Chapter 8: Academic McCarthyism
Like the media, many professors—and not only the radical fringe—were initially swayed by Nifong's public comments and the initial silence from the lacrosse players. All but ignored were the captains' March 16 cooperation with police, their confident March 28 prediction that the DNA would soon clear them, the similar predictions by defense lawyers, and the unlikelihood that they would go out on such a limb without strong reasons for confidence that no rape or sex of any kind had occurred.
But while many of the journalists misled by Nifong eventually adjusted their views as evidence of innocence and of Nifong's conduct came to light, the activist professors did not. Resolutely refusing to reconsider their initial presumptions as new facts emerged, they served as enthusiastic cheerleaders for Nifong, with whom they had little in common besides their opportunism. For many months not one of the more than five hundred members of the Duke arts and sciences faculty—the professors who teach Duke undergraduates — publicly criticized the district attorney or defended the lacrosse players' rights to fair treatment. Not even after enough evidence had become publicly available to establish clearly both the falsity of the rape charge and the outrageousness of Nifong's actions—widely seen as the worst case of prosecutorial misconduct ever to unfold in plain view.
The majority of Duke's arts and sciences faculty kept quiet as the activists created the impression that Duke professors en masse condemned the lacrosse players. Several months later, John Burness explained their silence: "I think people just go about their business doing what they do and were not paying attention." But, as some admitted privately to friends, they were also afraid to cross the activists—black and female activists especially—lest they be smeared with charges of racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, or right-wingism.
That's what would happen to a chemistry professor who—months after the team's innocence had become clear—became the first member of the arts and sciences faculty to break ranks with the academic herd. It took less than twenty-four hours for the head of Duke's women's studies program to accuse him of racism in a letter to The Chronicle.
Leading the rush-to-judgement crowd at Duke was Houston A. Baker Jr., a professor of English and of African and African-American Studies. He showed his mettle in a March 29 public letter to Duke administrators that boiled with malice against "this white male athletic team" —a team whose whiteness Baker's fifteen-paragraph letter stressed no fewer than ten times. He demanded the "immediate dismissals" of all lacrosse players and coaches, without acknowledgingtheir protestations of innocence or the evidence. He assailed "a 'culture of silence' that seeks to protect white, male athletic violence." He denounced the lacrosse players as "white, violent, drunken men . . . veritably given license to rape, maraud, deploy hate speech." He bemoaned their alleged feeling that "they can claim innocence and sport their disgraced jerseys on campus, safe under the cover of silent whiteness." Treating as gospel Kim Roberts's transparently bogus 911 report of being pelted with multiple racial epithets as she drove (or walked) past the lacrosse house, he asserted that the lacrosse players' "violence and raucous witness injured [a black woman] for life." He stereotyped them as embodiments of "abhorrent sexual assault, verbal racial violence, and drunken white, male privilege loosed amongst us."
For such insights, Baker was in demand among TV hosts such as MSNBC's Rita Cosby and CNN's Nancy Grace. He was also quoted in newspapers local and national, including The New York Times and USA Today.
Baker provided a window both into his soul and into the indifference of many academics to fact after a critic e-mailed him, "You will owe a big apology when the truth comes out, but I doubt you will be man enough to issue it."
Retorted the professor: "Who is really concerned about whether a woman was actually raped or not? Are you a perfect idiot?" Baker tossed out a litany of false charges of misbehavior by lacrosse players, such as that they had "beat up people who were gay," before closing:
"ALL of 'official' American history is a lie, Pal!! Where did YOu [sic] go to school??? . . . Good lorad [sic], all you people think you an [sic] go 'ah hah,' and the polar caps will not melt, or the levees will hold. You live in a white supremacist fantasy land. . . . Whew! Have you read recently? Anything? . . . And, get over yourself, buddy. Get smart before you write to a professor, OK. Read SOMETHING."
In a subsequent (June 10) e-mail, Baker wrote, with no basis in fact, that "46 white guys on the Lacrosse Team at Duke . . . may well have raped more than one woman." And in still another e-mail, sent to the mother of a lacrosse player, Baker called her son and his teammates "farm animals."
Despite such displays of viciousness, Baker was a big deal in the academic world. A past president of the Modern Languages Association (the major academic organization of English professors), Baker was such a big name in academia that Vanderbilt would hire him away from Duke at the end of the academic year. The chair of Vanderbilt's English Department, Jay Clayton, hailed his new hire as "one of the most wide-ranging intellectuals in America today in any field of the humanities. He is prolific and writes to an audience far broader than academic specialties."
Excerpted from Until Proven Innocent by Stuart Taylor Jr. and KC Johnson. Copyright © 2007. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.