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A news story the other day gave me pause. Duke University, reported the Durham Herald-Sun, has launched a fundraising campaign from which it plans to raise three and a quarter billion dollars. The campaign, which “already has taken in about $1.325 billion during its planning, or silent, phase over the last two years” and will run until June 2017, is meant to “benefit each of the university’s 10 schools and…other university programs” and to pay for “major upgrades to…athletics facilities.” Rick Wagoner, chair of Duke’s Board of Trustees, told a meeting of donors: “We asked the question: What kind of future do we envision for Duke? What resources do we need to achieve that future?” And Duke President Richard Brodhead boasted that the university seeks to “define a new model of education….You know the thing about Duke is that it has only begun to be what it can be.”
Brodhead, let it be remembered, is the same fellow who was president of Duke back in 2006, when a black stripper accused white Duke lacrosse players of rape. Though the stripper’s story was dubious from the start, several dozen humanities professors, including 80% of the faculty of the African and African American Studies Program (AAAS), joined in a campaign to paint her as a victim and the athletes as racist brutes. Brodhead’s response? He sided with the mob – smearing the athletes, forcing their coach to resign, and piously pontificating about the evils of racism. Thanks to his cowardice, to the faculty’s ideology-driven rush to judgment, and to an unscrupulous prosecutor who was clearly out to railroad innocent young men, the players’ lives were almost destroyed. Their exoneration made national headlines.
Brodhead and many others at Duke could’ve learned from that disgraceful experience. They chose not to. Brodhead, who had repeatedly “cast…aspersions on the lacrosse players’ characters” (as KC Johnson and Stuart Taylor, Jr., put it in their book on the case), reacted to their exoneration by rewarding the professors who’d tried to destroy them, recommending full departmental status for the AAAS. As former Duke basketball star Jay Bilas summed it up at the time, “From the beginning, President Brodhead abdicated his responsibility as Duke’s leader to stand up for fairness and truth. Instead, President Brodhead chose the path of political expediency. He failed to effectively counter factually inaccurate and inappropriate statements about Duke and its students, failed to forcefully speak out against procedural irregularities, and failed to take appropriate action in response to repeated attacks upon the due process rights of Duke’s students….Brodhead’s mishandling of the challenges presented has proven him incapable of effectively leading Duke into the future.”
I mention this episode at length not because I mean to single out Duke and Brodhead, but – on the contrary – because it is beyond doubt that many other college presidents, if confronted with the same situation, would likely have conducted themselves exactly as Brodhead did. His shameful abandonment of those lacrosse players, and his readiness to echo the damning rhetoric of their critics, reflected a mentality that’s deeply rooted in all too many American universities. In today’s Orwellian academy, there’s no longer any such thing as blind justice – certainly not colorblind justice. Morality comes down to questions not of right and wrong but of race, sex, and class. To put it a slightly different way, evil comes in three forms: racism, sexism, and classism. Hence the innocent can be guilty, the guilty innocent. Of the several dozen Duke profs who coldbloodedly convicted the lacrosse players without a trial, few if any expressed remorse afterwards. Even though those athletes turned out to have done nothing wrong, their detractors on the faculty felt morally pure because, in the larger battle against racism, sexism, and classism, they’d been in the right.
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