Paul Haagen: The Character of This Place

Academic Council chair speaks on lacrosse situation

The events and allegations surrounding a men's lacrosse team party on the evening of March 12 - 13 have disrupted our community in profound ways. We have experienced an unwonted intensity of media coverage. Some of this coverage reflects little more than a news cycle driven by sensationalism and prurience. But the intensity of interest in this story is driven by much more than that. It is driven by broader national social concerns about education, individual and institutional responsibility, race, gender and inequality in 21st century America. None of these issues is peculiar to Duke or Durham. Both Duke and Durham are probably far ahead of most of the rest of the United States in our mutual attempts to deal with them. But the focus is now on Duke and Durham and we have both the responsibility and opportunity to address them here.

It is a measure of the character of this place, and of the leadership of this University, how Duke has responded to date. It has been a response that has been both open and remarkably without defensiveness. It has been one of adherence to existing procedures and of a refusal to jump to conclusions in the face of uncertainty. Since I am by training a lawyer and by heritage a product of New England and the radical Protestant Reformation, both the insistence on following procedure and the willingness to engage in introspection may come more naturally to me than to others. But recognizing my biases, I believe that Duke's approach will in the end serve us well. Before we get to the end, there will be some pain and more frustration. We can take comfort that our approach is in keeping with the finest traditions of a great academic institution. It is a response that reflects the character of this place and which we should celebrate.

This celebration need not be uncritical. This would not be a university if it were. But to fail to recognize how well Duke has dealt with this incident in the face of intense pressure and great uncertainty would be a serious mistake.

Communicating this message is remarkably difficult, in part because it is a complicated message that is being delivered to diverse audiences. I am reminded of the frustration of my friend and former colleague, the late Jerome Culp, who had just come back from delivering a public address at East Carolina University on race in America. His message that day was a challenge delivered in two parts. To the African Americans in the audience, he urged that they take greater responsibility for the problems in the African American community and take positive steps to address them. To the whites in the audience, he pointed out the need to come to grips with the legacy and damage of racism, and responsibility of the white community for addressing it. To his dismay, each group warmly endorsed the message intended for the other, and both believed themselves absolved of responsibility until the other put its house in order. It is my hope that we as community, and particularly as a faculty, will concentrate on the work that we need to do, that we will resist that impulse to find in others the source of our and their problems, and that, in the midst of our present turmoil, we will recognize how great a university this is or how much greater it can be.