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The October 2007 Lacrosse Committee Controversy

One of the last skirmishes of the Duke lacrosse controversy, as it was fading from campus and public consciousness, was stirred up by a letter James Coleman and Prasad Kasibhatla wrote to the Duke Chronicle. In it, they take KC Johnson and Stuart Taylor to task for misrepresenting the conclusions of the lax committee and also for overplaying the idea of Duke faculty as “a bunch of ideologues who care less about the their students and more about promoting their own extremist agendas.” What follows are some key quotations from the dispute about the committee report. [I originally put this page together in April 2008 as supporting material for this post. Right now, Dec. 2010, I’m reworking it and fixing some formatting issues and links.]

Here’s the charge, from the Coleman-Kasibhatla letter in the Oct. 5 2007 issue of the Chronicle:

Firstly, we reject the characterization put forward by critics like Stuart Taylor and KC Johnson that the Lacrosse Committee report, that examined the past behavior of the lacrosse team, is a “stunning vindication” of the team (Washington Post, September 7, 2007). On the contrary, the report very carefully details a pattern of behavior that the committee characterized as “socially irresponsible” that should “have been a cause for alarm.” Dismissing this finding as trivial is a biased and unjustified misrepresentation of the facts.

Johnson and Taylor respond with their own letter to the Chronicle on Oct. 10. It’s more a deflection than an answer — their main preoccupation is wondering why Coleman had chosen that particular time and occasion to criticize them. With respect to the committee report, they seem to have good reasons to be confused:

It equally puzzles us that the duo attacked our characterization of the Coleman Committee report. One or both of us have given similar characterizations of the report, in print, no fewer than 23 times since May 2, 2006. Never did Professor Coleman (with whom we have spoken or e-mailed on multiple occasions) challenge our description, much less in the harsh tone employed in the Chronicle letter. Since our book directly quotes from the report’s section dealing with the lacrosse players’ alcohol-related arrests, it seems peculiar to suggest we overlooked this point.

In the comments following the Johnson-Taylor response, another Duke faculty member who sat on the committee, Kerry Haynie, weighs in to second Coleman and Kasibhatla. Johnson writes a post on the same day hitting back at Haynie, and it quotes much of Haynie’s comment. Here’s Haynie entire comment (it’s no longer on the Chronicle site). I’ve italicized the parts that Johnson leaves out:

Kerry L. Haynie
posted 10/10/07 @ 1:45 PM EST

As a member of the Lacrosse ad hoc Review Committee, I join with Professors Coleman and Kasibhatla in their criticism of the way in which KC Johnson has mischaracterized our committee’s report. I have not read the Taylor and Johnson book, but I have seen assertions about our report by Taylor and Johnson in newspapers, and I’ve seen statements about the report by Johnson posted on his blog. Johnson has made statements that give a misleading and inaccurate view of what the report concludes. Moreover, contrary to the impression one gets from reading various comments from Johnson, in which he selectively quotes from our report, the committee’s investigation and deliberations had NOTHING to do with the LAX criminal case. Any and all judgments we reached were about the team’s behavior and conduct as members of the Duke community PRIOR to the night of the incident that gave rise to the criminal case. Our report cannot and should not be seen as a commentary on anything that happened on that now infamous and tragic evening. We neither exonerated nor condemned anybody for anything that was alleged to have happened that night.

Our report is a public document and can be read by anyone in its entirety, without selective quoting and without interrupting commentary by Taylor and Johnson.

Finally, all of you who are inclined to send me nasty, racist, and or vile anonymous emails, do not send them. I will do as my colleagues have done and simply delete them. KC and Stuart, as usual, I will not respond to you either.

Here is what Johnson, writing on DIW, makes of Haynie’s comment:

The letter generated an extraordinarily revealing reply from “clarifying” professor Kerry Haynie:

As a member of the Lacrosse ad hoc Review Committee, I join with Professors Coleman and Kasibhatla in their criticism of the way in which KC Johnson has mischaracterized our committee’s report. I have not read the Taylor and Johnson book… Our report cannot and should not be seen as a commentary on anything that happened on that now infamous and tragic evening. We neither exonerated nor condemned anybody for anything that was alleged to have happened that night… KC and Stuart, as usual, I will not respond to you either.

Haynie suggested that he had read (unidentified) posts on the blog, as well as seen “assertions” by either Stuart or me “in the newspapers” (again unidentified).

Had Prof. Haynie read the book before penning his letter, he would have realized that Stuart and I never even remotely claimed anywhere in the book that the report either “exonerated nor condemned anybody for anything that was alleged to have happened” on “that now infamous and tragic evening.” (I have never made such a claim in the blog, nor am I aware of any “newspaper” that has featured anything resembling an “assertion” from either Stuart or me suggesting such a claim.) It’s troubling to see Prof. Haynie, a tenured faculty member at one of the nation’s leading universities, admit his closed-mindedness: he will not read his critics’ work, nor will he respond to them, but he feels safe in publicly condemning them.

The paragraph that Coleman and Kasibhatla object to was in an editorial by Johnson and Taylor in the Sep. 7, 2007 Washington Post.

Yes, the report Coleman’s committee issued in May 2006 said that some lacrosse players drank unlawfully or excessively and had committed such petty offenses as having noisy parties. But alcohol aside, the report was a stunning vindication. Team members had “performed well academically”; respected the Duke employees with whom they came into contact; behaved well on trips; supported current and former African American players; and had no history of fighting, sexual assault or harassment, or racist slurs.

And finally, here’s a paragraph from the committee report in which Coleman, Haynie, and the others lay out the main problems they found with the lacrosse team:

Paradoxically, in contrast to their exemplary academic and athletic performance, a large number of the members of the team have been socially irresponsible when under the influence of alcohol. They have repeatedly violated the law against underage drinking. They have drunk alcohol excessively. They have disturbed their neighbors with loud music and noise, both on-campus and off-campus. They have publicly urinated both on-campus and off. They have shown disrespect for property. Both the number of team members implicated in this behavior and the number of alcohol-related incidents involving them have been excessive compared to other Duke athletic teams. Nevertheless, their conduct has not been different in character than the conduct of the typical Duke student who abuses alcohol. Their reported conduct has not involved fighting, sexual assault or harassment, or racist behavior. Moreover, even the people who have complained about their alcohol-related misconduct often add that the students are respectful and appear genuinely remorseful when they are not drinking.

The Dr.-Jeckyl-and-Mr.-Hyde impression I get from this paragraph has always struck me as something that deserves more thought and attention than it seemed to get. It’s definitely not the kind of thing Johnson is inclined to look into. But it seems to me that in general, on DIW, he represents the committee report fairly accurately. I didn’t find any instance of it being construed as having passed judgment on the behavior at the party or on the validity of the assault allegations. My best guess is that, from the perspective of the two men who served on the committee, the basic problem with “stunning vindication” is that it might give the impression that the lacrosse team had behaved well in an absolute sense. (If I was in their shoes what would irk me is the way the report has been used as a prop for a demagogic crusade, and it’s always seemed to me that the other big point in the Coleman-Kasibhatla letter is more telling—see this comment and Johnson’s response, further down.)