Was Nan Keohane Worse Than Brodhead?

In October 2006, 60 Minutes offered a searing examination of the Duke lacrosse case. Reported by the late Ed Bradley, the broadcast exposed then-Durham D.A. Mike Nifong for what he was: an unethical prosecutor advancing a non-existent case to secure the votes of African-Americans he needed to win an upcoming Democratic primary. The broadcast also represented a public relations low point for the Duke administration. Speaking to Bradley, Duke president Richard Brodhead declined to condemn Nifong’s behavior. Nor did he question the dubious and in some cases unprofessional conduct by his own university’s “activist” faculty members.
Brodhead, instead, targeted the victims of the prosecutor’s and his faculty’s misconduct: his own students. With a pronounced smirk, he defended Duke’s actions by accusing the lacrosse players of having engaged in “highly unacceptable behavior.”
More than two years after Brodhead’s ill-fated introduction to the national media, Duke has made a reported eight-figure settlement with the three falsely accused lacrosse players. The university also settled lawsuits with former lacrosse coach Mike Pressler and the family of a lacrosse player who suffered grade retaliation from an anti-lacrosse Duke professor. Duke still faces a civil rights lawsuit filed by the unindicted lacrosse players, and the university recently learned that its insurance carrier is refusing to cover any defense or settlement costs arising from the lacrosse case.

In response to these lawsuits, the university has affirmed that future Duke students who run afoul of its unchastened, politically correct faculty ideologues are on their own. In a court filing a few weeks ago, Duke attorney Jamie Gorelick conceded that while the university’s student bulletin prohibits professors from discriminating against students on basis of race, gender, or athletic status, the Brodhead administration does not view the document as “a valid contract.” Somehow, I doubt that Duke will share Gorelick’s words with prospective parents of the Class of 2013.
Quite beyond these legal outcomes, the lacrosse case was a massive academic scandal. Dozens of faculty members at one of the nation’s leading universities abandoned the academy’s traditional fealty to due process, instead exploiting a (false) criminal case against their own students to advance their own pedagogical or ideological agendas. The most spectacular example came when 88 of them—the Group of 88—published an ad two weeks into the case thanking protesters who had, among other things, urged the castration of the lacrosse players. The university’s administration at best was intimidated by its own faculty and at worst jettisoned its own student bulletin and faculty handbook to join the crusade.
Despite this record, university officials have, almost incredibly, presented Brodhead as a victim of the case. John Simon, Duke’s vice provost for academic affairs, has urged observers to “consider the lacrosse incident a 12- to 18-month total disruption of the life of the president.” And Brodhead’s performance received a sympathetic appraisal from his predecessor, Nan Keohane. “The lacrosse thing was kind of a zinger out of the blue,” Keohane recently told the Yale Daily News. “It was the accident of timing that it came on Dick’s watch and not mine. I had attempted to deal with some of the things that may have been at the root of the problem, but we hadn’t really made a huge amount of progress.”
There’s scant evidence, however, that Keohane “had attempted to deal with some of the things that may have been at the root of the problem” during her decade-long tenure as Duke president. Among the problems exposed by the lacrosse case that were either ignored or intensified during Keohane’s reign:
– Academic groupthink involving issues of race, class, and gender: Keohane and her dean of faculty, future Group of 88 member William Chafe, had reconfigured faculty lines (in the name of a “diversity” agenda) to hire specialists in race, class, or gender issues; many of the professors with the worst performance in the lacrosse case (Wahneema Lubiano, Kim Curtis, Grant Farred, Houston Baker) joined the faculty during the Keohane administration.
– “Activist” faculty ignoring the rules: To take the most blatant example, future Group of 88 member Anne Allison, joined by 38 colleagues, violated Duke rules by using university funds to pay for an anti-Bush newspaper ad. Allison’s cohort received a slap on the wrist—hardly a sufficient deterrent to prevent the Group of 88 from violating the very same rule in the lacrosse case.
– Administrative indifference to student civil liberties: As former Duke student body president Elliot Wolf observed, throughout the last decade, Duke has changed its bulletin to strip rights from students caught up in the campus judicial process.
Instead, Keohane, like Brodhead in his 60 Minutes interview, seemed to view Duke students as the “root of the problem” exposed by the lacrosse case. The Yale Daily News reported that “at Duke, she said, women had to be pretty without trying to be pretty; smart, without trying to be smart; funny, but not overbearing. Keohane worried that Duke men did not always respect their female counterparts.”
In a follow-up e-mail to me, Keohane denied that her comment insinuated that the lacrosse players were the “root of the problem” in an event where dozens of Duke professors exploited the efforts of a rogue prosecutor and a lying stripper. The “problem,” she suggested, was students’ campus culture. She declined, however, to define the phrase: “I wouldn’t find it easy to summarize it; I think it’s quite complex; I was mainly making the point that this could as easily have happened to any of us recent presidents.”
Keohane’s decision to deflect criticism from Brodhead to Duke students sharply contrasted with her approach to another president under fire. As a member of the seven-person Harvard Corporation, Keohane played a key role in Larry Summers’ dismissal as president.
Unlike Brodhead, Summers’ opposition to divestment from Israel and his remarks about women in science had triggered no lawsuits, nor harmed any of his university’s students. And certainly Brodhead’s performance in the lacrosse case seemed to fall much shorter than Summers’ tenure at Harvard when judged by the leadership traits Keohane desired from all college presidents: good judgment; how to get and use information; peripheral vision, courage; and integrity. But, unlike Brodhead, Summers had challenged the ideologues on his campus.
Nor was Keohane alone among the ranks of high-profile academic administrators who challenged Summers. Princeton president Shirley Tilghman, and Stanford president John Hennessey, MIT president Susan Hockfield took to the pages of the Boston Globe to denounce the Harvard president for his remarks about women in science. Columbia responded to the remarks by announcing a $15 million program to hire new faculty with suitable views on “diversity.” And Harvard itself has committed $50 million to a “diversity” hiring initiative.
Contrast that record with how other universities responded to the problems exposed by the Duke case. Just as Duke has turned a blind eye to the relationship between its faculty hiring patterns and the groupthink atmosphere that infected its campus, so too have other institutions. Indeed, in the aftermath of the lacrosse case, other elite universities extended lucrative offers to some of the Group of 88’s most extreme members. Vanderbilt gave an endowed professorship to Houston Baker, who had demanded that Duke expel all the lacrosse players, even describing one lacrosse player as a “farm animal.” University of Chicago provided an endowed professorship to Charles Payne, the former African-American Studies Department chairman who had violated Duke rules by using department funds to pay for the Group of 88’s ad. And Cornell brought aboard as a tenured full professor Grant Farred, who had accused unnamed lacrosse players of perjury and had denounced as “secret” racists Duke students who registered to vote in Durham.
One thing Keohane said is undeniable: “This could as easily have happened to any of us.” While very few prosecutors would be as blatant in their misconduct as was Mike Nifong, it seems as if most universities—both their faculty and their administrations—would have handled the lacrosse case in the same way that Brodhead and his “activist” faculty did. That so few academic administrators see such a development as scandalous is the real “root of the problem” associated with the lacrosse case.


  • KC Johnson

    KC Johnson is a history professor at Brooklyn College and the City University of New York Graduate Center. He is the author, along with Stuart Taylor, of The Campus Rape Frenzy: The Attack on Due Process at America's Universities.

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