Forget the Facts
Duke's president has a history of allowing public relations to trump principle.


Michael Rubin

An exotic dancer’s accusation that Duke University lacrosse players raped her at a March 14 off-campus party continues to polarize Durham, Raleigh, and the Duke community. Those accused were white; the victim was black. Citing the racial overtones, both Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton joined the fray. For several days, protests rocked the Durham campus. On March 25, Duke University President Richard Brodhead issued a statement declaring, “Physical coercion and sexual assault are unacceptable in any setting and have no place at Duke.” Of course, he issued the caveat, “People are presumed innocent until proven guilty,” but on campuses today, such presumption is secondary. On April 5, Brodhead canceled the lacrosse team’s season and promised an investigation of the culture of college athletes as well as Duke’s own response. The lacrosse coach resigned.

Months later, more is known about the incident. While District Attorney Mike Nifong is pressing on with charges of rape and related accusations against three lacrosse players, his case is unraveling. Photos, witnesses, alibis, inconclusive DNA evidence, and even passed polygraphs make his case increasingly tenuous.

Unfortunately, it is not the first time that Brodhead has allowed public relations to trump principle. Prior to assuming the presidency of Duke, Brodhead was dean of Yale College. He was a popular teacher and, at least for the first half of his tenure as dean, a well-liked administrator as well. Then tragedy struck. On December 4, 1998, senior Suzanne Jovin was found stabbed to death and left at an intersection in a neighborhood adjacent to the Yale campus which housed many Yale professors and graduate students.

Many universities are shy about adverse publicity. At Yale, it’s an obsession. My freshman year, lacrosse player Christian Prince was shot and killed on the steps of a church, a couple dozen yards from a student dormitory. He was white; his alleged assailant was black. It was Yale’s worst nightmare. Parents and applicants peppered admissions officers and tour guides with questions about New Haven safety. The Damocles’ sword of incitement and town-gown racial tension hung over Yale’s administrators.

When Jovin was murdered, justice took a backseat to damage control. Within days New Haven police and Yale officials publicly fingered political scientist James Van de Velde, Jovin’s senior essay adviser. He was a star lecturer and had been a residential college dean. He was also a former White House appointee under George H. W. Bush and a member of the U.S. Naval Intelligence Reserves. Most Yale professors lean to the left of the student body; few in the political-science and international-relations departments have real-world experience. Van de Velde was the subject of personal jealousy and political animosity. Many faculty members–including Brodhead–looked askance at his desire to emphasize practical policymaking over theory. Some questioned, for example, his willingness to help Jovin write–in 1998–about the threat posed by Osama bin Laden to the U.S. to be unscholarly. From an academic point-of-view, Van de Velde was a black sheep.

Yale administrators did not care that there was neither evidence nor motive linking Van de Velde to Jovin. Her body had been found a half-mile from his house. Just as at Duke, Brodhead spoke eloquently about the principles of due process, but moved to subvert it. Citing the New Haven Police Department’s naming of Van de Velde among “a pool of suspects,” Brodhead cancelled Van de Velde’s spring-term lecture, explaining that “the cancellation of the course doesn’t follow from a judgment or a prejudgment of his hypothetical involvement in the Jovin case.” As at Duke, Brodhead insisted that due process would prevail. Despite Van de Velde’s stellar student reviews and distinguished record, Brodhead then let his contract lapse. Van de Velde left New Haven, his career in shambles.

Brodhead’s willingness to offer up a sacrificial lamb undercut justice in other ways. Three days after the murder, New Haven police spoke to Van de Velde, but declined his offers to let them search his home, take a DNA sample, or take a polygraph exam (they did dust his car for fingerprints; their findings provided no link).

They did find Jovin’s fingerprints on a plastic soda bottle found at the crime scene. The soda bottle also had someone else’s fingerprints–not Van de Velde’s. But, having a suspect, why process evidence? The Fresca bottle was crucial. She did not have the bottle when last seen alive on the main campus by a fellow student. That was a half hour before she was found dying almost two miles away. That particular brand of soda was sold in only one store on campus. By the time the police visited it–months later–that store’s surveillance tape had been erased. Nevertheless, her likely presence there turned the half-hour timeline upside-down, and raised the probability that her attacker(s) had forced her into a vehicle, attacked her, and then dumped her–not the type of news Yale parents want to hear. Jovin may also have fought off her attacker. Subsequent tests of material taken from beneath her fingernails revealed DNA that did not match Van de Velde’s, that of her boyfriend, any other friend or acquaintance, or any emergency worker who tried to save her. Neither Yale nor the New Haven police have explained why it took two years to test the scrapings. Nor have they explained why they ignored eyewitness accounts of a tan or brown van seen parked at the crime scene at the time of the crime. Van de Velde drove a red Jeep Wrangler. Brodhead has never apologized. In March 2000, a Yale spokesman dismissed press inquiries saying that more attention to the case “can only hurt Yale” (he would later deny he said it). Public relations trumps justice. Today, Jovin’s murder remains unsolved.

Leadership is not always easy, but it is incumbent upon university presidents to set an example. When university presidents act on principle, they can be subject to withering criticism and attack. The right path is not always easy. If Brodhead recognizes his error in the Jovin case, he should apologize to Van de Velde, its other victim. That he repeats his mistakes–at Yale canceling a class; at Duke, a lacrosse season–does his leadership a disservice. Although just yesterday he agreed to allow a “probationary” reinstatement of the lacrosse team, at Duke, he has affirmed those who, with accusations of racism and adherence to political correctness, demanded premature action. He has treated the accused cavalierly. Justice should take its course. Brodhead need not act until the charges are dismissed or a verdict returned. But, if then, it transpires that he has once again tarred the innocent, he can prove his leadership with an apology or a resignation.

–Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.


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