At Duke, a Failure to Communicate

May 9, 2006

It’s an unusual move for a university to seek out and then willingly publicize a critique of administrative practices. But then these are unusual times at Duke University, where an alleged rape of a black woman by white members of the men’s lacrosse team continues to unsettle the campus and surrounding community.

An independent committee, established by President Richard Brodhead in the wake of the alleged incident, released a report Monday reprimanding Duke's campus police for failing to inform senior administrators at Duke about the potentially explosive racial elements of the case, and criticizing those administrators for acting too slow in understanding the magnitude of the situation and the “highly sensitive issues” raised in the case.

The committee also found Duke administrators at fault for “taking at face value” reported comments from the Durham police early in the case that the accuser was not credible. The report accuses Sue Wasiolek, the assistant vice president of student affairs and dean of students; Larry Moneta, vice president for student affairs; and Duke police officials of “seriously underestimating the seriousness of the allegations.”

“These were complicated times,” said the committee's co-chair, William G. Bowen, president of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and former president of Princeton University. “Some people made good judgments. Others made not-so-good judgments. Communication glitches were exacerbated by underestimation of the seriousness of the charges.”

The committee found no evidence that the university’s delayed response indicated an effort to cover up information, concluding instead that the case represents “serious errors in judgment.”

According to the report, communication failures began on March 14, the morning after the alleged rape, which members of the lacrosse team vehemently deny occurred. The Durham Police Department reported facts of the case to Duke's police director, Robert Dean, including the information that the accuser was black. The Duke police report also indicated the race of the female exotic dancer, yet that information didn’t reach high-level administrators, including Brodhead, until March 24, the report notes.

Dean conveyed information about members of the lacrosse team being implicated to Wasiolek by telephone, but did not mention that the accuser was black, the report says. Wasiolek phoned her supervisor, Moneta, and also called officials in the athletics department, who contacted the lacrosse players. Brodhead first learned of the incident from a student newspaper article on March 20, the report notes.

Also brought into question by the report is why Duke police didn’t pass along to administrators information about the 911 call in which a woman complained about racial slurs coming from the house where the party occurred, and why the university didn’t look into the reasons why Durham police officers obtained a warrant and searched the room of a lacrosse player who sent an e-mail threatening to harm strippers.

“[The university] needs to be more careful reviewing complaints when they come from women and minorities,” said the investigative committee's other co-chair, Julius L. Chambers, a longtime leader of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and former chancellor of North Carolina Central University, where the alleged victim in the lacrosse case is a student. “You don’t just discount a complaint because of who made it.”

While praising Brodhead for appropriately responding to the situation, the committee said the president needed to focus on diversifying senior leadership at the university. In a telephone press conference Monday, Brodhead said the lack of diversity had become clear upon arriving at the university. “I value differing opinions,” Brodhead said. “But I’m never going to hire anybody who isn’t the best person to do the job.”

The committee suggested that the university articulate clearer guidelines for student conduct and review policies regarding alcohol consumption and off-campus housing. Similar suggestions were given last week by two university committees that released simultaneous reports on the culture surrounding the lacrosse team and the state of the university’s judicial system.

Brodhead promised that the university would look into ways to improve communication between athletics, student affairs, and the campus and city police. He stopped short of promising any personnel changes. “At the appropriate time of year" -- he later added it would probably be in June -- "everyone named in the document will be reviewed as they are annually,” Brodhead said. “It’s premature to pre-judge the work of reviewers.”

Brodhead said he met last week with players on the men’s lacrosse team to discuss the current situation and the team’s future, on which he has yet to decide. The president said he told the team that if and when it is reinstated, members would need to agree to “more clear ideas of the standards they will need to live up to.” 

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