Legacies of the Duke Lacrosse Case · 11 December 2007

With this post, the blog goes on hiatus; if and when Durham ever responds to the civil suit filing, I’ll run a postscript. I’ll also assemble a glossary of posts within the next week.

This concluding post discusses the legacies of the case. The lacrosse case functioned as a kind of funhouse mirror: its events magnified patterns evident, but less clearly visible, elsewhere.

Criminal Justice

1.) Procedure matters. Despite the best efforts of the state NAACP, and journalists such as Bob Ashley and Andrew Cohen—who each downplayed or dismissed the significance of Mike Nifong’s procedural violations—it seems to me this lesson is the case’s most clear-cut.

It is inconceivable at any point in the near future that a prosecutor in a case attracting even a small amount of media attention could routinely flout procedural norms without triggering hard questions as to his or her motives. And Nifong’s fate doubtless has caused other prosecutors to be more rigorous in following procedures in their own work. In this respect, Nifong’s long-term contribution to the U.S. criminal justice system might be a positive one.

2.) Experts can have agendas, too. The advent of groups like the Innocence Project or TV programs like CSI have created great public respect for scientific evidence—as opposed to the potentially unreliable elements of human memory. For the most part, this development is a positive one.

Yet experts can shade the truth as well—as Dr. Brian Meehan and SANE nurse-in-training Tara Levicy so blatantly revealed. Both were, ostensibly, “unbiased” experts. Meehan would testify about highly technical DNA test results. Levicy would provide the findings of a nurse “specially trained” in sexual assault cases.

Instead, both exhibited biases of the worst sort. Levicy, who never encountered a woman who lied about rape, repeatedly changed her story about what Crystal Mangum told her on March 14, 2006; and what Mangum’s exam indicated. Each time, the shift bolstered authorities’ theory of the case. Meehan produced an incomplete report that violated both his own lab’s protocols and North Carolina law, allowing Nifong to keep exculpatory evidence concealed. That Meehan is now out of a job and Levicy is no longer working in North Carolina is small consolation given their dubious conduct.

The Academy

3.) Existence Proof. Anyone following higher education over the past decade would recognize vignettes about the pernicious effects of academic groupthink. The University of Colorado, where research fraud Ward Churchill became a full professor and department chair through touting his “Native American” heritage and publishing extremist essays. Columbia, where Joseph Massad told one of his classes that Israeli agents were responsible for the murder of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics—and where more than 100 professors, including the former provost, publicly attacked Massad’s critics. Most recently, the University of Delaware, which had enacted a required residence hall program proclaiming that non-whites couldn’t be racist and mandating “treatment” for those whose beliefs challenged the preferred approach.

Are these episodes, as defenders of the academic status quo suggest, out-of-the-ordinary developments? The Duke case involved dozens of professors, revealing tenured faculty with “perpetually forthcoming” books or almost comical race/class/gender-oriented research agendas. The Group of 88 and their crusade attracted equally ill-reasoned support from other quarters of the academy—whether the fifteen African-American Studies professors who defended Houston Baker’s racist April 2006 letter or the April 2007 ruminations of Wesleyan’s Claire Potter on how “the dancers were, it is clear, physically if perhaps not sexually assaulted.” And prominent elite universities (Vanderbilt, Cornell, University of Chicago) hired some of the Group’s key members—with tenure (and, in the case of Cornell) a promotion.

The affair is, to borrow a term from mathematicians, an existence proof. Given the documented, public record at one of the nation’s leading universities, it will be more difficult to claim that future abuses at other institutions that attract public attention are isolated examples to be ignored.

4.) Goodbye, Mr. Chips. Mr. Chips is an outdated caricature, but I suspect most parents nonetheless send their children to college expecting that professors will treat their sons or daughters fairly and with dignity.

The lacrosse case, however, featured dozens of professors who were only too willing to advance their personal, pedagogical, or ideological agendas on the backs of their own students. And they continued to do so long after the case to which they had attached their crusade had imploded. For me, the event’s single most haunting quote came from History professor Susan Thorne, one of the Group of 88’s most moderate members. Thorne e-mailed one of her students—who had once looked upon her as a mentor—to say that she not only had abandoned her plans to apologize for signing the Group statement but that had decided to publicly announce that she would not apologize. Otherwise, she declared, “my voice won’t count for much in my world.”

The sad thing: Thorne might have been coldhearted, but she correctly analyzed the effects of an individual professor challenging academic groupthink. David Horowitz and other conservative critics of the academy have accused faculty members of bringing their politics into the classroom. But the Duke case suggested that the real problem in academia has nothing to do with professors’ politics. Instead, the concern is the one-sided, extremist pedagogy that too often dominates humanities and (some) social science departments—a pedagogy whose extremism entered public view after March 2006, when its adherents applied its tenets to a case that the public could easily understand.

The Media

5.) Avoid generalities in interpreting the media’s performance. Blogs received much attention throughout this case. Yet media coverage was not a one-size-fits-all story. The case generated some prize-winning or nominated performances from the traditional media: locally, the Chronicle (start to finish the best combination of reporting, news analysis, op-ed pieces, and editorials, culminating in yesterday’s on-the-money column by Kristin Butler); the N&O (breaking story after story about Nifong’s abuses); Aaron Beard at the AP (a remarkable performance for someone who began the case without key local sources); and nationally, ABC’s Law & Justice Unit, CBS’s 60 Minutes, columnists such as Jason Whitlock and Stuart Taylor.

On the other hand, the weak media performances were stunningly bad: the slanted, error-filled Duff Wilson magnum opus and his consistently poor work both before and after; the see-no-evil/hear-no-evil approach of the Herald-Sun’s Bob Ashley; the arrogant moral pronouncements from the Times’ Selena Roberts and Harvey Araton; the milquetoast critiques of “public editor” Bryon Calame; the angry, embarrassing commentary of figures such as John Feinstein.

It is difficult to offer an explanation other than the obvious for the records of figures such as Wilson, Feinstein, or Ashley—namely, that this was a story that some in the intelligentsia so much wanted to be true that they blinded themselves to reality.

Academic Administrators

6.) Appease race/class/gender extremists. I suspect that most academic administrators will view the Duke case as a bookend, paired with Larry Summers’ dismissal at Harvard. Summers confronted the “diversity” extremists in his midst—demanding that high-profile African-American Studies professors produce the same level of scholarship as everyone else; terming the Israel divestment effort “anti-Semitic in effect if not intent”; asking (in highly impolitic terms) whether something other than discrimination could possibly explain the gender differentials in science faculty. For such offenses, the Harvard arts and sciences faculty cast a vote of no confidence in him, and he was eventually forced out of his position. The moral: administrators who fail to pay sufficient tribute to the race/class/gender trinity risk their careers.

At Duke, on the other land, Richard Brodhead bent over backwards to accommodate the extremists in his midst—even when they (a) abused their in-class authority as professors; (b) produced a guilt-presuming statement falsely suggesting formal endorsement from five academic departments; and © appeared to violate the Faculty Handbook in their statements and actions about Duke students. Only Brodhead knows whether he did so because he (to borrow Steve Baldwin’s phrase) feared “the wrath of the righteous,” or because he genuinely believed in a one-sided approach to the case. Either way, Brodhead not only survived but received rave reviews from the Trustees’ review committee. The moral: administrators who appease even the worst of the race/class/gender extremists will not risk their employment status by doing so.

The reality, of course, in both cases was more complicated: Summers’ pricklish personality alienated many professors; Brodhead’s obvious intelligence, heartfelt (if belated) apology, and strong support from BOT chairman Bob Steel worked in his favor. Nonetheless, college presidents are like all other ambitious people: they don’t enter their jobs to be fired. Savvy administrators will learn the general lessons from the Harvard and Duke affairs. And so anyone who expects administrators to help promote a less rigid and one-sided U.S. academy will be sorely disappointed.


Perhaps, in time, other legacies of the case will emerge. For now, my thanks to everyone who took the time to read the blog.