This story is part of our coverage of the 10th anniversary of the lacrosse case. Our other coverage can be found here.
Ten years later, President Richard Brodhead says he has come to terms with the lacrosse case that rocked Duke’s campus.
“I am certainly at ease in my conscience with the role that I played,” he said.
Brodhead said he does not spend much time thinking about the incident that cast a shadow over Duke, but the episode—and the role he played during it—have had a significant impact on his legacy as president of the University. As the case was winding down, Brodhead apologized for his unwillingness to defend the lacrosse players earlier in the process.
“The fact is that we did not get it right, causing the families to feel abandoned when they most needed support,” he wrote in a 2007 statement. “This was a mistake. I take responsibility for it, and I apologize."
Confusion and realization
Looking back and examining his role in the case, however, Brodhead said there is little he could have done differently.
When discussing the yearlong saga, Brodhead described himself as someone who was swept up in an unpredictable and fundamentally unwinnable situation. From the start of the case, he said, the confusion surrounding what actually happened meant that it was hard to foresee how serious the allegations were and how uncontrollable their fallout would become.
Brodhead said the first memory he has of the incident is hearing from the office of Larry Moneta, vice president for student affairs, after asking Moneta about reports that something had happened at a party in a house off East Campus. He was given the impression that any fallout from the party at 610 N. Buchanan Blvd. would blow over quickly, he said.
“What I was told was their office had heard about this and made some inquiries, and what they had heard was that there was a lot of doubt about the story that the woman was telling,” he explained. “It was their impression that this would blow over.”
Brodhead, who arrived at Duke in Summer 2004, said that he remembered that report because the doubts that surfaced early on would turn out to be prescient.
“A year and a half later, people understood what grounds there were to doubt this, but there was a year and a half of hot and heavy activity between the first sighting and the last sighting [of the case],” he said.
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The incident quickly gained attention, but Brodhead said that doubts about what exactly had happened at the party remained for weeks. It was not until the Duke lacrosse players were questioned by the police that Brodhead said he realized how serious the situation was.
Brodhead added that the full intensity of the case still surprised him weeks later in April, when he was sitting at a restaurant in New York City.
“I saw a story about Mike Nifong, the DA of Durham, North Carolina, on a [news] crawl out the window of a New York restaurant,” he said. “That’s what the story turned out to be.”
Lacrosse and Durham: ‘A story from hell’
Brodhead described the lacrosse scandal as an explosive mixture of classic college-town community tensions and an unscrupulous district attorney that would have rankled any university unfortunate enough to be involved.
“When you look at the event magnified by the false accusation and then raised to the nth power by the DA’s assertions, you had a story from hell,” he said. “You had a story designed to inflame every passion in this city, and believe me, it would not only have been in this city that it would have happened.”
But despite the unique and perhaps indelible impact that the episode had on Duke, Brodhead discussed the scandal and the circumstances leading to it as simply a special case of problems that affect colleges and the communities around them nationwide.
“I’ve spent my whole life at universities. Every university is in a college town,” he said. “It’s going to be pretty hard to find a town that doesn’t have racial or class dimensions to it.”
But Brodhead acknowledged that Duke’s relationship with Durham was different than the relationship that most colleges have with their college towns. He noted that Duke is physically separated from Durham rather than right in the middle of it and that the University has a long history of dissociating itself from its surroundings.
“Duke used to be regarded as very aloof and remote,” he noted. “The perception is that these are people from somewhere else with lots of money who aren’t part of the community. And then of course if you add elements of race, when you had members of a sports team who could be caricatured as if they were nothing but white privilege…you were going to have a big explosion.”
After 10 years, however, the relationship between Duke and Durham has changed, Brodhead noted. In particular, he pointed to the fact that Duke is now one of the largest employers and healthcare providers in the city, which means that a lot more Durham residents directly interact with Duke on a daily basis.
Even today, however, Durham residents have their issues with the University. Annie Thornhill, former president of the Burch Avenue Neighborhood Association, noted that loud parties and disorderly conduct still mar interactions between Duke and Durham.
“When people don’t act like neighbors, it’s hard to want to welcome them into your neighborhood,” she said. “We’ve lived here 10 years, and we’ll have people come in across the street who act like this is just a temporary place to hang out.”
In 2014, community members formed the Durham Neighborhoods United group due to frustration over fraternity parties in residential neighborhoods.
Despite the lingering tensions, Brodhead argued that if something similar to the lacrosse case were to happen today, Durham residents might not jump to the same conclusions about Duke that they did 10 years ago.
He suggested that the role Duke has played in revitalizing Durham and its efforts to better connect with local leaders might make Durham residents more likely to give the University the benefit of the doubt.
“The social fabric knitting Duke and Durham is much, much closer and more intricately connected than it ever was before,” he said. “More people in Durham know Duke as a good partner and a good neighbor now than was the case 10 years ago.”
Brodhead said that the University has learned its lessons from the incident and the criticisms of Duke’s administration that followed it, noting that changes have been made to address the issues that surfaced during the scandal.
In particular, Brodhead discussed the University’s response to a series of reports that were commissioned during and after the scandal to examine the University from top to bottom. He cautioned that because the reports were initiated at a time when many believed the accusations against the Duke lacrosse players had merit, the conclusions of the reports had to be considered cautiously.
“The difficulty with the reports is that they were attached to the case at the time,” he explained. “It was as if to uphold the report was to uphold the truth of the accusations. Of course, that’s what you had to be careful not to do.”
One report on the administrative response to the lacrosse case—from a committee chaired by Julius Chambers, former chancellor of North Carolina Central University, and William Bowen, former president of Princeton University—faulted among other things, the lack of diversity in the upper administration, the administration’s slowness to understand the racial aspects of the case and administrative communications failures.
Brodhead argued that the diversity of the upper administration has since improved, pointing to the additions of black administrators Dr. A. Eugene Washington, chancellor for health affairs and president and CEO of Duke University Health System, and Phail Wynn, vice president for Durham and regional affairs.
Of the top seven administrative positions described in the report as the “senior leadership of Duke,” five are held by white men today—the same number as when the lacrosse scandal occurred.
Several administrators noted that leaders at Duke have become less willing to discuss controversial issues affecting the University.
“I don’t think I’m in a great position to say whether [Brodhead] was gun-shy or not [after lacrosse], but I believe the institution is,” said Sue Wasiolek, associate vice president for student affairs and dean of students, in a 2015 interview with The Chronicle. “I know that I am. I know that I have a higher level of fear associated with just making decisions, and I have a much greater tendency to collaborate, to check in, to consult.… That’s how I would describe just the institution as a whole as a result of the lacrosse case.”
John Burness, who was the University’s senior vice president for public affairs and government relations during the case, echoed the sentiment.
“We’re not as open as we were before,” Burness explained. “I think we’ve become less willing to deal with controversy.”
Brodhead noted that although he has heard such claims, he does not feel personally less open or less willing to speak on University issues as a result of the episode.
“I have heard it reported that [Burness] has said that. He’s never said that to my face. It’s his view, not mine,” Brodhead said. “I speak out on every issue that I consider appropriate for a University president to speak out on. There’s many issues where I don’t think it’s that appropriate, and there’s many that are.”
Changing the undergraduate experience
The University also commissioned a report—from a committee chaired by Moneta and Robert Thompson, former vice provost for undergraduate education and dean of the Trinity College of Arts and Sciences—that examined the undergraduate campus culture and suggested ways to improve it. Brodhead said that, in response to these reports, changes have been made to the undergraduate experience to reduce divides between groups of students.
“If someone were to say, ‘What’s different now as a result of lacrosse,’ I would say that we have all worked very hard to create a seamless integration of the different aspects of the student experience and their administration,” he said.
Brodhead noted that the “athletic-academic divide” at Duke, something which he said used to be prominent in discussions of the University’s culture, has been greatly reduced. He also noted that the housing model has been revamped to guarantee a right of return for independent students and to include more communal spaces in which students can interact.
He added that administrators also did not implement an initial recommendation made by the campus culture committee to disband all selective housing groups.
“The report comes to the edge of recommending the dissolution of residential rights for Greek life. Of course, it would have also dissolved the rights of Brownstone, Round Table and all kinds of other things that people didn’t have complaints about,” he explained. “I still think that the answer that was recommended by the report in late April of that year was a draconian recommendation that would have been quite destructive of the social fabric of the University.”
Brodhead acknowledged that there are still problems with campus culture. He noted that people who have not been at Duke for the past 10 years may think that the lacrosse scandal did not change much about undergraduate life, but said that if students had been on campus 10 years ago, they would see the improvement today.
“A person who stepped from that moment to this moment would see a lot of change here,” he said. “I’m not saying that there isn’t more change to be made.”
A lasting legacy?
Brodhead noted that if nothing else, the lacrosse case was an “immense distraction” from his presidency, but that he does not spend much time thinking about it.
“I live in the present tense headed toward the future tense,” he explained. “I don’t spend my time looking back on this.”
He emphasized that after the scandal died down, he focused on moving forward rather than second guessing.
“It was important for the community to move forward at some point, to let go of that and to go on with the business of the University,” he said. “It’s not that it ever vanishes, but I would hope that it becomes seen in a perspective with many other things."
When asked whether the episode has impeded him in any way, Brodhead replied that it had not. He pointed to the success of the University’s financial aid fundraising campaign, which was underway during the case, as evidence that lacrosse did not interrupt the University’s major initiatives.
“This was distracting. It took a lot of emotional energy for a lot of people, certainly including the accused students,” he said. “But we always had ideas about what we wanted to be spending our time on, and we always did our best to spend time on that. And the time came when we were past the distraction.”
Burness said, however, that lacrosse has changed the trajectory of Brodhead's time at Duke.
“[Brodhead]’s had the unfortunate circumstance that this for him is kind of the defining moment of his presidency,” Burness said. “[Lacrosse] undercut his ability to carve out his own identity, in a way, and to establish in an academic sense where he was trying to take the University.”
Brodhead acknowledged that others might see him differently as a result of his decisions during the case, but dismissed the idea that it has significantly altered or dampened his achievements as president.
“When you take a job like mine, you know that every high level thing, for good and for bad, is your responsibility,” he said. “[Lacrosse] was a big episode. It was certainly part of my presidency. It was my job to try to steer this place through that. And I’m pleased to say that later it has been my job to do a lot of other things that were defined in terms of positive aspiration rather than crisis management.”
Sarah Kerman contributed reporting