Politics & Policy

In Loco Parentis… or Just Loco?

Duke lumbers on.

The Duke University lacrosse scandal continues to bathe that august institution in the soft light of self-righteousness and hypocrisy. One year ago, as readers will no doubt recall, three white lacrosse players were accused of rape by a black stripper whom the team had hired.

#ad#Duke students and faculty members responded with the judicious calm of professional wrestlers. Students hung “Wanted” posters on campus featuring the faces of the alleged assailants, and 88 faculty members sponsored a full-page advertisement in the student newspaper. The ad, created by Wahneema H. Lubiano, an associate professor of literature and African and African-American studies, was headlined, “What Does a Social Disaster Sound Like?”

The ad declared: “These students are shouting and whispering about what happened to this young woman and themselves” and “the disaster didn’t begin on March 13th and won’t end with what the police say or the court decides.”

It concluded, “We’re turning up the volume in a moment when some of the most vulnerable among us are being asked to quiet down while we wait. To the students speaking individually and to the protestors making collective noise, thank you for not waiting and for making yourselves heard.”

While some decried this rush to judgment and advocated calm until the allegations had been investigated, the signatories defended their ad as a blow for tolerance. Karla F. C. Holloway, the English professor who dreamed up the ad, explains that professors should “give voice to student concerns.”

Moreover, as Holloway recently told The Chronicle of Higher Education, no one should have imagined that the ad was accusing the young men of rape. For instance, she says, the phrase “what happened to this young woman” did not mean that the faculty presumed she had been raped. Holloway explains, “Something did happen [at the house]. A party happened. Drunkenness happened. If you want to read ‘happening’ in one particular way, that’s the bias you bring to your reading.”

The court case has now come apart — amidst a staggering display of misconduct by the lead prosecutor and ongoing shifts in the accuser’s story — leaving it unclear what charges, if any, will ultimately be tried. Has this prompted some faculty members to express remorse or second thoughts?

In January, seventeen members of the economics department published a letter in the student newspaper expressing regret over the perception that Duke faculty were prejudiced against some students. They welcomed all students — including lacrosse players — to enroll in their courses.

This seemingly bland statement triggered a bitter outcry from other faculty members. Several professors resented the far-out notion that they might be biased against athletes or white males.

Literature professor Kenneth Surin told The Chronicle of Higher Education that the whole question of “welcoming” students was a red herring. “I admit students to my classes, I do not welcome them. I am not at the door shaking people’s hands,” he explained. Besides, he said, athletes would never take his classes. “I do not give quizzes. I give very hard reading.”

This spring Duke’s cultural anthropology department is offering the course “The Hook-Up Culture at Duke,” co-taught by department chair Anne Allison, who was one of the 88 to sign last spring’s ad. Part of Allison’s syllabus asks, “What does the lacrosse scandal tell us about power, difference, and raced, classed, gendered, and sexed normativity in the U.S.?”

When an engineering professor saw the syllabus and inquired about it, Allison was annoyed. “The very query seemed hostile. I mean, I’m not asking him about his class,” she told The Chronicle of Higher Education.

In January Duke’s provost, Peter Lange, addressed the faculty’s behavior by offering a ringing call for everyone…to be nice. Lange told the faculty, “When we hear things we don’t like…we need to judge the substance and not the person, assume the better rather than the worse of intentions.”

Meanwhile, Kyle Dowd, a Duke lacrosse player who graduated last spring, is suing the university and a political science professor, claiming that the professor — one of the so-called Group of 88 — unjustly failed him and a teammate. In response to Dowd’s initial appeal, Duke cited a “calculation error” and raised his grade. But the lawsuit proceeds.

A year later, Duke lumbers on. Faculty at an elite educational institution eagerly scapegoated three young men in the service of larger agendas. Today, some professors make it clear that athletes are unwelcome in their classrooms, others use a still-hazy “scandal” to promote classroom political agendas, and still others find themselves in court — along with the tattered presumptions of classroom impartiality.

So much for in loco parentis. Would you entrust your kids to these people?

– Frederick M. Hess is director of education-policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

Frederick M. Hess — Mr. Hess is the director of education-policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

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