As he enters into his final year as the president of Duke Unversity, two highest-profile events of Richard Brodhead’s tenure—the lacrosse case in 2006-7, the campus protests in 2015-6—effectively illustrated his shortcomings as a leader. The most charitable interpretation of his tenure is that he was impossibly weak, a president over his head at a school like Duke and terrified by the race/class/gender student and faculty activists on his campus. The least charitable—but, I fear, more accurate—interpretation would see him as a failed leader, a model of how college and university presidents should not respond when faced with crises.
Two videos provide brief windows into Brodhead’s mindset. The first, from WRAL, came in his first public appearance—before the Durham Chamber of Commerce—after the arrests of Reade Seligmann and Collin Finnerty. By this point, his administration had declined offers from defense attorneys to examine evidence of the players’ innocence, and had remained silent amidst Mike Nifong’s pre-primary publicity crusade—a series of ethical violations that contributed to Nifong’s disbarment.
The “whatever they did” claim about Seligmann and Finnerty remains the most indefensible utterance of Brodhead’s presidency. Speaking to the city’s business and political elite, Brodhead’s remarks conveyed the impression that Duke harbored no doubts about the general media narrative of the time. (In fact, what Seligmann and Finnerty “did” was to attend a party they played no role in organizing and drank some beer.) Nearly seventeen months later, Brodhead issued an apology for intemperate remarks by the faculty. But he never apologized for, or even retracted, his statement to the Chamber of Commerce.
Indeed, in a recent interview with the Chronicle, he remarked, “I am certainly at ease with my conscience with the role that I played.” He dismissed the affair as a distraction, and denied looking back on it—an event, again, that cost his university tens of millions of dollars in settlements and legal fees—for lessons to improve his performance. The statement revealed a man incapable of critical self-reflection.
The second video, from last fall, features Brodhead sitting silent as his newly-appointed dean, Valerie Ashby, revealed a heretofore-secret policy, in which untenured faculty would be dismissed (told to “go”) if unspecified Duke administrators (or senior colleagues?) viewed them as “intolerant”:
Two Duke spokespersons didn’t respond to questions from me about the criteria for the new tenure policy, which violates core academic freedom principles. A third spokesperson gave an evasive response to Eugene Volokh.
Throughout the lacrosse case, fear remained a plausible interpretation of Brodhead’s actions—that is, that the president was so afraid of the Group of 88 that he abandoned the academy’s traditional fealty to due process. That line of argument became harder to sustain after the civil cases, when a contemporaneous Brodhead e-mail in which the president offered Primal Fear (a movie in which a guilty man fools his lawyers into believing his innocence) as a possible lens through which to interpret the accused students’ status.
Brodhead’s apparent belief in his students’ guilt perhaps explains his refusal (until after Nifong’s case already had collapsed) to defend their rights. Instead, he maintained that he had two and only two options—publicly proclaiming his belief in the students’ innocence, which would have been inappropriate; or the approach that he adopted, of issuing guilt-presuming statements that stopped just short of expressing his belief in the merits of Nifong’s case.
There was, of course, a third option, one consistent with longstanding academic principles: asserting that he couldn’t comment on the specifics of the case, but demanding that Durham authorities respect Duke students’ constitutional rights. He showed no interest in issuing such a statement. Instead, he infamously proclaimed that he looked forward to a trial, at which the accused students could prove their innocence.
Regardless of whether he ideologically shared the Group of 88’s guilt-presuming approach to the case or was simply bullied into doing so, the aftermath of the lacrosse case left Brodhead with little choice but to accommodate his race/class/gender faculty as much as possible. Group members were promoted to deanships, and there’s no indication that the administration looked at the faculty’s response to the lacrosse case as a reason to ask hard questions about Duke’s hiring priorities.
So when the protests of last fall and this spring came around, Brodhead had little choice but to appease as much as possible. Despite the absurdity of the protesters’ central claim—that a university whose leadership has spent the last two decades obsessed with increasing racial, ethnic, and gender (but not pedagogical or intellectual) diversity was actually a defender of institutional racism—Brodhead treated the protesters as serious figures. The university recently came out with a bias-response report, which doubtless will lead to hiring of more diversity-related administrators and faculty. And the president allowed the protesters to trespass in a Duke building without criminal or disciplinary sanction.
His thanks for the effort? Group of 88 extremist Wahneema Lubiano proclaiming that Duke was beset by “bigotry and exploitation.” That would be the same Wahneema Lubiano who’s now going on two decades of two purportedly “forthcoming” books.