Alumni of Duke University are criticizing Duke President Richard Brodhead for his response to the sexual assault allegations against members of the school's lacrosse team. Some say Brodhead mishandled the incident by judging the accused players. The university says the administration reacted well to a difficult situation.
The school is trying to repair its reputation after an infamous lacrosse team party last spring, where an exotic dancer claimed three players sexually assaulted her. Since then, the accuser has changed her story several times; the government prosecutor has since been hit with ethics charges.
When the controversy exploded last spring, Brodhead had been on the job for less than two years.
When President Brodhead addressed the press last March in his first major statement after the lacrosse party, he faced a frenzied media and a tense campus. He issued a finessed statement that would define Duke's position for months to come: not taking a stand on whether the exotic dancer was attacked at the party, but condemning the student behavior that led to the allegations.
"Students have acknowledged the private party dancers; they have acknowledged there was underage dnking at the party," Brodhead said. "I would say about it that the behavior was bad behavior, boorish behavior, immature behavior, and inappropriate behavior. But from there to what is alleged is still a very, very serious step."
Though he asked people not to prejudge the criminal case, Brodhead took action against the team. He accepted the coach's resignation, canceled the rest of the season — and when three players were indicted for rape, sexual assault, and kidnapping, he suspended them from school.
But as the case has evolved, Brodhead's response has come under scrutiny, especially after the most serious charges — the rape allegations — were dropped in December.
Now, some critics say Duke administrators were too harsh.
"They were running for cover, and they weren't worried about these three young men," says Diane Goldstein Block, the mother of a Duke graduate, and a former donor to the school. She believes the players are innocent, but fears Duke's administration made them look guilty.
"Brodhead and his staff immediately said, 'Well yes, these guys drank, these guys hired strippers,' so therefore they rushed to judgment," Block says. "Even though, as long as I've had any knowledge of Duke, they've always had parties with alcohol, and according to my son, they've always had strippers. And to say this is the first time this has ever happened, is nonsense."
Block says Brodhead should have thrown his support behind the students, particularly as questions emerged about the accuser's credibility and the prosecutor's ethics. That same sentiment is echoed by others in the Duke community.
Alumnus Jason Trumpbour helps run a blog called Friends of Duke University.
"You know if you're sending your kids to college, you want them to go to an environment where they'll be supported," Trumpbour says. "When they screw up, you want them corrected, but at the same time you want them corrected in a fashion that takes into account their best interests. And that was really completely absent."
Last month, Duke agreed to lift the indicted players' suspensions and invite them back to school. But that prompted criticism from a different group of people: professors who view the lacrosse party as a symptom of campus racism and sexism. One professor said that readmitting the students while they still face criminal charges would be "a breach of ethical citizenship." Others suggest the administration bowed to outside pressure.
President Brodhead refused to be interviewed by NPR. His office said he's "resisting efforts to make Duke the story."
But Duke Vice President John Burness defends the school's response. He says administrators stand by their decision to punish the team for its party behavior, which he says included not only hiring exotic dancers, but also directing racial slurs toward them. And he says Duke has little choice but to let the criminal charges play out in court.
Burness says that alumni continue to donate to Duke at record levels, and that — coupled with a stable application rate — convinces him the university responded well.
But while one of the accused players now has graduated from Duke, the others haven't decided whether to return. The father of one of them says he hesitates to send his son back to a university that, in his words, didn't "stand up for our boys."