Duke attempts damage control

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MICHAEL SKUBE, a winner of the Pulitzer Prize for criticism, teaches journalism at Elon University in North Carolina.

NINE MONTHS later, the vigilante posters have come down, the candlelight vigils have gone dark and little has been heard from the New Black Panther Party or the Rev. Jesse Jackson. Even among the aspiring activists who banged pots and pans last spring in solidarity with the alleged victim, there is the disquieting sense that maybe she wasn’t one after all -- that this time the story might not be reducible to the all-purpose epistemology of race, gender and class.

Duke University and historically black North Carolina Central University are once again cross-town neighbors with nothing much to say to one another. The cause celebre who brought them together in the spring -- a part-time N.C. Central student who moonlighted as a stripper and alleged that she was sexually assaulted and raped by three Duke lacrosse players -- has long since ceased to be a sympathetic figure.

Privately, people who rallied to her defense tell you that they were snookered. As they do, a different posse prowls the airwaves and Internet. This one wants not the Duke lacrosse players brought to heel but Durham County Dist. Atty. Mike Nifong -- and along with him, the highest stratum of Duke’s administrative hierarchy, including university President Richard Brodhead. It was the university, these critics argue, that failed to stand up for its students and let it be cast as the original “Animal House.”


Nifong’s problems have been well publicized. For months, legal experts have said his case hangs by a hair. And, last week, the state bar filed ethics charges against Nifong, accusing him of prejudicial statements to the media about the accused. The consequences could result in a formal admonishment or in his disbarment.

But the university’s problems are different, and they won’t evaporate soon, even if Nifong were to drop the remaining charges of kidnapping and sexual assault against the students. (He dropped a rape charge earlier this month.) Duke saw nearly a 20% decline this fall in applications for early admission, and university officials acknowledge that one of the reasons is the publicity resulting from the case. In response, the university has undertaken a 12-city nationwide public relations campaign, called “A Duke Conversation,” involving not only Brodhead but also hundreds of alumni and Duke students. Their message: What you read and hear about Duke -- drunken parties, out-of-control athletes, pervasive arrogance and privilege -- is far from the truth.

“I’ve told trustees it’s going to take two to five years to recover from this [the legal case],” Duke public relations chief and Vice President John Burness said in an interview with the Raleigh News & Observer. Mention the name “Duke,” and parents and donors once thought basketball. What comes first to their mind now is the lacrosse team. “Even a good story is a bad story if it’s about lacrosse,” Burness says, “because it’s a reminder.”

Surely no other top-tier university has found itself so recurrently the butt of criticism, even ridicule. Several years ago, Duke’s English department, once a hotbed of cutting-edge literary theory, imploded in a blaze of backbiting and backstabbing and had to be put in the temporary care of a botanist.

The university’s problems now are far more serious. It wants to continue competing with the Ivies and with Stanford, schools with longer traditions, bigger endowments and no black eyes. None like the lacrosse case, anyway.

In arguing that the episode is unrepresentative, the university’s defenders have a legitimate case. But so too does its growing chorus of critics, which includes Duke faculty, alumni and students, Durham residents and the artless opinionators on the Internet. If anything can be said to bind this odd assemblage, it’s a reaction to the group-think that immediately took hold once the story came to light.


One who has come to understand the critics’ distemper is Ned Kennington, who last March was among those calling for justice swift and certain. “I am outraged,” he said back then, “that 40 Duke students know what happened and won’t come forward.”

Today, he speaks in tones measured and a little rueful. “I’ll be frank with you,” says Kennington, a former faculty member who lives near the campus. “I trusted that Mike Nifong was talking in a careful, judicious way when he called the lacrosse players hooligans. It wasn’t long after that that I felt betrayed, and I regret what I said at the time.”

Few of the candle holders or pot bangers of last spring are taking phone calls. Jennifer Minnelli, who attended a candlelight vigil in March and lambasted the lacrosse team for a “wall of silence,” said last week, “I have no comment. Good luck with your research,” and hung up. The husband of a woman who organized the candlelight vigil in March said last week, “Your chances of getting a comment from her or from anyone in this house are exactly zero.”

Better, perhaps, that they had something to say in retrospect, if only as testimony to what they have learned about evidence and judgment. It might help Duke’s image. The school’s better face -- its outreach programs to help educate underprivileged children in Durham, for example -- too often goes unnoticed. “Duke is not nearly so extraordinarily elitist as it’s made out to be,” Kennington says. But it is also, as he says, a school whose knee is quick to jerk on matters of race, gender and class.

“Duke is populated by a faculty that is very socially conscious,” Kennington says. “I think I am guilty of that. But this [case] was fueled by Nifong’s assertions, which fit into our preconceptions.”

For the university, those preconceptions -- a reflexive, left-leaning culture shared by many of its supporters -- are part of the larger problem. Duke would like to be known as, well, rather like Princeton. A premier school that happens to have a lacrosse team, among others, and one that has learned not to go off the deep end with its politics.