Still Burning

April 18, 2006

When the DNA evidence comes in, things will surely calm down. That’s what some at Duke University predicted as the lacrosse debacle grew. But the DNA is in, and the Durham campus is still thronged with news trucks, their satellite dishes at full mast, and student outrage persists on both sides of the controversy.

“I’ve been at Duke 33 years,” said Sue Wasiolek, dean of students and assistant vice president for student affairs. “I’ve never seen anything like this … the intensity of interest and the sustained focus.”

Sex, violence, sports, race and town-gown relations have combined to make a black woman's accusation -- that she was raped by white Duke lacrosse players when she showed up at a lacrosse party to perform as an exotic dancer -- the “perfect storm,” Wasiolek said.

Many people expected a clear step in some direction Monday in the form of indictments, and while late last night news reports indicated that at least two lacrosse players had been named in sealed indictments, nothing formal had been released. Early Tuesday, two players were arrested and their lawyers insisted that they are not guilty.

Paul H. Haagen, a professor of law and head of Duke’s Academic Council, said that, “as critical race theorists remind us, people operate according to myths and stories.” He said that, for some people, the Duke lacrosse donnybrook conjures up Tawanna Brawley, while for others “it is the ability of rich and powerful persons and institutions to hide their misdeeds.” He added, “I think you’ve got really deep concerns about the future of the United States, the role of education, the role of athletics, race, gender, and violence against women. Our community is the backdrop for people working these issues out.”

Haagen added that the news media attention has provided the bully pulpit for both those with legitimate grievances and those who simply have a bone to pick.

Lawyers, both the district attorney and those representing the lacrosse players, came out with press conference guns blaring -- but still, no indictments have been issued publicly.

The lawyers weren’t the only ones espousing certainties before crucial evidence came in. Houston Baker, a Duke English professor, has appeared on national television multiple times, and has publicly called for “immediate dismissals of those principally responsible for the horrors of this spring moment at Duke,” according to an open letter to administrators.

A columnist for the student newspaper, The Duke Chronicle, said that Baker played up the fear and loathing for a national audience. “A responsible, and in many instances appalled -- and yes, frightened -- citizenry of Duke University is waiting,” his letter continued.

Boston Cote, a senior at Duke and the column author, criticized Baker’s rush to judgment, and the general lack of patience on all sides of the controversy.

In an interview, Cote called Baker a “fire starter,” and said that “he has had an enormous influence on campus.” Baker did not respond to messages Monday. Like several other people interviewed at Duke, Cote called out the television commentator Nancy Grace for publicly convicting the lacrosse players on a daily basis. “You see a lot of even handed reporting from anchors,” Cote said. “And then you see Nancy Grace.”

Cote said that, though the DNA evidence didn’t defuse passions, as more holes have appeared in the accuser’s account, people have “stepped back a bit” to wait for more of the story to unfold.

Haagen said that one reason the DNA probably didn’t calm things down is that “for people who believe this case is about how poor black women can never get justice, they will be confirmed in their view,” he said. Race relations have been the forefront of much of the fury.

In an effort to spur some productive dialogue, several Duke student groups held a forum on race relations last week. Nelson Williams, a Duke undergraduate and co-director of the Center for Race Relations, said that, for many students, the lacrosse discussion is a discussion about everything from “Duke-Durham relationships and racism, to privilege and power, and gender disparities,” he wrote in an e-mail.

Williams added that “this situation has shed light on many opinions about treatment by the police and community depending on the race of the victim/perpetrator of any crime.”

Everybody in the Duke community hopes that the current school of hard knocks will result in some lasting lessons. Williams said the ongoing dialogues about race and gender were “very much needed” on campus.

Still, Cote said that forward progress has generally been impeded because “people have been coming at it with very angry attitudes,” she said. Like several people interviewed, Cote hopes that summer vacation will take the edge of the tensions, and people can return to productive discussion in the fall.

By then, said J. Douglas Toma, an associate professor of higher education at the University of Georgia, news anchors will have time to move on to “the next white student in Aruba who gets abducted.”

“This level of intensity is something you can only sustain for a short amount of time,” Toma said, adding that generally only things like wars sustain such heated student sentiment across academic years. “This is something the institution can directly address,” he said. “And it seems to be doing so.”

One thing Duke had done even before the now notorious night was to buy 12 homes across the street from campus, according to Wasiolek, including the house in which the rape is alleged to have occurred.

Because the students are just across the street, faculty members and administrators characterized them as straddling two worlds, the on-campus one -- where parties are normal but activities are monitored -- and the off-campus one -- where they are not monitored, but partying doesn't necessarily fit the neighborhood. “Students who live near campus engage in student activities which are unlike those of their neighbors, and it creates conflict,” Haagen said.

The purchasing plan was in response to complaints from community residents about things that are par for campus, like noise and parties, but are annoyances in residential neighborhoods. Wasiolek said that the plan was to turn the homes into single-family dwellings, probably for Duke faculty members.

Wasiolek said she never could have predicted the furor that erupted, and added that she’s looking forward to seeing the satellite dishes down, and the trucks gone. “At some point … whether people are passionate about preventing sexual violence, or race relations, or running an athletic department, they have work to do,” she said. And the Duke community, it seems, is eager to get back to work.

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