Duke’s Curtis Crisis

Editor’s Note: This week’s Clarion Call is by K.C. Johnson, a history professor at Brooklyn College.

Last spring, 88 Duke faculty members signed a public statement stating unequivocally that something “happened” to the accuser in the Duke lacrosse case. They promised to “turn up the volume” regarding the “social disaster” the lacrosse players had unleashed. And the professors said “thank you” to widely publicized protesters who had put up “wanted” posters with the lacrosse players’ photos while carrying signs reading “Time to confess” and “Castrate” outside the lacrosse players’ house.

The “Group of 88” included Kim Curtis, who before late March had compiled a lengthy if unspectacular tenure as a longtime visiting political science professor. Then came the lacrosse incident. For faculty members predisposed to an extreme version of the race/class/gender trinity, the case was too tempting not to exploit. Before signing onto the Group of 88’s statement, Curtis attended rallies denouncing the players (background, in this photo). On March 29, she emailed fellow Durham activists expressing outrage that defense attorneys had (correctly) stated that no DNA match would occur to any lacrosse player. “The self assurance,” wrote Curtis,

in the statement issued yesterday by the team that they will be exonerated by the results of the DNA testing makes me wonder if we’ve gotten the full story about who was at the house that night. Were there others present who in fact carried out the rape and who are being protected by everyone else who was there? How do we know who was there?

While she demonstrated a predisposition to believe even the most non-credible allegations against Duke students, she expressed disbelief when her own school’s undergraduates made credible claims. After two Duke students reported that (African-American) North Carolina Central students shouted at them and then knocked the male student unconscious when they were picking up food at a local restaurant, Curtis stumbled onto unverified (and, it seems, untrue) rumors about one of the two Duke students.

The Duke professor wanted “to underline the importance of the research on this student and of making it public.” (So much for federal regulations that strictly limit what employees of a university can publicly say about their students’ on-campus behavior records.) “The community really should know” about the student’s background, Curtis continued, since “whatever we can do to stay true to facts and to avoid raising the temperature about black on white violence (and about lies in general) we really must do.”

According to a recent lawsuit, Curtis went well beyond signing denunciatory statements and trying to publicize disciplinary records of Duke students. The lawsuit alleges that she abused her classroom authority against one of her former students, lacrosse player Kyle Dowd. (Curtis declined repeated requests for comment about this column.)
The basics of the allegations: in a spring 2006 class, Curtis taught two members of the lacrosse team, one of whom was Dowd. The course required three papers, each worth 25 percent of the final grade. For his first paper, Curtis gave Dowd a C+; she gave the other player a B+. The second paper was due on April 5, at the height of the media frenzy orchestrated by Nifong. (The Group of 88’s statement appeared the next day.) For this paper, Dowd and the other player received the same grade: C-.

The third paper was due just after the New Black Panthers—certified as a hate group by both the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Anti-Defamation League—arrived in Durham. They had promised “vigilante” justice, threatening to invade the dorms to force lacrosse players to say what the Panthers wanted to hear; lacrosse parents frantically worked to get their sons off campus.
For their third paper, Curtis gave both lacrosse players an F. Disappointed, the second player asked to meet with Curtis, whose message amounted to “I don’t really care, all people have problems.”

For the course, that player was given a C-, preventing him from making the Atlantic Coast Conference Academic Honor Roll. Dowd’s fate was even worse—Curtis gave him an F for the course, almost blocking his graduation. Only the extraordinary intercession of a fair-minded Duke administrator allowed Dowd to graduate, by arranging for a transfer of a course he had taken at Johns Hopkins. But Duke initially refused to do anything about Curtis’ grade, before eventually changing the grade to a D. The official justification, peculiarly, claimed that Curtis had miscalculated Dowd’s grade.

To review: in writing, a Duke professor suggested that two students in her class were covering up a rape. The two players then both received an F for their final paper.
I took a look at Dowd’s three papers. Subjectivity is an element to all grading, especially grading of papers. But two things immediately came to light:

• First, if 100 professors graded Dowd’s third paper blind, I suspect that 95 would assign it a grade somewhere between a B and a C, with the outliers probably giving it a B+ or a C-.

• Second, if 100 professors compared Dowd’s three papers for the course, I suspect that between 90 and 95 of them would consider the third paper to be the best of the three, and I can’t imagine any analyzing it as significantly worse than the other two.

Over the last several months, an impression has grown that some in Duke’s arts and sciences faculty place their personal, pedagogical, or ideological agendas ahead of the well-being of their own students. (A Duke Chronicle article, “Living a Nightmare,” published this summer was especially poignant on this point.) That impression had dissipated some with President Richard Brodhead’s recent remarks criticizing Durham County District Attorney Mike Nifong – and then especially with the important and courageous statement by 19 economics professors welcoming all Duke students, including student-athletes, into their classes.

But the Curtis lawsuit serves as a reminder of the ugly events that occurred in too many Duke classrooms last spring. In any case, this issue isn’t a hard one to understand. The grades of two of her students inexplicably plunged after Curtis accused them, in writing, of being accomplices to rape. This is behavior that no university can or should tolerate.

For anyone who doubts that some professors put their ideological obsessions ahead of their obligations to teach and treat all students fairly, recent events at Duke should eliminate those doubts.