A former Chronicle Editor tells us why the lacrosse case should have been #1

I’ve had a few experiences in the few months since graduating that have made me feel pretty old. One was seeing wasted frosh gathering to go to Tailgate and being appalled. The second was this week, when I saw that Chronicle editors deemed the financial crisis the biggest story of the decade, over even the Duke lacrosse case.

My reaction: Man, these kids are young. And also: Do we forget so soon?

Clearly, the case will not be even a major footnote in the history of America, race relations, or academic reform (of prosecutorial misconduct, perhaps). But it will go down as a huge event in University history—think Bassett Affair—and it’s hard to imagine an event that shaped the decade at Duke more forcefully than the lacrosse case.

First, for people. It seems fair to assume that everyone in the classes of 2006 through 2010 or so had a college experience uniquely informed by the case. I think of the case as the bookends for my undergraduate life—from the party and first allegations, in the spring of my freshman year, through the quick disintegration of then-district attorney Mike Nifong’s case, then the lengthy and painful denouement, dropping of charges, disbarment, and then the end of most major action during my senior year. But anyone at Duke during that bizarre and awful spring remembers the swarm of reporters and cable trucks that invaded the Chapel circle and made going to class or Alpine an ordeal. I imagine this is just too surreal to describe to anyone who wasn’t there. We all dealt with that onslaught, the national media attention, the anxious or mocking calls from family and friends. Some of us had to reconcile the picture of friends we knew with the lies that were being disseminated about classmates.

As the case progressed, Duke students became aggressively involved in the community, launching a campaign—unsuccessful—to defeat Nifong at the polls. (One of the most moving moments of my Duke career was watching lacrosse players picket for hours in cold and constant November rain outside of a local polling station to try to sway last-minute voters.) We watched jubilantly as Attorney General Roy Cooper dropped the charges, and as Nifong was disbarred. It must have been so strange, in a different way, for admitted students deciding on a school that spring. What could convince them to come to a school under the cloud Duke was, I can’t imagine, but they deserve some special recognition.

The important part is that for most Duke students—especially this crop, which got a rather raw deal, being the one that saw Duke’s U.S. News ranking decline rather than rise, and the first not to see a National Championship for years--lacrosse was a defining moment, if not the defining moment.

And so it was for Duke, too, which brings me to my second point. No, all of the Group of 88 aren’t gone (nor should they be; the only thing more tiresome than reading the invective that says a professor who made a mistake is not a leading scholar in her or his field, is reading comments on the Chronicle site about how Duke should stop teaching the humanities altogether. Yawn.). But the case luckily rid the University of Houston Baker, for example. It helped to reform a rather decadent culture. It didn’t go nearly far enough in repairing the rift between Duke and Durham, nor in dealing with the socioeconomic and racial issues both within and outside the campus walls that were uncovered. Still, it forced a far more introspective stance on administrators, faculty and students alike. The Brodhead administration, No. 4 on this list, will always be associated with lacrosse, and Duke will, for better or for worse, be dealing with the implications of the case on its reputation—whatever they may be—for years to come.

I think the editors did a nice job with this list, with a couple caveats. It’s hard to figure how—even for the News department—the 2001 National Championship and dearth since then wasn’t top 10, given the centrality of basketball at Duke. It’s harder to figure out how the world financial crisis ends up as a bigger story for the University. For one thing, the most common start date for the meltdown—September 15, 2008—was only a few months from the end of the decade. For another, although one can’t say enough about the trouble faced by folks being laid off by Duke, it’s never really been many Duke students’ style to care about the people who clean their dorms and serve their food. For most Duke students, faculty and administrators, the crisis will only make a rich university a little less rich. And some of the projects being pushed back now—think Central Campus—might have been farther along if not for the three-ring circus of distraction the scandal provided. And finally, even if I’m wrong, these effects will truly be the story of the decade to come, not the one that just ended.

The lacrosse case is a staple of decade-end blogs elsewhere, and it should have been at the top of The Chronicle’s list too.

David Graham, Trinity ’09, was editor of The Chronicle’s 103rd volume. His writing has appeared in Newsweek, The Wall Street Journal and The National. He can’t believe he let himself be sucked into writing this.


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