A Letter to the Duke Community

On April 5, in the face of allegations arising from a party held by the men's lacrosse team, I wrote to outline steps the university would take in response to this complex situation. At term's end, I am eager to update you on what we have done and to announce further steps going forward.

First let me report that, after a difficult spring, the Duke Commencement this year was particularly wonderful. Giving the Baccalaureate Address in Duke Chapel, I had the opportunity to look down into thousands of faces of shining promise -- the faces of students full of pride in what they had accomplished, sorrow at leaving a place they had come to love, and eager anticipation for what they are now equipped to do. On Friday evening I crossed paths with the perfect embodiment of this blend of achievement and future promise: the one hundred Duke Medical School graduates setting off to take the Hippocratic Oath. Though a thunderstorm passed through just before dawn, the skies were clear for Commencement Sunday, and the campus was radiantly beautiful. John Hope Franklin, the founder of the field of African American history and a powerful contributor to the civil rights movement, spoke of the power of individuals to make a difference to the continuing challenges of our time.Yazan Kopty '06, the student speaker for the event, spoke with an assurance, maturity, and wisdom that showed the fruits of education at their best.

After weeks of absorption in a story that often made Duke seem synonymous with bad student behavior, Commencement weekend was deeply refreshing. It gave a powerful reminder of the human promise we are privileged to work with and of the growth students get by attending this great school.

It's important to keep this larger picture in mind as we try to put the men's lacrosse story in perspective. But it is essential that we take that episode seriously as well. Only by facing up to the challenges of this situation will we get the good of these difficult times.

An update. Since I wrote last, three members of the men's lacrosse team have been indicted on felony charges arising from the March 13 party. The students proclaim their innocence on all the counts. As you probably know, initial reports circulated through the media advanced the case against the students; more recent reports have made the case in their favor. But none of us has direct access to the criminal investigation, and until the full evidence is presented, none of us can know with certainty what did or did not happen.

As I have said, it's essential that we allow the criminal justice system to run its course, and that we wait for the truth to be established before we reach final judgment. In the meanwhile, we need to remember that the American legal system is based on the principle of the presumption of innocence. When he handed down his third indictment on May 15, District Attorney Nifong stated that no other students were under investigation; with the cloud of suspicion lifted from other members of the team, the legal case has taken on finite boundaries. Now we must wait for the legal process to do its work.

In the past month, I have received reports from three of the committees I announced on April 5. These include an inquiry into the adequacy of Duke's disciplinary procedures, especially as they relate to off-campus behavior; an inquiry into the prior history of behavior of the men's lacrosse team; and an assessment of the response to this event by the Duke administration. These reports are available at the Duke website here.

Let me inform you of the steps Duke is taking to respond to the recommendations of these reports.

1. Campus Culture. As I explained in my April 5 letter, a striking feature of the recent episode is the attention it has drawn to questions of student conduct that range far beyond the March 13 party and that are sources of concern whether the legal charges are upheld or not. These include behavior that is thoughtless of others, among them our off-campus neighbors; disrespectful behavior across lines of race, gender, and other forms of difference; and the abuse of alcohol.

  • In the wake of events of this spring, we have recognized the need to clarify the standards of behavior that will be expected of all Duke students. We also need to clarify our expectations for students in off-campus settings. A committee is at work to propose the needed adjustments and I expect a report this fall, once students have returned and become involved in the discussion.

But important though they are, regulations and enforcement mechanisms alone will not solve the problem. We must also promote our institution's values in positive fashion, and create an atmosphere where students will have frequent opportunities to reflect on their choices and internalize an ethic of responsibility and mutual respect. The Campus Culture Initiative, led by Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education and Dean of Trinity College Robert Thompson and Vice President for Student Affairs Larry Moneta and composed of a large cross-section of faculty, students, and administrators, has been given the task of assessing current needs and making recommendations. The charge to the committee and its membership can be read at http://www.dukenews.duke.edu/mmedia/features/lacrosse_incident/committees.html#campusculture.

  • When the Campus Culture Initiative was announced, I mentioned that I would establish a Presidential Council to act as a sounding board for our efforts, critiquing our recommendations and setting an appropriately high standard for our work. I'm pleased to announce the membership of this group. It will be co-chaired by former trustees Wilhelmina Reuben-Cooke ‘67, a member of the first cohort of African American undergraduates admitted to Duke and now Provost of the University of the District of Columbia, and Roy Bostock ‘62, who has led a distinguished business career and now chairs the Partnership for a Drug-Free America. Judy Woodruff ‘68, the respected broadcast journalist and another former trustee, will serve as well, as will three leaders in higher education: Shirley Tilghman, President of Princeton University; Morton Schapiro, President of Williams College; and Phail Wynn, a notable Durhamite and President of the Durham Technical Community College. Four younger alumni have also agreed to serve: Adam Silver '84 (NBA Deputy Commissioner and Chief Operating Officer, effective July 1), Sarah Dodds-Brown ‘95 (currently counsel for the American Express Company and a former young trustee), Julian Harris ‘00 (a medical student at the University of Pennsylvania and former head of the Duke Honor Council), and Katie Laidlaw ‘04 (associate with The Parthenon Group in Boston and currently a young trustee).

None of the issues we are grappling with is peculiar to Duke. But if they are widespread on American college campuses, that's not a reason for us to ignore them. The current crisis gives Duke an opportunity to "step up" and take a leadership position on issues of broad concern in American education. If we make this a place where students will learn as much at the level of character and ethical reflection as they do of academic intelligence -- if we make this the kind of place where all students will grow in their ability to act thoughtfully and responsibly and to treat one another with dignity and respect -- we'll have made Duke a better school.

2. Athletics. When athletics entered American schools and universities, it was recognized not just as increasing the fun, but as promoting character values highly relevant to education: among them, discipline, teamwork, the drive for excellence, and sportsmanlike adherence to codes of fairness and respect. Duke has great traditions of athletic excellence, and I intend to continue them. But I'm also eager for Duke to continue to pursue athletics within a larger universe of educational values, not as an end in itself. In the wake of this spring's event, some have questioned whether Division I athletics has a place at a school as academically strong as Duke. I would reply that if it isn't easy to get the balance right, it's also not clear that the task is impossible. I would rather work to put athletic goals in proper relation to our academic mission than to "solve" the problem by throwing out half of the equation.

  • This spring has shown us steps we should take to strengthen athletics at Duke. The committee reports underline that we need much better communication between Athletics, Student Affairs, and the Duke police, so that coaches and athletics administrators can learn of behavior issues involving student athletes in a fuller and timelier manner. The reports also recommend that we clarify the expectations for addressing such behavior and create a code of conduct for student athletes. These projects are underway and will be completed by fall.
  • In addition, I am announcing several changes in the oversight of athletics. While the Athletics Director reports to the President, some years ago Duke transferred day-by-day oversight to the Executive Vice President. This has worked well enough in practice, but it gives the wrong signal about the place of athletics in the university. Starting at once, I am restoring direct responsibility for athletics to the President of the University. With my oversight, athletics will continue to work with the EVP on matters of facilities and budget. I will also ask the Provost to include the Athletics Director or his senior representative in the deliberations of the Undergraduate Leadership Group -- consisting of senior academic and student life administrators – to overcome any separation of academics, athletics, and student life. Finally, to ensure that we have the means to monitor successfully the policies and practices in athletics, I will be proposing modifications in the university's Athletic Council, the committee charged by the Trustees and the faculty with overseeing athletics at Duke.

3. Lacrosse. I announced the cancellation of the remainder of the 2006 men's lacrosse season in my letter of April 5. The committee reports having been received and the District Attorney having announced that he does not intend to seek any further indictments, the question arises whether to resume play. When I met with the members of the team last month, I told them that, if and when Duke resumes the playing of men's lacrosse, we cannot return to the status quo as of March 12. Though it did not confirm the worst allegations against this team, the Coleman Committee documented a history of irresponsible conduct that this university cannot allow to continue.

  • I have received a great deal of advice on both sides of the question. As I wrestled with this issue, I decided that Duke should only resume men's lacrosse if we made a clear statement of the conduct we expect of the players going forward; if the players made a commitment to live by these expectations; and if we had a strong oversight mechanism to monitor the situation. These conditions have now been met to my satisfaction, so I have decided to permit the resumption of men's lacrosse, with assistant coach Kevin Cassese serving as interim coach. The standard of conduct that the team has proposed for itself and Athletics Director Alleva's response can be found at http://news.duke.edu/lacrosseincident/.

Let me also say a word about the players. These students have lived through an extraordinarily painful situation for the last eight weeks. Whether or not the felony charges are upheld against the three indicted students, the fact is that members of the team engaged in irresponsible and dishonorable behavior on the evening of March 13, and those who were involved bear responsibility for their actions. For all that, few of us have suffered an ordeal like the one that unfolded as intense media interest turned this event into a worldwide news story. Setting aside the legal charges, which must be resolved in court, I am pleased that team members have acknowledged the error of their conduct and have made the commitment to create a new history for themselves and their sport at Duke.

We will take care to assure ourselves that these changes of heart and conduct do in fact happen -- but it's important that we believe in their possibility. None of us is free from the liability to err: that's why we need education. To make a mistake, to recognize it as such, and to take responsibility for making a change might be said to be the essence of education. That is the opportunity now available to our team.

Final Remarks. We have work to do outside our walls as well. In the face of media accounts that tended to portray the university and the city of Durham, or Duke and North Carolina Central University, as antagonists, I've been grateful for all the Durham leaders who have recognized that truth and justice are common values, things we must pursue and uphold together. When this story is over, however it is resolved, we must continue to work together to strengthen this city, and I pledge that Duke will do its part. North Carolina Central Chancellor James Ammons and I have recently met to explore existing collaborations and areas where our schools could cooperate yet more extensively, and we will be continuing this exploration in the months ahead. This will be a further gain we can bring from the trials of recent weeks.

I said early on that this university will be judged not by the events that happened here but by how we face them and learn from them. I am committed to drawing the lessons of recent events, and it's my hope that by doing so, we will make a great university better. When I was first attracted to Duke, one of the qualities I found striking was this institution's lack of commitment to the status quo: its willingness to take candid measure of its strengths and to make the changes that would enable it to grow and improve. This trait has helped fuel Duke's continual rise in the ranks of great American universities. Let's use this occasion to make further progress.

Richard H. Brodhead President