Rape charge dropped but row goes on

January 19, 2007

Scandal over an alleged assault by members of sports team returns to haunt university president, writes Jon Marcus

Prestigious US institution Duke University is under attack for failing to protect members of its lacrosse team who were accused of raping a woman at a party, even though the charges were later dropped.

When the case was originally brought, Duke was accused of racism for failing to investigate the alleged crime, committed by white males against a black female.

The exoneration of the lacrosse players has served to inflame rather than reduce tensions at Duke. The number of student applications are down, and there is uproar among parents and alumni. The matter has gone from a cause célèbre for liberals to a victory for gleeful conservatives, who have new grounds to attack US higher education for excessive political correctness.

The university has invited the lacrosse players, who still face minor criminal charges, to return. But angry critics are calling for the resignation of Duke president Richard Brodhead for failing to do enough to protect the athletes from the outset of the scandal.

In response, Dr Brodhead has demanded that the prosecutor in the case, district attorney Mike Nifong, be called to account. "Mr Nifong has an obligation to explain to all of us his conduct in this matter," Dr Brodhead said.

But many people believe the Duke president should quit. They say the university failed to stand up for its students, suspending the accused athletes and cancelling the lacrosse season.

A group of parents and alumni, known as the Friends of Duke University, said he was "a timid and ineffectual leader". And Michael Rubin, a resident scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, said: "Brodhead should do the honourable thing and resign."

But some students and staff say Dr Brodhead's mistake was waiting too long to do anything about the rape charges. Although the university knew of the alleged incident before criminal charges were filed, it did nothing about it until the case exploded in the media.

An independent review board said the administration failed to recognise the seriousness of the situation.

Meanwhile, 88 staff who issued a statement condemning the conduct of Duke's lacrosse players, most of whom are white, have also come under attack, including from seven other staff who wrote a letter to the local newspaper taking the opposite point of view. And the family of one lacrosse player not involved in the rape case has sued a professor, who they claim failed their son in his course to prevent him from graduating.

"The administration and many of the faculty owe an apology to these young men and their families," said Diane Goldstein Block, parent of a Duke student. "This story has nothing to do with poverty or women's rights. It has to do with a district attorney who wanted to win an election and was willing to use the race card to do it. It has to do with a university president who was willing to believe the worst of his students even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary."

Ms Block said she would not send her son to Duke today.

University officials said that Dr Brodhead had consistently called for the students to be presumed innocent while the criminal process took its course.

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