get him to embarrass himself by publishing false information. That no one confirmed their faculty's vote to join the Group of 88's letter would seem to make these possibilities less likely than other possibilities.

So now one must consider the other possibilities, in which at least some departments and programs did not have a meeting and vote on joining the Group of 88.

Could any of 15 departmental and program chairs have so abused their powers that they unilaterally committed their programs officialy to a public political position in opposition to a group of Duke students without a full departmental meeting, deliberation, and vote? My guess is that this is probably what happened in at least some departments or programs, but then I am just speculatiing. Most chairs that I've dealt with would never have done such a thing. Duke's trustees should consider policy changes to prevent future abuses of this type.

The next possibility is even more disturbing, even if less likely to be true than the others. Could it be that one or more of the approximately 15 departments or programs that supposedly endorsed the letter did not do so? Did the letter writers fabricate departmental or programmatic support that did not exist, either intentionally or out of confusion?

That is a truly frightening possibility, even if less likely to have happened than some of the others. After the Group of 88's letter was published with departments and programs at Duke presented as official signatories, the President or the administration would likely have talked to at least a few chairs to determine the circumstances of their departments' signing on. Is it possible that the President or another member of his administration had discovered that the authors of the Group of 88 were falsely claiming official Duke departmental endorsements that were fraudulent--and kept silent about it?

Leading a university is like herding cats, and faculty members can be expected to make many irresponsible statements for which the administration can't reasonably be held responsible. But claiming departmental support (if there were none) is a claim that an administration would have a moral (and perhaps a legal) obligation to correct. Publishing the Group of 88's letter certainly damaged the reputation of the Duke students accused of rape, and encouraged those who were harassing them. If a professor lied about whether departments or programs at Duke joined in the denunciation of the accused Duke students, that lie would have damaged the reputation of those students. Because of its somewhat odd posture, I don't know whether such a lie (if it occurred) is actionable (defamation not being an area of my expertise).

Could a departmental chair, dean, or university president have been so craven that he or she would not have taken steps to correct a false endorsement of a damaging political ad. Was the climate of fear so bad or the administration so weak that even this simple correction was deemed too much?

Ultimately, I don't believe that President Brodhead could have been so frightened of his own faculty as this possibility would suggest. While it seems in retrospect that Brodhead was not a good leader, I have no reason to think that he is not at least a competent and honest follower.


DUKE CHRONICLE: Now that the issue whether any of the 15 departments or programs did not endorse the letter has been raised, the Duke Chronicle, which published the ad, is (in my opinion) obliged to examine the matter. To avoid criticisms of "reckless disregard for the truth," the Chronicle should investigate and correct any significantly false information it has published in the ad.

TRUSTEES AND UNIVERSITY COUNSEL: It is not clear what the trustees' obligations in this matter are, but if I were a trustee, I would try to get the University Counsel to look into whether anyone has falsely claimed to have departmental or programmatic support for the Group of 88's letter. If I were University Counsel, I would make the inquiry on my own initiative. If Counsel were to determine that someone did make such a false claim (which, as I said, I think is less likely than other possibilities), then Counsel should be asked to give an opinion about the liability of the university, the administration, or any departmental chair for failing to correct that falsehood. If (as I hope and think did not happen) President Brodhead did know that some departments or programs had not endorsed the letter, and concealed that fact from the Duke community, I wonder how he can look his students or faculty in the eye anymore--let alone face himself in the mirror.