Monday, April 6, 2009

O’Neil’s Analysis of Duke’s Group of 88: Casuistry Triumphs Over Common Sense

Robert M. O’Neil authored the chapter “Faculty Reactions, Contentious Debate, and Academic Freedom,” in the book Race to Injustice. KC Johnson has already reviewed this article ( I would go further than Professor Johnson does, however, who writes “In a few other areas, however, O’Neil seems excessively willing to give the Group the benefit of the doubt.” The chapter is solicitous about the woes of the Group of 88 and nearly silent about its faults to the point that its objectivity is hopelessly compromised. The problems with his article are as often sins of omission as sins of commission.

O’Neil’s article is weakest in its analysis of chemistry professor Steven Baldwin’s interactions with the Group of 88. O’Neil has nothing to say about Baldwin’s main point, that a university and its faculty should use the principle of in loco parentis to guide its actions toward students ( Indeed, O’Neil spends little if any time on the fact that the Group of 88 and its allies upbraided the lacrosse players and their families in public.

Baldwin closed:

“On the other hand I do not believe that a faculty member publicly describing any student in pejorative terms is ever justified. To do so is mean-spirited, petty and unprofessional, at the very least. The faculty who publicly savaged the character and reputations of specific men’s lacrosse players last spring should be ashamed of themselves.

They should be tarred and feathered, ridden out of town on a rail and removed from the academy. Their comments were despicable.”

I discussed the Duke lacrosse case with a very highly esteemed professor at Wabash College, my alma mater. He said that he did not think that Wabash would treat its students this way. He thought and hoped that they would be defended against the outside world and raked over the coals in private (presumably for the boorish behavior of some of the players). Baldwin made clear that acting in loco parentis did not mean forswearing accountability. Yet he also indicated that the Group of 88 and/or the faculty had dispensed with the presumption of innocence. Those casually following the case in the spring of 2006 might have concluded that the lacrosse players were a rotten bunch, given that their professors’ comments seemed to buttress those of District Attorney Michael Nifong.

However, it is Baldwin’s pentultimate comment that draws O’Neil’s fire. Baldwin’s desire to remove the offending faculty is “starkly uncollegial (p. 46). In ascending order of seriousness, there are a number of problems with O’Neil’s analysis. First, Baldwin was not literally calling for their removal any more than he was planning to buy feathers and warm up a vat of tar. Second, Robyn Wiegman claimed that tarring and feathering was the language of lynching (something that she and the rest of the group must have known was untrue), implying that Baldwin was a racist. As Johnson remarked, this is hardly collegial. At least Baldwin’s essay was based in what the Group of 88 and its allies had actually done. Third, members of the Group of 88 met with President Broadhead and asked him to fire Baldwin, literally to remove him from the academy. O’Neil does not even mention the latter two points, which seem far more uncollegial. It was Baldwin who defused the situation (with the encouragement of the provost) by apologizing for saying that the errant faculty should be “tarred and feathered,” though Harvey Silverglate opined that Baldwin surrendered the moral high ground by doing so. Fourth, Houston Baker called for Duke to fire Coach Pressler and to dismiss the players ( O’Neil fails to address any of these behaviors.

It is pertinent that Karla Holloway publicly criticized the women’s lacrosse team (Until Proven Innocent, p. 234) for “the team-inspired and morally slender protestations of loyalty that brought the ethic from the field of play onto the field of legal and cultural and gendered battle as well.” The women’s lacrosse team had worn armbands in support of the three indicted players. The hypocrisy of criticizing women (including at least one woman of mixed racial heritage) for speaking out when the Group of 88 had thanked protestors for their demonstrations against the supposed racism and sexism of the men’s team is obvious. It also makes risible the Group of 88’s opening claim that “We are listening to our students.”

O’Neil quotes the policy of the American Association of University Professors, which states that professors “should show respect for the opinions of others,” but he points out that this policy was modified in 1970. Even in diluted form, the AAUP’s policy would seem contrary to Houston Baker’s December 2006 response to a polite email from a lacrosse parent. The parent had asked Baker to reconsider his views in the light of recent evidence. Baker called the players “farm animals,” among other obnoxious comments.

It is legitimate to ask whether criticism of students falls within a faculty member’s academic freedom or does it constitute a violation of the university’s or the AAUP’s code of faculty conduct. Yet, one has to look at all the facts, not select only the criticisms of the Group of 88 that one thinks one can rebut. Moreover, if we conclude that the faculty had the right to shame the student-athletes and even to ask that they be kicked out, but fail to ask should they have done so, we are missing the more critical issue. Baldwin said that the impact of the ad was devastating, swinging the pendulum against the players ( O’Neil gives little consideration to this viewpoint, just as he ignores Wiegman’s, Holloway’s, and Baker’s incivility, preferring casuistry to common sense.


bill anderson said...

The problem here is that we are dealing with faculty members who not only despise many of the students at Duke, but they truly believe they are morally and intellectually superior to everyone else.

Baldwin clearly was not using "racist" language, yet his comments were shouted down with the typical lies that we have seen. I also will say that Karla Holloway was an out-and-out snake in this whole affair, and remains unrepentant as to her role in encouraging the false prosecution of three Duke students. She has not had to answer for what she did.

Anonymous said...

The Gang of 88

is a fiction.

halides1 said...

The group of 88 is defined by their signatures on the "We are listening..." statement. What do you mean when you say that they are a fiction?

Solitude said...

I think he means that their academic credentials are largely fictitious.

Has Lubiano's book ever come out?

halides1 said...

KC Johnson recently posted on Lubiano's meager output:

Debrah said...

Being shouted down?What about using violence to halt free speech?

Anonymous said...

I sent the following to KC which he would non allow.
Did I do something wrong?

The Justice Project Article states, "Failure to comply with legal, ethical, and constitutional obligations constitutes prosecutorial misconduct".

It further lists the following behaviors as misconducts.
1. Suppressed exculpatory evidence;
2. Knowingly presented false testimony;
3. Coerced witnesses;
4. Fabricated evidence;
5. Making false statements to the jury;
6. The use of unreliable in-custody informant testimony;
7. Courtroom misconduct;
8. Mishandling of physical evidence;
9. Threatening or badgering witnesses;
10. Using false or misleading evidence;
11. Improper behavior during grand jury proceedings.

The Nifong behaviors you enumerate meet both the definition of misconduct and are contained in the above list. In the context of the Justice Project Article, I can believe there are dozens of cases where these misconducts have occurred.

Therefor I join chemistry professor "halkides1" in asking which one element of the periodic table or the above list you're referring to?

I would also have expected you to mention the names of the "Other Case Prosecutors": Brenda Morris, William Welch, Joseph Bottini, James Goeke, Nicholas Marsh, and Edward Sullivan. If they are found guilty of misconduct that would be a conspiracy, which is worse than the solo actions of Nifong.
North of Detroit

Anonymous said...

Off topic venting.

4/20/09 12:36 PM KC posted:
A quick reply to some of the above, which I will refer to the "Tea protesters" to avoid any suggestion of derision, and then I would like to move the comment thread on to the topic of the post. (Off comment items therefore won't be cleared.)

KC takes a cheap shot and then declares those who protest it off topic? He declares portions of his own blog off topic?

I accused him of being #89. Fat chance he'll list that.

North of Detroit Tea Bagger