In a move widely anticipated after President Richard Brodhead engaged in a public self-criticism about his not appointing any African-Americans to senior leadership positions, Duke recently elevated political science professor–and prominent Group of 88 member–Paula McClain to graduate dean. (The Group of 88 statement, issued in early April 2006, asserted as fact that something “happened” to false accuser Crystal Mangum; signatories also thanked protesters for “not waiting” shortly after the most prominent protest had included a sign urging the lacrosse captain’s castration.) The announcement confirmed Duke’s policy of complete non-accountability for Group members, several of whom had already been named to lower-level deans’ positions, and none of whom had been punished for the statement’s improperly using Duke funds to finance the advertisement or for the false claim of official departmental endorsement for the Group’s crusade.
The most striking aspect of the McClain appointment, however, came in remarks made by the search committee chair who recommended her, Physics professor Calvin Howell. A reporter from the campus newspaper, the Chronicle, asked Howell whether McClain’s role in the Group of 88 had threatened her chances for such a prestigious post. The question was an excellent one: what university would want to name to a position that requires good judgment a professor who not only had committed a colossal error of judgment, but subsequently refused either to apologize or to admit that she had made a mistake? That the behavior of McClain and her colleagues factored into Duke’s reported $18 million settlement with the falsely accused players made the appointment even odder: what university would promote to a senior management position a professor whose misconduct had helped to cost the university millions?
Howell dismissed the issue, suggesting that McClain’s participation in the Group of 88 did not cross a “threshold of concern.” He explained why: “She’s a political scientist and that’s what they do, they take a stance. You’re not always on the right side of history, but as a scholar you have to have a voice.”
A Need to Take a Stance
Howell’s statement was preposterous on its face. Universities aren’t regularly in the practice of appointing to senior leadership positions figures who weren’t “on the right side of history.” Moreover, what university evaluates scholars not on the quality of their remarks but simply on their willingness to “take a stance”? Does Duke University really believe that what political scientists “do” is to “take a stance,” regardless of what that stance is? Would the university name as graduate dean a political scientist who had spent the past several months giving her “voice” to North Carolina’s anti-gay Amendment One? Who had taken a “stance” by repeatedly offering public defenses of Iran’s or China’s human rights record? Who had offered her “voice” advancing arguments that racism didn’t motivate the White Citizens’ Councils in the South?
To even ask such questions demonstrates the absurdity of Howell’s argument.
Howell’s apologia for McClain was not merely absurd; in the context of a recent controversy at the campus, it also revealed a disturbing double standard at Duke. The “take-a-stance-have-a-voice” standard was not employed when two other Duke professors, Peter Arcidiacono and Kenneth Spenner, gave their “voice” to a research paper showing how African-American students at Duke disproportionately migrated away from majors in the sciences toward softer majors in the humanities and social sciences. The accuracy of their research wasn’t challenged, and the line of argument to which their work contributed–that racial preferences actually can harm even the students who ostensibly “benefit” from them through admissions to elite universities–could very well be on the “right side of history” if the Supreme Court strikes down the Texas preferences scheme in Fisher.
But unlike McClain’s affiliation with the Group of 88, the research of Arcidiacono and Spenner enraged race/class/gender professors on campus and challenged the “diversity” beliefs that Brodhead, like all elite university presidents, holds dear. And the upper administration responded with savage criticism. “I can see,” Brodhead fumed in a Faculty Day address, “why students took offense at what was reported of a professor’s work. Generalizations about academic choices by racial category can renew the primal insult of the world we are trying to leave behind–the implication that persons can be known through a group identity that associates them with inferior powers.” That the paper was cited in Supreme Court briefs was “a further insult.”
So much for the idea that at Duke, “as a scholar you have to have a voice.” As the McClain appointment demonstrates, the only “voice” the Duke administration appears to desire is a “voice” that sympathized with the Group of 88’s perspective.