Duke Professors Reject Calls to Apologize to Lacrosse Players

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by Christina Asquith

Increasingly under attack from newspaper editorials and online bloggers, the Duke faculty members known as “The Group of 88” posted a letter online yesterday defending themselves against accusations that they had rushed to judge the three men’s lacrosse players.

In the one-page “Open Letter to the Duke Community,” professors aimed to clarify an advertisement they’d published last year in a student newspaper entitled, “What Does a Social Disaster Sound Like?” The advertisement quoted anonymous students about the prevalence of sexism and racism at Duke.

“The ad has been read as a comment on the alleged rape, the team party or the specific students accused. Worse, it has been read as rendering a judgment in the case,” the letter said. “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.”

Wednesday’s letter was signed by 87 members of Duke’s faculty, including 90 percent of the African and African American studies department, 60 percent of the women’s studies and a third of the English department.

Professors who signed the letter said they had received vicious and threatening e-mails after the advertisement was published. Dubbed “The Group of 88,” the professors became targets for all those charging that Duke professors were left-leaning and close-minded. The professors, however, say their initial intent has been misrepresented. 

“I’ve seen responses to the ad that indicate the ad attacks students; passes judgment on the lacrosse players. It did no such thing. I don’t know how anyone could read that,” says Dr. Kerry L. Haynie, a political science professor. “It was to raise concern about underlying tension that preceded the lacrosse event and remain.”

The advertisement gained additional prominence when, in the fall, the defense attorney for the lacrosse players requested a change of venue, citing the advertisement as evidence of Duke faculty bias against the players. More recently, on January 10th, a group of Duke economics professors penned a letter to the university newspaper countering the sense that faculty was inimical to students: “We welcome all members of the lacrosse team and all student athletes,” the letter stated. About 18 faculty signed it.

Economics professor E. Roy Weintraub wrote the letter supporting the Duke players. He says he felt “anguished” by the sense that faculty had abandoned Duke students, although he says he didn’t mean for the letter to be adversarial to his colleagues.

“These are friends of mine,” he says. “I’ve had some conversations and luncheons, we can disagree on things.”

The faculty sparring had begun on October 24th, when chemistry professor Steven W. Baldwin wrote a letter to the university newspaper accusing Duke faculty of turning the lacrosse players into “pariahs” and saying that those professors should be “tarred and feathered and run out of town on a rail.”

Many have called for the Group of 88 to retract its advertisement and apologize. Such critics aren’t likely to be comforted by the group’s “clarification.” Noticeably absent from the letter was any offer to retract the original advertisement or offer an apology to the lacrosse players, who have had the rape charges against them dropped for lack of evidence.

“There have been public calls to the authors to retract the ad or apologize for it, as well as calls for action against them and attacks on their character. We reject all of these,” the letter stated. “We think the ad’s authors were right to give voice to the students quoted, whose suffering is real. We also acknowledge the pain that has been generated by what we believe is a misperception that the authors of the ad prejudged the rape case.”

Professor Lee D. Baker was one of the scholars who discussed the content and signed the letter. He says the group discussed an apology before posting the letter. When asked if the group had considered apologizing, he said:

“We had a long discussion about what the word ‘regret’ means, and philosophy professors weighed in and we had a whole range of very detailed discussions in terms of the etymology of specific words. We were disappointed people did not understand the intention — it was never to rush to judgment, it was about listening to our students who have been trying to make their way in a not only racist and sexist campus, but country.”

–Christina Asquith



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