[K.C. Johnson (guest-blogging), September 18, 2007 at 4:51pm] Trackbacks
The Group of 88's Effects

While the Group of 88 led a faculty rush to judgment against the lacrosse team, the most striking aspect of the Duke faculty’s reaction to the lacrosse case came in the professors’ utter closed-mindedness as Mike Nifong’s case collapsed in late 2006. For instance:

--History professor Peter Wood claimed, in an interview with the New Yorker, that a lacrosse player advocated genocide against Native Americans. His evidence: an anonymous student evaluation in a class of 65.

--Literature professor Grant Farred published an October 2006 op-ed accusing Duke students of “secret racism” for seeking to vote Nifong out of office; in April 2007, he publicly deemed unnamed lacrosse players guilty of “perjury.”

--Houston Baker, by this point having been hired away by Vanderbilt, suggested that the lacrosse players might have been guilty of other rapes (he supplied no evidence) and e-mailed one player’s mother that her son and his teammates were “farm animals.”

Such statements seemed to violate the spirit if not the letter of Duke’s Faculty Handbook, which contains the following passage: “Members of the faculty expect Duke students to meet high standards of performance and behavior. It is only appropriate, therefore, that the faculty adheres to comparably high standards in dealing with students . . . Students are fellow members of the university community, deserving of respect and consideration in their dealings with the faculty.”

Yet — as our book makes clear — the Brodhead administration had shown no willingness to enforce the Handbook’s provisions at any point in the lacrosse affair. In spring 2006, at least three History professors used class time (in classes with lacrosse players) to deliver guilt-presuming lectures, including one who offered what he termed the findings of his “research” — that an “ejaculation had occurred.” An anthropology professor dismissed her class so the students could go outside and watch an anti-lacrosse rally. And a political science professor — after sending an e-mail in which she described the two lacrosse players in her class as accomplices to rape — gave both students an F on the final paper. One sued Duke; in an out-of-court settlement, Duke publicly announced that the grade had been changed (to a “pass”) and paid an undisclosed sum.

Group members disinclined toward unsubstantiated attacks or unprofessional behavior engaged in an Orwellian attempt to redefine the past. Perhaps the best example came in a January 2007 op-ed from English professor Cathy Davidson, who rationalized the Group of 88’s statement as nothing more than saying “that we faculty were listening to the anguish of students who felt demeaned by racist and sexist remarks swirling around in the media and on the campus quad in the aftermath of what happened on March 13 in the lacrosse house. The insults, at that time, were rampant. It was as if defending David Evans, Collin Finnerty and Reade Seligmann necessitated reverting to pernicious stereotypes about African-Americans, especially poor black women.”

These claims were absurd: in late March and early April 2006 virtually no one was publicly defending the lacrosse players “on the campus quad” or anyplace else, much less using racial stereotypes to do so.

While the Group members’ positions might have been divorced from reality, they had a chilling effect on campus discourse. For nearly six months, as an extraordinarily high-profile case of prosecutorial misconduct involving their own students unfolded before their very eyes, not one member of the Duke arts and sciences faculty publicly criticized Nifong’s behavior. The first who did so, Chemistry professor Steven Baldwin, also blasted the Group of 88 for betraying their responsibilities as professors. The response? The next day, the director of Duke’s women’s studies program accused Baldwin of using the “language of lynching,” while the co-director of Duke’s Center for Study of Race, Ethnicity, and Gender sent Baldwin an e-mail implying that they should settle their differences through violence.

This sorry record did not pass without notice. In a virtually unprecedented move, defense attorneys cited the statements and actions of the students’ own professors as a major reason why these undergraduates could not receive a fair trial locally. Wade Smith, one of the lead defense attorneys, noted during Nifong’s ethics hearing that the D.A.’s publicity campaign effectively transferred this case from the start to the court of public opinion. In that courtroom, the antics of the race/class/gender-obsessed Duke professors had considerable effect. After Nifong recused himself, the defense attorneys prepared a PowerPoint presentation of the case for their initial meeting with the special prosecutors. They ended the presentation not with anything Nifong said or did but with a close-up of the Group of 88’s statement, as a prime example of the shameful aspects of the case.

Even now, with Nifong’s case having been exposed as a fraud, only one member of the Group of 88 has publicly apologized. Another privately admitted that she was sorry for signing the statement, but wrote that if she apologized publicly, “my voice won’t count for much in my world.” The Economist recently concluded: “The only people who, it seems, have learned nothing from all this are Mr. Nifong’s enablers in the Duke faculty. Even after it was clear that the athletes were innocent, 87 faculty members published a letter categorically rejecting calls to recant their condemnation. And one professor, proving that some academics are as far beyond parody as they are beneath contempt, offered a course called ‘Hooking up at Duke’ that purported to illustrate what the lacrosse scandals tell us about ‘power, difference and raced, classed, gendered and sexed normativity in the US.’”