In the past few days, Duke announced resolutions of two disputes that had bedeviled the university. First, in response to a protest from FIRE, the university overruled the Women’s Center’s refusal to host an exhibition sponsored by a Duke pro-life organization. In a perfect irony, announcement of the reversal came from Women’s Center Director Ada Gregory, last heard from hypothesizing about the danger that Duke’s female students face because they go to school with smart male students: “The higher IQ, the more manipulative they are, the more cunning they are . . . imagine the sex offenders we have here at Duke—cream of the crop.”
Then, Duke settled a lawsuit filed by former lacrosse coach Mike Pressler. Pressler was an early victim of Duke’s Alice-in-Wonderland approach to the lacrosse case—he was fired, and only then did the university conduct an investigation of his conduct. (That investigation concluded he had done nothing wrong, and had responded appropriately every time an administrator raised the issue with him of behavior by his players.) Even then, Pressler sued only when—days before AG Roy Cooper declared the falsely accused players innocent—he was attacked, in print, by Duke’s then-director of public relations.
Duke tried to have Pressler’s lawsuit thrown out on technical grounds, but lost that argument—meaning that depositions would have to go forward, and then the case would go to trial. Perhaps the University would have won at trial, perhaps not. But regardless of the verdict, subjecting key Duke administrators to cross-examination under oath would have risked a public relations nightmare for Duke.
The settlement of the Pressler lawsuit doubtless previews how the University might handle the far more serious lawsuit that Duke faces—the civil motion filed by 38 members of the 2006 men’s lacrosse team, along with several of their parents.
As in the Pressler lawsuit, Duke has aggressively sought to have the suit dismissed before the discovery phase, employing some creative legal arguments in the process. My favorites: (1) the assertion that the university doesn’t consider itself legally bound by the terms of the Student Handbook, which among other things precludes discrimination; and (2) these “anti-harassment policies must be balanced against principles of academic freedom” (or when race/class/gender professors choose to go after their own students to advance their pedagogical agenda, such actions should fall under the definition of “academic freedom”).
Neither claim, I should note, appear in Duke’s promotional materials or on its admissions department webpage. Apparently Duke isn’t eager to inform prospective parents that the University’s promises that faculty will treat students with respect aren’t worth the scrap of paper on which they’re printed.
Duke’s motion for summary judgment remains pending. If the University loses, it will face a highly unappealing choice—settle before trial; or allow many of its key administrators from 2006 not only to be deposed, but to hand over internal administration e-mails from spring 2006. The public relations damage from such a move would be horrifying for any institution, much less one eager to remain among the nation’s elite.
By the way, I noted there was mixed news for Duke: on the “good news” front, benefiting from a quite easy draw, the men’s basketball team reached the Final Four.