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William Chafe: Chimes in on Duke Scandal

Historians in the News




This morning’s Chronicle features an opinion piece by William Chafe on conditions at Duke. I’m a great admirer of Chafe’s scholarship, which I’ve frequently used in my classes. So of all the signatures on the Group of 88’s statement, his disappointed me the most.

Many of Chafe’s current comments are common sense. He argues that based on the undisputed facts, the lacrosse team deserved “censure and disciplinary action”—which, of course, it received, in the form of a cancellation of the season, the forced resignation of the coach, and resumption of the program under restrictions, behavior-related penalties as draconian as virtually any in intercollegiate athletics over the past 15 years. Chafe urges Duke to adopt a stricter behavior code, to forbid things like students hiring strippers—a commendable idea, though probably one that’s not even needed at this stage. And he hopes for a university where alcohol plays a less significant role in students’ social lives, one “about celebrating the ‘playfulness’ and pleasure that infuse the process of debating intellectual and spiritual issues over extended lunches after class,” and “using some of our ‘party time’ to discuss the origins of the universe or existential ethics, even as we socialize at mixers.” I can’t imagine a single professor anywhere in the country would oppose this vision, and I hope Duke can achieve it. But I’m enough of a realist (and surely Chafe is as well) to know that progress along these lines will be fitful at best. Duke could make a healthy start by ensuring that all students live on-campus for all four years, as Chafe recommends, though I gather there are some practical limitations here revolving around space and town/gown tensions in the construction of new dorms.


Chafe’s article is most striking in what it fails to say. As, sadly, has become the pattern, Chafe apparently sees neither a professional nor a moral responsibility for Duke faculty to publicly demand that Durham authorities respect the due process rights of their own institution’s students. ...

Update, 5.15pm: Prof. Chafe emailed to note that, in the article, he specifically commented that "whether or not a sexual assault took place is something we will not know for months and is a task for the criminal-justice system to establish," and therefore it wouldn't have been appropriate for him to comment on such issues. As Cliopatria readers know, I disagree--first of all, because I don't see advocating for due process as taking a position one way or the other on the substance of the charges; and second, because Chafe's position essentially means that the "campus culture" initiative cannot explore the faculty's failure to call for duue process protections for Duke students, since the criminal case will be going on simultaneously to the campus culture initiative. By the way, the DA announced this afternoon that he doesn't expect the trial to occur until next spring--only raising further questions as to why he was in such a rush to secure an indictment.

Read entire article at Robert KC Johnson at HNN Blog, Cliopatria

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