In the last couple of days I came across this odd juxtaposition of legal perspectives that speak to KC Johnson’s treatment of the lacrosse case.
The sense is a blog entry by University of Texas law professor Brian Leiter taking KC Johnson to task for his lacrosse-case coverage. In Leiter’s opinion “KC Johnson doesn’t read too well, and like most misreaders with an agenda, he misreads with a vengeance.” The two key texts for which Leiter disputes Johnson’s readings are the “listening” ad—Leiter has the chutzpah to argue that the ad’s endorsers actually know their own minds when they claim that the ad does not judge the lacrosse players guilty—and Wahneema Lubiano’s email soliciting signatures, in which, he argues, her mention that the ad is “about the lacrosse team incident” can’t be read as a statement of purpose that overrides what’s said in the ad itself.
I particularly appreciate his concluding paragraph:
Neither lawyers nor one expects historians would ordinarily credit such tortured interpretive practices as those Professor Johnson brings to bear in order to smear a “group” of faculty. That he overreached in this regard is all the more regrettable since it is clear that there were some individual faculty who made comments (that have no resonance with the ad) that were, at best, intemperate and, at worst, grossly irresponsible.
The “Group of 88” is not a help but a hindrance to anyone who wants to understand what went wrong at Duke in spring 2006.
The nonsense is an article by Azhar Majeed entitled “More Shameful Behavior at Duke University” in the webzine of an organization called the FIRE (“Foundation for Individual Rights in Education”). The only thing that might pass as news in Majeed’s article is that someone quoted FIRE co-founder Harvey Silverglate in another article about a well known flare-up in the lacrosse controversy—the column written by Duke professor Steven Baldwin for the Duke Chronicle in late October 06. According to KC Johnson, with this column Baldwin became “the first member of the arts and sciences faculty to publicly criticize the ‘despicable’ rush-to-judgment denunciations of his colleagues.” I’m happy to grant that it was past time for faculty members to speak publicly and critically about the treatment of the lacrosse players on campus and by Nifong. I’m hard pressed to think of a way of making the point that’s more obnoxious and less constructive than Baldwin’s, though.
Majeed follows Johnson closely, describing Baldwin as “a rare voice of reason among the school’s faculty” who “courageously wrote [the] op-ed.” Based on his second paragraph, Majeed might do well writing for The Onion:
Tellingly, yet another shameful episode came out of Professor Baldwin’s efforts. Towards the end of his op-ed, he had written that the aforementioned faculty members deserved to be tarred and feathered and ridden out of town on a rail. Somehow, this created a controversy.
What Baldwin actually said is that “[t]hey should be tarred and feathered, ridden out of town on a rail and removed from the academy. Their comments were despicable.”
Amazing that would create a controversy, isn’t it? Robin Weigman, Director of Women’s Studies at Duke, wrote a short, well-modulated letter to the paper in response. In it she does say that “[b]eing tarred and feathered is the language of lynching,” and that’s the line that got the bulk of the attention. In the usual blot-out-the-forest-with-a-tree response, The Johnsville News pointed out that it’s not really the language of lynching, but so what? It’s still the language of intolerance and vigilantism, directed indiscriminately at an unspecified group of colleagues who didn’t live up to the paternalistic standard Baldwin set for himself and the university.
Baldwin ended up issuing an apology, about which Harvey Silverglate says
it is unbearably sad that Professor Baldwin, having used a perfectly apt metaphor for how the unapologetic faculty members should be treated, then saw fit to kneel down at the altar of political correctness and issue the ritual apology.
“Tarred and feathered” and “ridden out of town on a rail” are common enough metaphors, but strung together with “removed from the academy” they become the hyperbolic flourish on a very concrete suggestion. In a tit-for-tat that strikes me as unwarranted, some of the faculty targeted wrote to Brodhead asking that Baldwin be fired. I’m sure there were barbs flying back and forth that aren’t in the public record, and some may have smacked of reflexive political correctness. But considering the tone of the statement she was responding to, I don’t see how Weigman’s letter can be dismissed in those terms.
I don’t know what to make of FIRE, which has on its board of advisers people like Nat Hentoff and Wendy Kaminer, and claims what should be a non-partisan mission: “to defend and sustain individual rights at America’s colleges and universities… [including] freedom of speech, legal equality, due process, religious liberty, and sanctity of conscience.” To say they’ve uncritically accepted Johnson and Taylor’s version of the lacrosse case is an understatement—in their review of Until Proven Innocent they say that “Duke President Richard Brodhead and his goons made a habit of pandering to hostile faculty members and demonizing the accused students….”
Goons? Perfectly apt metaphor? Unbearably sad? FIRE may be serious about free speech, but with respect to the lacrosse case they seem to feel no obligation to either hear or respect the perspective of a substantial part of the Duke community.
Until now I hadn’t registered Johnson’s description of Baldwin as “the first of the nearly 500 members of Duke’s arts and sciences faculty to stand up publicly and testify to my profession’s best qualities.” This may shed some light on what Johnson meant when he claimed in DIW to be defending the ideals of his profession. As far as I know Baldwin is a fine teacher who gets excellent results by “[regarding his] students in much the same way [he regards his] children.” I’m confident that I can fulfill my professional obligations by treating my students as young adults in search of an education, responsible to themselves and not to me for their behavior. And however much the lacrosse team deserved support, I don’t believe that Baldwin’s hectoring and paternalistic op-ed represented anything like his profession’s best qualities.
Tenured Radical (aka Professor Claire Potter) has been kicking the hornets nest again with two posts about Johnson. In the first, she takes issue with his spin on a recent faculty job search in History at the University of Iowa. The second is her exemplary response to the suggestion her colleague Ralph Luker registered in the comment thread that she was baiting Johnson, and a subsequent comment that was dismissive of Luker in rather personal terms. I continue to be impressed by the reflective quality of her blog, not to mention the intelligence and sense of humor. What follows is an edited version of the comment I left on the second post (I see there’s a third on the same theme today, but I haven’t had a chance to read it yet).
I appreciate not only Potter’s clear description of the context of Duke’s “perfect storm” but also her frank acknowledgment of the human element—friendship, loyalty, and identification—in the reactions to such controversies. One of the worst aspects of Johnson’s scorched-earth criticism of Duke is his lack of interest in or sensitivity to the human element unless it can be reduced to something useful—sinister on one side, sympathetic on the other. The point has been brought home to me when I’ve heard from people who were on the scene. Even those who disagree with my harsh criticism of DIW have done a better job than Johnson at putting the over-the-top vehemence of some of the reactions at Duke into a human context.
It’s easy to point out Johnson’s flaws but harder to come up with a constructive reaction that goes beyond that. Watching the direction of the comment thread on the first post, I was tempted to chime in and reinforce an important point Potter made in passing, contrasting Johnson’s “manic resentment” with “the focused, constructive critique our profession undoubtedly deserves and should encourage.” In the same vein her post today suggests that “if, in the instance of the lacrosse case, the response was inappropriate to the actual circumstances, if students were unfairly stigmatized in classrooms, that should have been the object of civilized critique as well.” It’s too easy to just circle the wagons in the face of Johnson’s relentless attacks, and as I’ve been picking over the bones of the Duke scandal I’ve ended up with the impression that too many real issues were reactively and defensively ceded to his side. Where were the voices of constructive, civilized critique when we needed them?
[I’ve now read Potter’s third post and it’s the best yet—highly recommended.]