February 23, 2016

K.C. JOHNSON: Ten Years Later, the Duke Lacrosse Case Still Reverberates.

Next month will be the tenth anniversary of the spring break party that triggered the Duke lacrosse case. That incident probably remains the highest-profile false rape claim in recent U.S. history—rivaled only by the claim against University of Virginia fraternity members leveled, and then retracted, by Rolling Stone.

That both of these false accusations occurred on a campus should come as no surprise. A general disinterest in due process for accused students combined with a one-sided intellectual atmosphere on questions related to gender make universities poorly suited to evaluate sexual assault allegations. The lacrosse case, moreover, added race and class to the mix.

From the standpoint of a faculty dominated by the race/class/gender trinity, the purported facts proved too tempting to resist: wealthy, white males accused of brutally attacking a poor, African-American female. And so dozens of Duke professors abandoned the academy’s traditional fealty to due process to embrace the version of events offered by Durham’s unethical (and subsequently disbarred) district attorney, Mike Nifong.

In their most prominent action, eighty-eight Duke faculty members signed a public statement affirming that something “happened” to Crystal Mangum. They actually boasted of their closed-mindedness by promising to continue their crusade regardless of “what the police say or the court decides.”

And after high-profile protests that had urged the castration of the lacrosse captains and blanketed the campus with “wanted” posters containing 43 of the lacrosse players’ photos, the Duke faculty members had a message for the protesters: “Thank you for not waiting and for making yourselves heard.”

Why was it so important for the protesters not to have waited until the facts were known? Not a single member of the Group of 88 has ever explained.

But perhaps the most chilling line in the Group of 88 statement was also its most banal—a notice at the bottom of the page, listing the 15 Duke academic departments and programs that chose to “sign onto this ad.” That such a wide swath of the Duke academic community officially affiliated with an inflammatory statement sent a powerful message in spring 2006.

It turned out that, with the exception of the African-American Studies Program, none of the academic departments had formally taken a vote to endorse affiliating with the statement. Yet this breach of standard academic protocol appears to have had no consequences at Duke.

An unwillingness to engage in any critical self-reflection is the foremost legacy of how the academy responded to the lacrosse case, at Duke and beyond.

Duke spent tens of millions of dollars in settlement costs and legal fees for the lawsuits filed by the lacrosse players. (Some of that money unsuccessfully attempted to force me to reveal confidential e-mail exchanges with my sources.) It’s easy to see why Duke was so eager to settle the lawsuits before all discovery material became public. Early filings in the case attached a handful of administrators’ e-mails, including an April 2006 missive from president Richard Brodhead, musing that the movie Primal Fear might be an appropriate lens through which to view the case.

In that film, a character played by Ed Norton convinces his lawyers he was wrongfully accused, only to accidentally confess his guilt in the closing scene. One can only imagine what the full archive of Brodhead’s 2006 e-mails would have revealed.

Since the ending of the lacrosse case, Duke’s trustees have conferred on Brodhead two new five-year terms as president.

Well, if you’re wondering where the “burn it all to the ground” sentiments in American politics come from, stuff like this is one source. The pervasive rot in America’s political and intellectual ruling classes is evident, it’s easy to see why some people may conclude that it’s irreversible by ordinary means. I don’t feel that way yet, but the wake-up call has been sounded, and the ruling class has hit the snooze button repeatedly. Eventually, they’re going to have to take that pillow off their head.

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