|What were the lacrosse players thinking about as they raced onto the field, in late February, for the first game of the new season? This should have been a season like any other season. And yet, invariably, they knew, it would be a season like no other. The crowd of 6,000—some ten times larger than normal—left no doubt as to their sentiments. T-shirts, jackets, and wristbands offered less-than-reticent messages: "Duke lacrosse, no opponents, just victims"; "Free the Duke 3"; "Innocent until proven innocent"; and "Fantastic lies," that last line borrowed from one of the indicted players.|
Over Reunions Weekend in mid-April, lacrosse drew an equally large and enthusiastic crowd. With the game in overtime, a Duke midfielder pumped in the winning goal. As the fans cheered, players swarmed the winning scorer, exuberant at having captured the regular-season conference championship.
There was, of course, another reason for the exuberance. Just days before, the team, and the university, had welcomed the end of a yearlong nightmare. At a press conference in Raleigh's RBC Center, North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper had uttered the long-awaited "I" word. He declared three former lacrosse players—David Evans '06, Collin Finnerty, and Reade Seligmann—innocent of all charges.
Last spring, the three white men had been charged with raping an African-American woman hired to perform as an exotic dancer at an off-campus team party. The story quickly exploded into a media firestorm, fanned by Durham District Attorney Michael B. Nifong, who was seeking election while serving out the unexpired term of his predecessor. Eventually, Nifong's case began to crumble. Media accounts pointed to the accuser's changing stories, a lineup that violated standard police procedures, the mishandling of exculpatory DNA test results, and Nifong's refusal to examine photographs and phone records that appeared to contradict the accusations.
Facing increasing criticism over the shape of his prosecution and an investigation by the State Bar, Nifong handed the case over to Cooper. After his own three-month investigation, the attorney general pointed to prosecutorial overreaching, "a tragic rush to accuse and a failure to verify serious allegations." He added, "There were many points in this case where caution would have served better than bravado. But with the rush to condemn, the community and the state lost the ability to see clearly."
But while those allegations endured, Duke was a campus trying to get beyond a crisis. And like other universities that have been subjected to intense, and unwelcome, attention—from Stanford, roiled by questions about the integrity of the research enterprise, to the University of Colorado, charged with athletic-recruiting excesses—Duke has seen itself narrowly and inexorably defined by a single incident.
Over the past year, the university has been the target of unrelenting scrutiny and scathing criticism—externally, from media ranging from The Wall Street Journal to Fox News, which, the day after the exoneration of the players, broadcast its morning news show from the Bryan Center parking lot; and internally, from faculty members, alumni, and parents. In letters and online postings, critics said that university officials should have spoken up for the innocence of the students more forcefully. They disputed the decisions to ask for the resignation of the former coach, cancel the lacrosse season, and suspend the indicted students.
Administrators responded by pointing to the need for a program consumed in controversy to make a fresh start; to the awkward symbolism of playing lacrosse in the midst of such serious charges; and to the policy, well-established at Duke and in higher education in general, that students who face felony charges, especially those involving violence, should be suspended, in part for their own safety. (Among the messages from protesters was one calling for the castration of the players, and at least one of the indicted students reportedly received a death threat in the courtroom.)
Law professor James Coleman, praised by all sides for his conscientious leadership of last spring's investigation of the off-field behavior of lacrosse players, says some of the criticism of the university's stance fails to recognize legal realities—or the workings of a campus. Had university officials decided that students caught up in a rape investigation presented no danger to the community and so were not subject to suspension, Duke parents would have been justified in questioning the administration's apparent lack of concern for campus safety, he says.
Beyond that, he says, university intervention would have complicated the legal investigation that ultimately cleared the indicted players. "It was really important that the university not be seen as actively advocating for these students." It needed to be clear that the legal resolution came from an objective review of the facts, not a perceived exertion of influence, he says. Duke's institutional advocacy in the case "would have made it very difficult for the [North Carolina] bar to intervene in the case as it did. Without that, you wouldn't have had a special prosecutor. And without the special prosecutor, you wouldn't have had the investigation." The attorney general did the right thing in a legal sense, Coleman says, but Cooper also had to think about public opinion. "Is the public going to accept the decision as being a decision on the merits, or is the public going to think that this is Duke University in effect buying off the justice system?"
Still, the administration wasn't as sure-footed as it might have been, Coleman says. The first stories in the media said that the players weren't cooperating with the police investigation. "We knew that was false; somebody was intentionally lying about what was going on. And that should have caused us to be concerned. And somebody should have been quoted as saying, 'That's absolutely not true.' " (The university's first statement on the incident said, "Duke University is monitoring the situation and cooperating with officials, as are the students." Coleman believes that the point about student cooperation could have been made more adamantly. "The university sent out a press release. But, nobody stood before the cameras or before the reporters and attached his name to the statement. A lot was made of the so-called wall of silence; in fact, there was no such wall. This was not a matter of advocacy, but one of accuracy and effective communication of the facts.")
"So the question is, are there other facts that we could have put out, not as advocacy but simply to be part of the record? Because reporters failed in this case, too. They didn't do reporting. It's possible that if we had put out more facts, particularly in the beginning, that might have changed the nature of the story, and it might have prevented some of the verbal attacks that were being made on these students."
The presumption of innocence was articulated in the first statement, last spring, from President Richard H. Brodhead, and repeated dozens of times. When he announced the suspension of the lacrosse season, he said: "While we await the results of the investigation, I remind everyone that under our system of law, people are presumed innocent until proven guilty. One deep value the university is committed to is protecting us all from coercion and assault. An equally central value is that we must not judge each other on the basis of opinion or strong feeling rather than evidence of actual conduct."
As he looks back now, Brodhead says, "I am flabbergasted to re-read the statements that came from the district attorney's mouth and the extraordinary degree of certainty [of guilt] that they suggested, at the time when he was the only person with access to the evidence in the case. Something I see in so much commentary about this matter now is people acting as if everybody could have known at the beginning of the story what people did know at the end of the story. But that's just not so."
If, as Coleman says, the media failed, it wasn't through lack of coverage. By the time the case was finally resolved, the phrase "Duke lacrosse scandal" was producing up to 967,000 page results on search engines and had earned its own Wikipedia entry. According to figures compiled by Raleigh's News & Observer, The New York Times produced 151 articles about the case. It was discussed incessantly on CNN's Nancy Grace show. CBS's 60 Minutes featured the players and their parents in three broadcasts, each of which drew as many as 25 million viewers.
Those numbers show the public's fixation on the case. And behind the numbers was the media's eagerness to embrace a compelling narrative—to the point of ignoring inconvenient complexities. The coverage by the venerable New York Times, for example, was driven by a narrative of privileged whites abusing poor black women, according to former Times reporter Stuart Taylor, who now writes for the National Journal and Newsweek. Among other things, the Times referred to "largely consistent accounts" from the accuser, an assessment that hardly accords with other findings, while glossing over exculpatory DNA tests. After the exoneration of the students, one letter writer pointedly said that the paper should "report to us, its loyal readers, as to how it contributed or did not contribute to this miscarriage of justice."
There may be no parallel to the amount and kind of attention directed at Duke during the lacrosse episode. But other universities have also had to learn harsh lessons about media failings the hard way. Back in the 1990-91 academic year, questions of financial improprieties evolved into a media maelstrom that consumed Stanford University. The media fed off the story for months, in accounts that were simplistic and sensational.
Stanford's problems began when a representative from the Office of Naval Research accused the university of improperly accounting for indirect costs, the overhead costs associated with research contracts. The president at the time, Donald Kennedy, says he learned too late that the university had created what became, in essence, memorable symbols of excess. Media accounts referred to a "presidential yacht" and to a Jacuzzi installed in a sailboat kept afloat by taxpayers. During Congressional hearings, as he describes in his book Academic Duty, Stanford was accused of using government funds to purchase a $12,000 pair of urns, a $1,600 shower curtain, and a $1,200 Italian fruitwood commode for the presidential residence.
"We were struggling against a series of revelations that were made to look outrageous," recalls Kennedy, now a Stanford professor of environmental science. A basic narrative of greed couldn't accommodate the complexities of government reimbursement formulas. As Kennedy puts it in his book, "The political climate in which the university had to sail for the next months was thus established not by the major issues surrounding indirect-cost policy but by the carefully crafted public impression that at Stanford we were living high at public expense. Such impressions are difficult to reverse; once newspapers have learned something, they can't unlearn it."
Outrageous or not, the fixation over research funds became the lens through which the media saw any news out of Stanford. A New York Times story about the odd private life of a physician at the Stanford Children's Hospital, written around the same time, referred to "an additional embarrassment for Stanford, which already faces the loss of millions of dollars in federal money for items like furniture and flowers for the home of its president, Donald Kennedy."
When the ABC news program 20/20 aired a segment called "Your Tax Dollars at Work," the Stanford story reached a low point. The broadcast was more hostile than illuminating, Kennedy says, when it reported on the most sensational aspects—including allegations that the Stanford overcharges could be as high as $200 million—two weeks before the Congressional hearings. He says its lead correspondent, in private conversation, expressed embarrassment about the coverage, but for the cameras, he took on the persona of offended inquisitor.
Stanford was vindicated in the end by the government. But almost invariably, such "vindications are never given the kind of attention that the original scandal receives," according to Kennedy.
Kennedy's struggle to preserve Stanford's reputation came at a high personal cost. "It became apparent to me that it was getting harder to get things done." He had become a lightning rod. So he announced his plan to resign. "I think in some really important respects, the university and I were both treated pretty unfairly," he says. "But you can't wring your hands over that sort of thing for very long. I worried for a while about whether the university was going to be all right. We turned out to be fine."
The media coverage of the Duke lacrosse incident revealed more than the seductiveness of a storyline; it also revealed a reflexive reaching for stereotypes, notably, stereotypes surrounding college athletes. In his State of the University address during Reunions Weekend in April, Brodhead told alumni that he hoped the lacrosse team would become known for its volunteer work with the local Ronald McDonald House, which caters to critically ill children and their families. But a year ago, as suggested by protests on campus and outside the Buchanan Boulevard house where the lacrosse team's party took place, and by the distribution of "Wanted" fliers with the faces of team members, many were quick to equate lacrosse with criminal behavior.
Just weeks after the lacrosse party, New York Times sports columnist Selena Roberts referred to "a group of privileged players of fine pedigree entangled in a night that threatens to belie their social standing as human beings." She went on to claim that team members had observed a "code of silence"—a claim that turned out to be unfounded—and likened them to "drug dealers and gang members engaged in an anti-snitch campaign."
The faculty investigation led by the law school's James Coleman painted a different picture. As Coleman says, many—including some university officials—were surprised at his committee's findings that rumors of bad behavior didn't accord with the facts. "We talked with people in the neighborhood about the lacrosse students and all the havoc they supposedly wreaked. And it became clear that it really wasn't the lacrosse kids they were talking about. They were just using the focus on the lacrosse team as a platform for talking about all of their other grievances. We found that was true in a lot of cases."
With the benefit of hindsight, and with the dropping of the charges, The Washington Post said in an editorial, "News organizations, eager to pursue a 'Jocks Gone Wild' story line, aided and abetted [the district attorney's] rush to judgment, all but pronouncing the students guilty before the facts were in."
An antecedent to the Duke case ensnared athletes at the University of Colorado. In December 2001, members of the Colorado football team supplied alcohol and marijuana to recruits, then took them to a party at an off-campus apartment. One of the recruits was accused of raping a woman who lived in the apartment. Eventually, nine women said they had been assaulted by Colorado football players or recruits since 1997. Jerry Rutledge, a Colorado regent, says reporters didn't probe beyond the "jocks-gone-wild" theme. "No one did any investigative reporting. They just jumped on a hot story."
Another regent, Peter Steinhauer, says the media reports agitated sports boosters and skeptics alike. "One side said, I'm never going to give another penny to the university as long as the president stays and the football coach stays. The other side said, do something about these trumped-up charges." A campaign inspired by the National Organization for Women produced some 20,000 letters and e-mail messages questioning the refusal to fire the coach immediately; by ten o'clock on the morning that the coach was put on administrative leave, administrators were wrestling with some 6,500 angry e-mail messages protesting the decision.
Sometimes a scandal, though, turns out to be a series of false accusations—a painful lesson learned in the Duke lacrosse case, and earlier at Colorado. The rape charges against the Colorado athletes were investigated by the office of Boulder district attorney Mary Keenan. She eventually decided not to prosecute anyone, citing a lack of evidence, partly based on DNA test results, and saying recruits believed the party was set up for them to have sex. Keenan was deposed in a civil case brought by one of the alleged rape victims; in her deposition, she said the university's athletics program used sex as "a bartering tool" to lure football recruits.
As Keenan faced re-election in 2004, one local newspaper, the Daily Camera, quoted a political opponent, a former prosecutor, as suggesting that "a challenger might ask why Keenan didn't prosecute players accused of gang rape." That challenger might also "ask her to explain why she put forward the unconventional legal theory" that the university fostered an atmosphere that led to the alleged assaults. The former prosecutor offered another concern: "Should an elected official make inflammatory allegations about the university before the university's conduct was thoroughly investigated?" Keenan succeeded in her re-election bid—suggesting that targeting a university, if not the presumed wrongdoing of its students, can be politically expedient.
Much of the public's and the media's obsession with the Duke lacrosse case hinged on race and athletics, with an African American allegedly the victim of a largely white team. In the Colorado football context, the racial balance was reversed: African-American team members were accused of sexual violence against white women.
Bruce Plasket, a longtime reporter in the Denver area, dwells on race dynamics and media overreaction in a book called Buffaloed: How Race, Gender, and Media Bias Fueled a Season of Scandal. "Headlines, not evidence, were creating guilt—a guilt that would subject 100 young football players, many of them black, to obscene catcalls from opposing fans, racially hateful e-mails directed at players dating white women, and the wrath of a media afraid to be labeled as victim bashers," Plasket writes. "Reporters anxious to beat their competitors in what appeared to be an accusation-of-the-day contest failed to go beyond the salacious accusations to find out how [the coach] actually ran his program."At one away game, Plasket notes, Colorado football players faced taunts of "rapists, rapists."
With a shifting legal landscape (as well as a new coach), those derisive chants have vanished. Steinhauer, who recently finished his term on the regents board, says Colorado has largely put the turmoil behind it. It has put in place "probably some of the strictest rules in the country" surrounding athletic recruiting, with the requirement, for example, that late-night events involving recruits include a coach as chaperone. And Colorado has recovered from the negative exposure: Some years after the first football charges, it has seen its largest-ever freshman class, and its fundraising is up more than 100 percent from the same period last year.
Among the casualties of the Colorado incident was Elizabeth Hoffman, the university's president, who was eventually ousted. She is now provost at Iowa State University. Other issues, especially a brouhaha surrounding a faculty member's extreme statements about the September 11 terrorist attacks, also contributed to her forced departure. (In the early 1960s, a Colorado president resigned after discovery of an illegal "slush fund" for football players and a conservative backlash against "radical" faculty members.) This spring, the men's lacrosse coach at Colorado acknowledged that he had had discussions with his team when the Duke allegations surfaced, and added that the situation for his players was doubly troublesome: The negative echoes from the Duke case hurt the entire lacrosse community, he said. And as representatives of Colorado athletics, his players still saw a need to erase whatever memories lingered from the presumed football scandal.
Even as reporters (and others) were using stereotypes as the basis for their interpretation of the case, the yearlong focus on Duke lacrosse accented the endurance of the so-called Culture Wars. Some of the responses on campus angered those who see universities as bastions of political correctness. One response was especially grating. Shortly after news of the party broke, eighty-eight faculty members signed a full-page Chronicle advertisement. The ad declared a "social disaster"; offered comments, ascribed to students, decrying the campus climate; and stated, "The students know that the disaster didn't begin on March 13th and won't end with what the police say or the court decides." The language in the ad—which for a long time was largely ignored, until it became fodder for the blogging community—subsequently has been picked over.
One of the shapers of the ad, Wahneema Lubiano, an associate professor of African and African-American studies, says it was designed to assuage the concerns—accented by the lacrosse episode—of students who felt they had been victimized by racism or sexual violence. "We hoped first that they wouldn't feel so alone," she says. "I think that was the most compelling motivation for us. But, second, we hoped that the campus would begin to think of these as issues that would only get worse if they weren't addressed. There are no circumstances under which any community wants to have racism, sexism, sexual violence. They're horrible things, and nobody wants to talk about them."
Another signer of the ad was cultural-anthropology professor Lee Baker, who is completing his term as chair of the Arts & Sciences Council. He says every time the media mention what has come to be known as the Group of 88, e-mail messages fill the inboxes of professors—a phenomenon that has "a chilling effect" and has discouraged some from continuing to speak out.
The responses to the ad, says Baker, illustrate "a classic American conundrum," a collision of values. "For those who were concerned about the individual lacrosse players—and the ad was never about individuals—the issue was a miscarriage of criminal justice. What the signers of the ad were concerned with was the miscarriage of social justice: how we could build a more responsive society." In the end, he says, you can't have social justice without meaningful criminal justice, and you can't have meaningful criminal justice without social justice. The opposing sides around the ad, though, never bridged those concepts. One thing the lacrosse case taught him, he says, was "to take more seriously Martin Luther King's 1963 letter from the Birmingham jail: Where there's a threat to justice anywhere, there's a threat to justice everywhere."
Critics of the campus see the Group of 88 as a threat to learning—even as Baker notes that the faculty members under attack attract large enrollments (including athletes) and earn positive evaluations from students. An anonymous comment on the "Durham in Wonderland" blog, in language far less shrill than many other online commentaries, observed, "If scholarship involves noisily taking a controversial stance on a public issue of race, class, or gender; making a loaded, but misinformed or incorrect, public statement; and then acting like a victim when the faulty reasoning process is exposed, then the [Group of 88] are at the top of the class." Writing about the conclusion of the case, the editorial-page editor of the Rocky Mountain News complained that for the most part, Duke faculty members "either supported the branding of three athletes as racists and rapists, didn't care enough about their plight to speak out, or were cowed into suppressing any call of conscience."
On campus, Stephen Miller, now a Duke senior, made much the same point in his Chronicle column shortly after the lacrosse party last spring. "It is the hope of many activists, protesters, and condemners to make a case not only for the excoriation of the lacrosse team," he wrote, "but also for sweeping social reform to address what they see as profound racial inequity." As he put it, in metaphorical exuberance, "You will be hung [sic] in the gallows of public opinion regardless of, or even in spite of, the facts, if the alleged crime can be converted into a case for institutional racism."
The institutional response has been a concern for Michael "Gus" Gustafson B.S.E. '93, M.S. '98, Ph.D. '99, an assistant professor of the practice in electrical and computer engineering. In a commentary on his blog, Gustafson wrote that he looked at "the effect of various statements that, intentionally or not, created what I saw as a hostile environment for our students and a more difficult path for them to receive the protections of the law." In the posting, he referred in particular to Lubiano's reference to the players as "perfect offenders," and to another colleague's equating white innocence with black guilt and men's innocence with women's guilt. Such statements, he wrote, suggest that some at Duke have "removed any safeguards we've learned against stereotyping, against judging people by the color of their skin or the (perceived) content of their wallet, against acting on hearsay and innuendo and misdirection and falsehoods.... We have taken Reade, and Collin, and Dave, and posterized them into 'White Male Athlete Privilege,' and we have sought to punish that accordingly."
Gustafson says he wishes there had been less of a faculty focus on issues extraneous to the criminal case. There should have been a Duke point person, he says, who had been publicly looking out for the university's, and the students', interests throughout the case—contesting, for example, the district attorney's early characterization of the lacrosse players as "hooligans." He says, "If we don't respond when those students are treated improperly, who is going to? I mean, we do need to be allied with our students, to make sure that our students are being treated properly."
Where some outside commentators on the lacrosse case see a faculty at war with itself, Gustafson says the conversation among colleagues has been civil. "I have a strong, passionate disagreement with some of what's gone on, but I certainly have no plans to try to excise some of the humanities disciplines from campus or to say that these faculty members need to go away because I disagree with them. From that aspect, the way the electronic dialogue can go is certainly something to be concerned about. I've traded e-mails back and forth with Wahneema Lubiano. And neither of our computers has burst into flames."
The case became "a lens through which people processed their pre-existing opinions and positions," says Robert Steel '73, chair of Duke's board of trustees. That's true, he adds, whether those views hinged on race, class, athletic privilege, town-gown tensions, or the notion that universities have been overtaken by leftist professors. "One lesson of the past year is how important it is to be honestly challenged by hearing some different perspective. Instead of turning up the volume on the noise, turn up the volume on the listening.
"My take on the Group of 88 is that they were speaking about issues they feel quite strongly about. I don't think they purposefully meant to be impairing the students who were affected by the situation. But I think it did have the effect of causing those members of our community to feel unsupported." Had they chosen different language—particularly around the sociologically significant but fraught phrase "social disaster"—the signers of the ad would have been more effective, he adds.
Lacrosse-committee chair Coleman—who also serves as faculty adviser for the Innocence Project, which investigates cases believed to have resulted in wrongful convictions—says he and his colleagues talked about the case constantly. But he acknowledges that faculty members (and civil-rights organizations) have been reticent to speak out against this particular prosecutorial transgression. That reticence, he says, in part may reflect "the strange role that race was playing in the case, which is that the prosecutor said that this was a predatory crime and one that was racially motivated."
Just as race-consciousness constrained discussion around the case, so too, he adds, did "the notion that rich people have all the help they need," in legal proceedings and otherwise. He says he hopes that those who saw the lacrosse case in terms of such broad categories now realize the problems with their preconceptions. "People thought that whatever happens is happening to poor people and black people; it's not a threat to me. This case says, the system isn't functioning and it's a threat to all of us."
Of course, Duke lacrosse is not the only episode to highlight race-based thinking and the other attributes of presumed political correctness in a campus setting. A well-publicized example came from the University of Pennsylvania in January 1993. Following a sorority event, five students, all African-American women, were loudly celebrating outside one of Penn's high-rise dormitories. A freshman yelled out of his sixth-floor window, "Shut up, you water buffalo." The women charged that the actual expression was "black water buffalo." They also reported hearing harsher slurs, which prompted them to pursue a racial-harassment case against the freshman. Six months later, the women dropped the case, declaring in a statement that they had been "victimized on January 13, further victimized by the media, and thereafter by the judicial process and agents of the university."
Penn's president at the time, Sheldon Hackney, had just become President Bill Clinton's nominee to chair the National Endowment for the Humanities—a nomination made unexpectedly complicated by the perception of Penn as a seat of political correctness. Today, Hackney speaks wryly of his "Hackney Rule": "In any controversial situation, once the decision maker has acted, the winners shut up and the losers raise hell." He says, "I'm sure there were some trustees who would have preferred to see the problem go away. But I still think the decision to try to let the disciplinary process work was the correct one."
The notion of left-leaning campuses has become "part of the New Right story," he says. "That's their narrative about America—that it is being led down into hell by liberals and progressives who have gained control of campuses." In his book The Politics of Presidential Appointment, Hackney reflects on a conversation he had, at the time of the incident, with Dorothy Rabinowitz, now a member of the editorial board of The Wall Street Journal. This winter, as the legal case around Duke lacrosse was unraveling, Rabinowitz wrote dismissively in the Journal about "the politically progressive quarters of the Duke faculty who lent their names to an impassioned ad thanking everyone who had come out to march in protest against the rape and assault of the exotic dancer." (The column also complained that for seven months, in addressing the situation of the indicted students, Brodhead had not mentioned the presumption of innocence; that was inaccurate, and the Journal printed a correction.) When he talked with Rabinowitz in the Penn context, Hackney "explained the situation as I saw it," he writes. "The charge of violating the racial-harassment policy had been made. We had a prescribed process through which the case would be adjudicated, and I was obligated to let that process work."
Hackney asked Rabinowitz to refrain from editorializing until the campus process had run its course. "There was a pause," he writes. "Then she said in a voice so chilling that I knew immediately that, like Dr. Seuss' Grinch, she had garlic in her soul, 'This is the darkest moment for human freedom in the history of Western civilization, and you, sir, are complicit.' "
Some of his advisers urged Hackney to intervene in the judicial process to end the case quickly. "It just never seemed the right thing to do, to me," he says. "First and foremost, you have to respect the rules that are in place but also the processes for judging guilt or innocence. If the president doesn't do that, then he's going to lose the support and the respect of students and faculty and trustees. And everything will come unraveled to a degree." Respecting well-established processes, he adds, "seems to me to be what President Brodhead has done. And he was in something of the same situation."
Penn recovered quickly, in large part because the case was dropped, Hackney says. "It may be that people have strong opinions about some particular thing that's going on in the university, but they don't generalize it to the whole university, so they maintain their loyalty to it. I think that universities are more resilient than we sometimes give them credit for."
This was a test of Hackney's resilience as well. "It was the worst time of my life," he says. "Since I was being assaulted left, right, and center, I could tell myself that in this case, I just had to do what I thought was right and not worry about what the critics were going to say. I did learn about how painful and how public these disputes can be. Being chewed on by Rush Limbaugh over and over and over again is not fun." You can issue a statement, he says, "but it will never get to all those people whose ideas of you and your university have been shaped by the stories that they read."
Just after the exoneration of the players, Dean of the Chapel Sam Wells reflected, in a statement from the pulpit, on the past year's "deeply troubling" story for Duke and the indicted players. It was a story, he noted, that drew "the relentless gaze of merciless public scrutiny." The events thrust the players into "an endless night of bewilderment and near despair," he said. "It must have seemed like the world had laid on them the iniquity of us all."
He added, "We have all been impoverished because we have had cause to lose trust in institutions and processes on which our common life depends. Everyone is talking about justice, but justice is fundamentally not a system but a virtue that needs to be embodied by just people and be accompanied by other virtues like courage and restraint."
In an environment that has shown little restraint, Duke lacrosse has become not just a source of contentiousness on and off campus, but a cultural touchstone as well. Defending embattled World Bank president Paul Wolfowitz in late April, Washington lawyer Robert Bennett (who counseled the players' defense team) said, "I am very worried about the rush to judgment. We had a wonderful example of that in the Duke lacrosse case."
A few weeks earlier, three University of Minnesota football players had been accused of raping a woman at an off-campus party. In the university's student newspaper, a guest columnist began with a Duke reference and proceeded to ponder whether, in such cases, victims should be believed or the accused should be supported. "The truth is there is nothing compromised by fully supporting both parties," he said.
The firing of radio personality Don Imus for hurling racial insults inspired a stream of published commentaries, including one widely distributed cartoon. The first panel of the cartoon shows members of the women's basketball team at Rutgers saying, "The way people feel free to talk trash about our team on the basis of unfair cultural stereotypes makes me sick." In the second panel, a Duke's men's lacrosse player appears; he says, "I hear you."
Irrespective of a wrongheaded criminal investigation, most people have kept their faith in Duke, says Steel, the trustee chair. Though he acknowledges that "some things might have been done differently," he stands by the university's major decisions over the past year. The president consulted regularly with the trustees, he says, and has had their continuing support.
As consuming as it has been, Brodhead insists that the lacrosse episode didn't deflect the university from other goals. "I don't want to understate the degree of attention that we paid to this matter, but it's also been our business to run a great university," he says. "Every day during this story we worked on other things in addition to a crisis. And certainly it was painful to see things put in the shade by this story."
On a single day last April, he recalls, Duke launched a comprehensive Global Health Initiative and the first two lacrosse players were indicted. "One story got a world of attention, which now we realize was undeserved, and the other story got no attention."
Steel and Brodhead alike say that lessons can be learned from the past year, but that it's time to move beyond a painful episode. As other universities have learned, campuses are sturdy places—places that do demonstrably inspire trust. And they're prone to bounce back quickly from times of adversity.
Illustrations by Brian Hubble
One Year Later
Like other universities that have endured consuming crises and intense media scrutiny, Duke, in grappling with lacrosse, has struggled against the widespread stereotyping and simplifying of a complex case.
June 1, 2007