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Misreading ‘a social disaster’: Group of 88 members look back

<p>Former Duke lecturer Christine Beaule said that the ad was not meant as a response to the allegations against the lacrosse players.</p>

Former Duke lecturer Christine Beaule said that the ad was not meant as a response to the allegations against the lacrosse players.

This story is part of our coverage of the 10th anniversary of the lacrosse case. Our other coverage can be found here.

“What does a social disaster sound like?”

That was the provocative question raised by an advertisement published in The Chronicle April 6, 2006. The ad came three weeks after a lacrosse party where three players—David Evans, Collin Finnerty and Reade Seligmann—were falsely accused of raping stripper Crystal Mangum. It was published and signed by 88 faculty members and featured quotes, all anonymous, from Duke students expressing concern with issues involving sexual assault and race on campus.

The Chronicle spoke to four of the original signatories of the ad—which many have argued prematurely rushed to judgment and unfairly vilified the three players. Ten years after it was published, the four signatories interviewed said that the ad was solely meant to promote a discussion on Duke culture and to reflect on issues of sexual assault and race for students who did not feel comfortable on Duke’s campus.

“It wasn’t about the kids at all,” said Christine Beaule, former Mellon lecturing fellow in the Thompson Writing Program, current assistant professor at the University of Hawaii and one of the original signatories.

Criticism came from multiple sources, both within and outside of Duke. Stephen Baldwin, professor of chemistry, published a column in The Chronicle on Oct. 23, 2006 asserting that the faculty who had “savaged the character” of the lacrosse players should be “tarred and feathered, ridden out of town on a rail and removed from the academy.” In an article in The New York Post, John Podhoretz accused the faculty of “declaring that those students did not deserve the presumption of innocence.”

After the names and email addresses of the faculty who signed the petition were posted online, a number of signatories reported receiving hate mail, including death threats, from people across the country. Ten years later, the faculty interviewed by The Chronicle claimed the ad was misinterpreted and that no one anticipated the backlash.

“I’d have to have been a psychic to see it coming,” said one former Duke faculty member who signed the ad and asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation.

Of the original Group of 88, approximately 50 signatories are still affiliated with the University, according to the Duke directory.

A ‘launching pad’

The anonymous signatory said the ad’s original intent was to provide support for students who felt alienated at Duke and reassurance that their voices were being heard.

“As their faculty, we wanted them to know that we care about these students,” the anonymous signatory said.

Beaule said that, soon after the news of the lacrosse party broke, she overheard racial slurs and phrases like the “n-word” and “go back to Africa” on the bus and directed at black faculty. She said on one occasion she overheard students saying, “They would have made sure to beat her [Mangum] up a little so that she wouldn’t talk.” When asked to sign the ad, it was presented to her as a vehicle to address the “horrible racism on campus in that moment,” Beaule said.

A Jan. 16, 2007 open letter penned by 87 faculty members, many of whom were part of the original “Group of 88,” defended the advertisement.

“The ad has been read as a comment on the alleged rape, the team party or the specific students accused,” the letter stated. “Worse, it has been read as rendering a judgment in the case. We understand the ad instead as a call to action on important, longstanding issues on and around our campus, an attempt to channel the attention generated by the incident to addressing these. We reject all attempts to try the case outside the courts, and stand firmly behind the principle of the presumption of innocence.”

Alexander Rosenberg, R. Taylor Cole professor of philosophy and one of the original signatories of both the ad and the open letter, accused the media of consciously perverting the ad to attack faculty who were concerned about campus culture. He added that an apology was out of the question, because the ad was not meant to presume the lacrosse players guilty.

Although not intending to pass judgment on the lacrosse players, the timing of the ad so close to the incident was not a coincidence, said William Chafe, Alice Mary Baldwin professor emeritus of history and a signatory.

Chafe said that he thought the ad was an opportunity to use the incident as a “departure point” to commence a series of discussions on sexual assault on campuses nationwide, adding that directing focus to the lacrosse players was not his goal.

“Do we hem and haw over details of what did or did not happen?” Chafe wrote in an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education published on May 3, 2006. “Or do we see this as a rare opportunity to address the strains within our campus and city? ”

He also wrote that it was understood that the criminal justice system would have to decide whether a sexual assault took place in this particular instance. The ad similarly noted that issues of campus culture exist “regardless of the results of the police investigation” and “won’t end with what the police say or the court decides.”

Despite the signatories’ stated intentions, some faculty critical of the advertisement claimed that attempts to address broader issues of racism and campus culture were invariably bound to reflect negatively on the lacrosse players.

Economics professor E. Roy Weintraub, along with other economics faculty, wrote a letter to The Chronicle on Jan. 10, 2007 welcoming the accused students back into the community. The letter was in response to the perception that “Duke faculty is now seen as prejudiced against certain of its own students.”

Weintraub told The Chronicle that the 88 faculty were “injecting themselves into something they didn’t know anything about.”

“No matter what the ad producers were trying to say, it could not be intended as anything other than support for the putative victim [of the alleged rape],” he said.

Weintraub also added that statements made outside of the ad, by some of the same faculty signatories, similarly rushed to vilify the players.

Houston Baker, then-George D. and Susan Fox Beischer professor of English, wrote in a March 29, 2006 open letter to the administration that Duke male athletes had been “given license to rape, maraud, deploy hate speech and feel proud of themselves in the bargain.”

Former Provost Peter Lange responded to Baker April 3, 2006, writing that he was “disappointed, saddened and appalled” to receive the letter. He wrote that it the “rushed to judgment.”

Baldwin, who criticized the Group of 88, agreed with Weintraub, noting that the ad would not have been placed had it not been for the lacrosse case. He added that, although conversations about sexual assault and race on campus are important, they should have occurred afterward when tensions were not as high.

“The timing made it seem like an indictment,” he said. “The last thing they wanted was a discussion. They were incensed. They just didn’t behave well. They could have backed off, let the facts come out, and then we can have this conversation.”

He added that concerned faculty members could have gone to Student Affairs and asked to create a forum or to invite speakers, rather than taking out a public ad.

But the anonymous signatory said their personal intentions for signing were to address an “emergency situation” for students, not to use the lacrosse case as a “launching pad.” The signatory noted that, after the initial accusations by Mangum, many students “felt in danger,” “wished they hadn’t come to Duke” and needed reassurance from faculty.

“I don’t think this was opportunistic, as in, ‘Let’s just jump on the bandwagon of this big spectacle,’” the anonymous signatory said. “That never crossed my mind.”

According to the ad, students’ statements were intended to depict their emotions concerning broader experiences—which they saw reflected in the “extraordinary spotlight” of the lacrosse case. The anonymous signatory noted that, though the ad itself was not meant to judge the lacrosse players, certain student statements referencing the case might have led to the ad’s misinterpretation.

“No one is really talking about how to keep the young woman [Mangum] herself central to this conversation, how to keep her humanity before us,” one anonymous student wrote in the ad.

‘Everybody shuts up about it’

The faculty members who spoke to The Chronicle agreed that the discussions the ad intended to create are ongoing. Many are not convinced Duke has fixed the issues the ad sought to address.

The anonymous signatory described a “big man on campus” ethos embedded within the privilege and “hegemonic” power of being on a sports team, and said the University needed to do a better job of reeling in students’ “baser instincts.” The faculty member noted that many incoming students assume that sexual assault is unlikely on campus because “smart students don’t rape,” but that gender relations on campus remain unbalanced.

Rosenberg described Duke’s student body as “bimodal”—split between extremely committed undergraduates and those who did not come to Duke primarily for its educational mission. He also called into question the role and impact of Greek life and Division I athletics on campus.

Even though Duke has seen an increase in class diversity in recent years, Chafe noted that issues of hate speech and derogatory remarks have not left Duke’s campus, citing the recent defacement of a Black Lives Matter poster as an example.

“Campus culture has improved, but not in a decisive or determinative manner,” Chafe said.

Beaule compared Duke culture to culture at the University of Hawaii, where she now works. Compared to Duke, she said UH has more respect for minorities, less sense of entitlement and that racist statements are not used as loosely as she sometimes found at Duke.

Rosenberg added that Duke has taken steps to correct its perceived image, citing programs like DukeEngage. However, he said that a negative perception of the type of students who go to Duke still persists.

The University has also failed to promote a thorough discussion on how campuses should conduct themselves when such controversies erupt, Baldwin said. He noted that, due to University settlements following the lacrosse case, Duke lost out on potential new faculty, new buildings and greater financial aid.

“No one has learned any lessons from the ordeal because the University has never had this conversation,” he said. “The education we could get on how to handle this type of crisis is amazing, but everybody shuts up about it.”

Blown out of proportion

James Coleman, John S. Bradway professor of the practice of law and co-director of the Wrongful Convictions Clinic at Duke, chaired the Lacrosse Ad Hoc Review Committee convened by President Richard Brodhead to investigate the behavior of the lacrosse team in the five years prior to the case. Coleman explained that the importance of the ad itself was blown out of proportion, adding that it had no impact whatsoever on the case or on Nifong’s improper conduct and that he didn’t find the ad itself “inappropriate.”

Coleman pointed to a column written by David Brooks in The New York Times April 9, 2006 as a much more problematic example of rushing to judgment, one that Brooks wrote likely did influence Nifong’s actions.

“A community so degraded, you might surmise, is not a long way from actual sexual assault,” Brooks wrote.

Although Coleman acknowledged that the advertisement did not “necessarily represent a rush to judgment,” he noted that it is human nature to rush to judgment every time sensational allegations are made, a trend only exacerbated by the 24/7 news coverage such events often receive.

Beaule agreed with Coleman that the ad should not have generated as much attention as it did.

“With all due respect to The Chronicle, it’s not an important place to promote a message,” she said. “It was just another space.”

Divided loyalties

The anonymous signatory explained that, looking back, one reason for the criticism of the Group of 88 was the perception that they were turning their attention to some students but not to others. Coleman noted that, at the beginning of the case, very few people came to the players’ defense.

Placing the ad depicting the voices of minority students and not the lacrosse students as well did not detract from faculty commitment to the lacrosse students, the anonymous signatory explained. After the news of the alleged rape broke, the signatory reached out to a lacrosse student who had taken the professor's class offering to talk, provide support or even post bail should he be arrested, the signatory said.

“I experienced that protective gesture for that student, who I knew to be a great person,” the signatory said. “That was my first impulse, co-existing with a desire to protect other students.”

Rosenberg noted that Seligmann had taken one of his classes, and from what he could see “[Seligmann] didn’t seem the kind of person who would be guilty of a violent crime.”

The anonymous signatory noted that the only reason the ad was put out in favor of “othered” students rather than the lacrosse players was that they wanted to speak for students who did not have as much “elite support”—“the less popular crowd.”

“I was committed to those that came in with more privilege just as much as those with less, because self-critical and critical education means we are all better,” the anonymous signatory said.

Rosenberg expressed disappointment with the University’s response to the situation, just as many critics of the Group of 88 have. He said that the administration was “overly precipitate” in forcing lacrosse coach Mike Pressler to resign, cancelling the season and suspending the accused players. He suggested that the administration should have done little else beside ensuring the police investigation could continue, while “rigorously maintaining an assumption of innocence.”

Baldwin argued, however, that the University’s actions actually stemmed from pressure placed on Duke from the Group of 88.

Would they do it again?

The faculty members who spoke to The Chronicle had different opinions on whether they would be willing to place such an ad should another such controversy erupt, and many expressed concern that the hateful messages faculty received might prevent discussion in the future.

Both Rosenberg and the anonymous signatory noted that minority faculty—such as women of color—received a disproportionate amount of the vitriol directed at the Group of 88.

“All these people could be and were seriously threatened and could rightly have been considered in danger of their livelihood,” Rosenberg said.

Numerous faculty whom The Chronicle reached out to declined to comment for fear of retaliation.

Beaule said that the rise of anonymity on the Internet makes people less willing to speak out and affix their name to various causes and that in her situation, her decision to sign onto such an advertisement in the future would largely depend on the specific campus culture.

Weintraub said that personal activism should not be the role of faculty members, adding that the purpose of a university is not to make social change. He also said that collegial trust among faculty was damaged and that he has lost friends as a result of the incident. Baldwin, on the other hand, said that though he has lost a degree of respect for some members of the Group of 88, relationships continue to be cordial.

Other faculty noted that it was important for them to speak out on such issues. Coleman argued that “there is no way to nor would we want to shut faculty up from participating in a discussion” of structural issues, for example.

Chafe noted, however, that next time more caution might be taken to ensure there was no misunderstanding over the intentions of the message. He also emphasized the role of faculty to speak out as conscientious members of the community, adding that some of his fellow faculty members have been more hesitant to comment given the events of 2006.

Despite noting that certain quotes directly referencing the case might have led to the ad’s misinterpretation, the anonymous signatory said they would not take out the quotes if asked to do it over again, in order to be “honest to the students, because the case was relevant to how they felt.”

Rosenberg explained that in the years since the lacrosse case, he has hesitated at times to sign on to various causes due to fear of receiving “annoying or even worse emails and attention,” notably in the recent instance of being asked to support efforts by contingent faculty to unionize.

“I signed on, but I was angry that I allowed those considerations to enter my mind,” he said.

Correction: This story was updated to clarify that the anonymous professor reached out to a lacrosse player who was not necessarily one of the three players accused. 


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