Saturday, December 02, 2006

Silence Is Golden

In reading comments from supporters of the Duke lacrosse players there is a consistent thread: Brodhead and faculty members should rally around the players. Brodhead should publicly proclaim the innocence of the lacrosse players and denounce Durham’s DA. They are angry that Brodhead hasn’t done so. They are both mystified and hurt that faculty members haven’t stepped forward to support the students.

I think I understand exactly why Brodhead hasn’t said a thing. To do so would light up the front page of newspapers yet again. It would be the perfect story: Duke President vs. Durham DA, a 12 round fight. The press would eat it up. Sure it would be the right thing to do to at least reinstate the students, but this isn’t about doing the right thing. This is about public relations. And the public relations playbook says to do whatever it takes to keep the story out of the news. For Brodhead, silence is golden.

As to why professors haven’t stepped forward and embraced the innocence of the students, there are a number of reasons for this. First of all, most faculty members will generally do anything to stay out of the limelight. They have their research. They have their teaching. They don’t want newspaper reporters banging on their door. They tend to be quiet, reticent people, nerdy research types. Regardless as to whether they think these lacrosse players are innocent, they just aren’t going to say anything, especially after all the attention those that have signed or said anything have received.

Second, they lack the drive to rally around the community and help someone in need. Professors generally don’t tend to feel that they are part of a “Duke family” in an emotional sense. They are off in their own world.

I’ll give you an example as to their reticence to rally around anyone’s troubles. Several years ago, President Nan Keohane was the subject of a nasty demonstration by Duke students over the university’s alcohol and bonfire policy. The students protested, lit a bonfire, and shouted “F*ck you, Nan” in front of the administration building. She was horribly shaken by this incident.

In response, her husband sent an email to the faculty asking to rally around her and give her support in her time of emotional need. The response was a collective, “Who me?”

Now you may think that this isn’t right. Faculty members should help those in their community, whether it is a president who has been emotionally drained by rude and obnoxious students or three athletes that probably have been wrongly arrested. I would tend to agree. But they don’t. It’s hard to even get them to visit or send condolences when other members in their department are dealing with illness or death in their families. It’s almost as if faculty members possess a collective Asperger’s syndrome.

Third, they may be hedging their bets. For example, while I think the lacrosse case doesn’t have legs, I won't go out on a limb and state that these students are undeniably innocent. Distortions, half-truths and fabrications have been coming from both sides of this case and I don't possess the magical ability to separate the b.s. from the facts.

Fourth, relationships between students and professors aren’t always congenial. The Duke student community has many great kids. But in the mix are some real pieces of work. In the old days, you could take those students to task and try to get them to behave like mature, decent human beings. Nowadays, they are the customers of a product for which they pay dearly and the customer is always right. Whether you feel positively toward the Duke community of students depends on your specific encounters. And if you’ve had a lot of bad experiences, you just might be inclined to not give a damn if any of them are in trouble.

Fifth, to generate collective public outrage, wronged parties need to be very, very sympathetic. People usually reserve their collective heart for cute things like furry kittens caught in trees, kidnapped children, and pregnant pretty women murdered by their husbands. At face value, three big guys holding a drunken party and hiring a couple of strippers can’t compete with kittens, children and pregnant pretty women regardless of the charges against them.

So no, professors aren’t going to come forth and declare these students innocent. And just like they don’t rally around anyone, they aren’t going to rally around the students. Doing either just isn’t on their radar screen.

The end result of a public relations motivated president and a reticent, apolitical faculty is silence. People who expect more are bound to be disappointed. Regardless, those who have made statements that this collective silence means that many faculty members actually hope these students are guilty are just plain wrong.

No comments: