A Voice Against Academic Hysteria

There was no good reason to discuss the false rape claims of Crystal Magnum against three young men on the Duke Lacrosse team, or the outrageous conduct of prosecutor Mike Nifong.  No matter what I might say, Brooklyn College history professor K.C. Johnson would have already said it, and said it better.  His blog, Durham-in-Wonderland, was the mother lode.

Johnson announced that he is done, which makes it a particularly good time to note both the service he has provided all of us, and the impetus for his blog in the first place.  As will become apparent, it is both a critical problem and, sadly, a problem that has continued to grow and pervade all walks of academic life.

When I first started writing about the lacrosse case, . . . I did so in reaction to the Group of 88 statement. Then (and now) I considered the statement an indefensible betrayal by professors of their own school’s students, an action that contradicted many of the basic values on which American higher education rests.

The Group of 88 statement was

The statement dated from April 6, when 88 members of Duke’s arts and sciences faculty signed a document saying “thank you” to campus demonstrators who had distributed a “wanted” poster of the lacrosse players and publicly branded the players “rapists.”

The faculty of Duke, in the rush of ignorance and politics, publicly condemned and “convicted” their own “rapist” students.  It was, perhaps, the all-time low in academic integrity, where any semblance of reason, evidence and integrity was discarded in their frenzy to burn the witches.

Johnson used this as an opportunity to address the Academy:

Higher education is perhaps the only product in which Americans spend tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars without having any clear sense of what they are purchasing. Few parents, alumni, legislators, or prospective students spend much (if any) time exploring the scholarship or syllabi offered by professors at the school of their choice; they devote even less effort to understanding hiring patterns or pedagogical changes that have driven the contemporary academy to an ideological extreme on issues of race, class, and gender.

And yet for dozens of Duke faculty, this evidence appeared irrelevant. Eighty-eight of them rushed to judgment, signing a statement (whose production violated Duke regulations in multiple ways) affirming that something had “happened” to false accuser Crystal Mangum, and thanking protesters (“for not waiting”) who had, among other things, urged the castration of the lacrosse captains and blanketed the campus with “wanted” posters. As the case to which they attached their public reputations imploded, Group members doubled down, with most issuing a second statement promising they would never apologize for their actions.

While we are all aware of how horribly wrong they were, and Nifong has since been disbarred, the Duke faculty remains unscathed and inviolate, despite the Group of 88 Statement.

The lacrosse case provided a rare opportunity to glimpse inside the mindset of an elite university—and the look was a troubling one. There is no evidence of any accountability at Duke: the university has the same leadership and the same hiring patterns it had in 2006. Several members of the Group of 88 have gone on to more prestigious positions, their efforts to exploit their students’ distress causing them no problem in the contemporary academy.

Worse, the lesson learned from this disgrace isn’t that academics aren’t immune from consequences for their ignorance, impropriety and shameful lack of integrity.  Just the opposite, the lesson is that scholars can say anything, no matter how absurd, baseless, wrong or ridiculous, with impunity.

This message resonates here, where the same has been demonstrated over and over in other matters.  Indeed, in only the past few months, examples have been highlighted.  But then, I’m an outsider, and unworthy of challenging the bona fides of the intelligentsia, who retain their sheen in the media and among the lesser mortals, lawyers included.  Putting prof before a name gives it instant credibility, for they must know what they’re talking about because they’re scholars.  No, the lesson has not been learned.

It’s not that they’re not a smart bunch, on the whole. Then again, that doesn’t mean that others aren’t smart as well. But they are a bunch with varying degrees of grasp, and limited degrees of experience.  They have a propensity to wrap their more bizarre ideas in more words than any reasonable person cares to read, giving it a veneer of respectability and reasonableness, regardless of its inanity or, far worse, dishonesty.

Therein lies the problem that riled K.C. Johnson.  Sometimes they lie, blinded by political ideals used to rationalize the irrational, the disingenuous, the outrageously false.  So why don’t the honest ones, the rational ones, rise up to denounce the liars in their midst?  Because there is one trait more pervasive within the Academy that’s worse than their blind adherence to their politics: cowardice.

Perhaps they fear that if they call out a lawprof liar, they will be called a bad name in return, harshing their delicate sensibilities.  Perhaps they don’t see intellectual dishonesty as their personal problem, and don’t want to take the risk of getting involved.  After all, it surely wouldn’t interest anybody outside of a small circle of friends.  It’s just not the way of the Academy, its members more inclined to private “clucking” than risk.  And they say lawyers are risk averse.

K.C. Johnson took the risk of calling out dishonesty and impropriety. He saw the outrageous conduct perpetrated by the Duke 88 and refused to remain silent.  Given the atmosphere on campus, this was an exceptionally bold and risky move, and yet he did not back away from calling out the rank intellectual dishonesty and political lies that surrounded the Duke Lacrosse case.

Up to now, I don’t think I’ve ever acknowledged Johnson’s efforts.  I was and am remiss in my failure to do so.  He deserves my deep appreciation, and I thank him for all he’s done.

It is sad and pathetic that most of the Academy remains blinded by their blind adherence to their politics, and lack the guts to call out the liars, the knaves, the fools and the disingenuous among them.  K.C. Johnson was bold and honest.  Those academics cowering in the corner, knowing full well the disgrace of your dishonest fellow scholars, but lacking the guts to stand up against the lies and ignorance, are unworthy of his efforts.

Thank you, Dr. Robert David Johnson (his real name), for your efforts to bring honor to the Academy, to the Duke Lacrosse case, to the wrongfully accused, and to ideals greater than blind politics.

11 thoughts on “A Voice Against Academic Hysteria

  1. James

    You do realize that a good number of academics did speak up even at Duke? For instance many in the Economics Dept. signed a petition that stated the group did not speak for all of Duke faculty.

    You are right to applaud Dr. Johnson, but what do you mean by “Given the atmosphere on campus, this was an exceptionally bold and risky move”? Are you implying he has taught at Duke? It is my understanding he has not.

    1. SHG Post author

      Not only was I not implying he taught at Duke, but the “atmosphere on campus” referred to the broad concept of campus, not just the specifics of this instance or Duke.

  2. John Barleycorn

    Perhaps K.C. will resurface to shine some light down future rabbit holes. Good stuff.

    P.S. I wonder how many in The Group of 88 have read Alice in Wonderland?

      1. John Burgess

        Cliff Notes at best. The effete ones, they’ll have delved into Brodie’s, Bloom’s, or Penguin Critical Studies. Or else rely on what they learned in their course on “Charles Dodgson, Child Molester” as part of their training in Literature for the 21st C.

  3. DHMCarver

    I had not followed the Duke faculty aspect to the lacrosse case. Shameful behavior. Sadly, it reminds me of another clique of professionals who use jargon obfuscate and to impress and intimidate those outside the club, and are loathe to call out bad behavior within their profession — that would be legal professionals, of course. (This blog being an exemplary exception to the rule.)

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