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Media and Crisis Management

Duke Lacrosse: The University Got More Right Than Wrong

Posted on: July 28th, 2012

Crisis Management: Duke Lacrosse: The University Got More Right Than WrongCrisis response – from archives

The 2006 rape case against three Duke University lacrosse players may have collapsed along with prosecutor Mike Nifong, but I believe accusations that the university mishandled the crisis are wrong. Yes, the university was astonishingly slow (see my article on this site Duke Lacrosse: Action, But Late) in responding to the African-American stripper’s allegations of gang rape at a team party. A Duke-ordered independent investigation confirmed the foot-dragging, saying, “There was a major failing in communications.” After the awful 11-day lag I believe Duke got much of the rest right.

Once the school got its act together it cancelled the next lacrosse game; it suspended the season; the coach resigned; team captains deplored the party but denied the attack; the president built bridges with the black community; the president ordered a five step attack on perceived problems including independent reviews of a) the administration’s response, b) the lacrosse team’s behavior, c) the student judicial process, d) campus culture, and a e) presidential commission to assess responses. The school communicated with stakeholders including students, parents, alumni, Durham, and the alleged victim’s college. President Richard Brodhead, by my count, either through news conferences or written statements, communicated with the school and supporters about the case at least 17 times between the end of March 2006 and early January 2007.

Duke posted on its website virtually everything said about the crisis by the major media thus making the school itself a clearing house for criticism and coverage. When the president and the accused appeared on 60 Minutes last October, Duke provided links to the video as well as transcripts. Alumni got a site for answers to worst-case questions about the university.

Others disagree that Duke got it right. The Raleigh News & Observer’s Rick Martinez asked, “Did Duke contribute to a rush to judgment by fanning an atmosphere of presumed racism and privilege by the lacrosse team? I think it did.” Stuart Taylor, Jr. and KC Johnson, who are writing a book about the case, said in the Wall Street Journal that much of Duke’s faculty were “enablers of abusive, dishonest law enforcement tactics.”

They suggest the university overreacted to a case they believe was obviously questionable from the start. What would they have had Duke do? Gamble that the allegations were false and let the matter slowly play out in the courts while outsiders pilloried the school? As a crisis manager I say you cannot fiddle while your reputation burns. You must act on the information you have, incomplete as it is. Duke did.

Surely there is something the school didn’t do that it should have. University investigative reports said there must be more control of off-campus behavior and alcohol abuse. Nevertheless, I believe the administration acted appropriately and kept its head out of the sand. Some say Duke went too far especially now that Nifong’s actions were flat wrong. But just ask yourself, “What if Nifong and the accuser had been correct all along?”

I think the president and his team took strong steps to meet trustees chairman Robert Steel’s challenge that “…Duke will be judged by how it responded…”

However one question still nags. Campus accusations of racism, female subjugation, privilege and more flared during the white-hot times of ’06. Were student and faculty claims and counter-claims merely passions of the moment or does something dark linger beneath Duke’s pristine exterior?

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