18 February 2015

Colleges Overreacting to Hoaxes

Stephen Kershnar
Academics and Hoaxes
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
February 17, 2015

 Here is a prediction. There will be a high profile incident of racism or sexism on a major college campus in the next year or two and it will turn out far different from how it is portrayed in the resulting media feeding frenzy. The incident will cause wailing and gnashing of the teeth on campus, especially from the administration, but little attention will be paid once the response proves to be an overreaction. My prediction is based on the last decade.   

Exhibit A in this pattern is the infamous Duke Lacrosse case. In 2006, an African-American stripper (Crystal Gail Mangum) falsely accused three members of the Duke Lacrosse team of raping her. Duke cancelled the lacrosse team’s season and forced the coach to resign. The prosecutor (Mike Nifong) was up for reelection and he recklessly pushed the cases even as evidence of the players’ innocence piled up. Mangum’s various accounts of the evening were inconsistent, they conflicted with the other stripper’s account, two of the players had strong alibis, the DNA evidence failed to support Mangum’s story, and so on. Nifong even conspired to hide evidence that supported the players’ account. So outrageous was Nifong’s conduct that the next year (2007) the North Carolina Attorney General proclaimed the players’ innocence and labeled Nifong a rogue prosecutor. Nifong was later disbarred for his conduct and briefly did jail time for trying to hide the DNA evidence. The players sued and received a substantial payout from Duke for how it treated them. Jesse James Deconto and Joseph Neff, writing for CNN, speculate that Duke might have paid the three as much as $50 million. A few years later, Mangum stabbed a boyfriend and is now doing real time for murder. For anyone familiar with Mangum’s track record, her imprisonment is sad, but unsurprising. 

The actions of the crazy left faculty at Duke’s actions were noteworthy. Eighty eight professors at Duke (Group of 88) signed an advertisement two weeks after Mangum claimed to have been raped. The advertisement was incoherent, but it described Duke as a morass of racism and sexism. “Regardless of the results of the police investigation, what is apparent everyday now is the anger and fear of many students who know themselves to be objects of racism and sexism, who see illuminated in this moment’s extraordinary spotlight what they live with everyday … We’re turning up the volume in a moment when some of the most vulnerable among us are being asked to quiet down while we wait.” The advertisement suggested that the players were guilty (Why else release it two weeks after the incident?) and that the rape and the response to it reflected the prevalence of racism and sexism at Duke. 

The signatories were the usual suspects. More than half the faculty of three departments signed it (African and African-American Studies, Women’s Studies, and Cultural Anthropology). Foreign Languages (Romance Studies) and the English Department also had scandalously high percentages of faculty who signed. The signatories ignored statistical evidence that it is rare that white men rape black women and, in general, seemed to have little concern for the evidence.

On a side note, SUNY Fredonia invited one of the signatories (Mark Anthony Neal) to speak at Fredonia this Spring.

There have also been a string of campus hoaxes in which colleges have reacted in absurd ways. Nicely summarized by Ashley Thorne writing for the National Association of Scholars, the most absurd example occurred at Oberlin. There, a few alleged hate crimes were followed by an alleged sighting of a Klu Klux Klan member walking across campus. It was most likely a person wearing a blanket on a cold night. This sighting caused classes to be cancelled and rallies and marches to occur. Thorne points out that it later turned out that the supposed hate crimes were perpetrated by two pro-Obama students. One of them told campus police, “I’m doing it as a joke to see the college overreact to it as they have with the other racial postings that have been posted on campus.” Overreactions also occurred at other elite institutions, including Bowdoin, Dartmouth, Princeton, and Williams.

The campus administrations and faculty of some of these schools should have been wary of hoaxes. As Thorn points out, there have been a series of documented campus hoax crimes in recent years, including Trinity International University (2005), George Washington University (2007), the University of Virginia (2007), the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (2011), Central Connecticut State University (2012), University of Wisconsin at Parkside (2012), Montclair State University (2012), and Vassar College (2013). Yet none of this stopped the faculty and administration at Oberlin and elsewhere from treating the hate crimes as if they were real and dredging up tired theories of racism, sexism, and classism. 

Another side note. In Fall 1995, a cross was burned on SUNY-Fredonia’s campus. I do not know if it was a hoax.

What these cases have in common is the use of dubious incidents to push the claim that society oppresses minorities and women. When the incidents were exposed as hoaxes, this is not treated as a counterexample to oppression theory. Nor is it treated as evidence that the theory’s proponents are unreliable experts, at least when responding to particular incidents. There is also a concern about who comprise the faculty who were at the center of the Group of 88 and their peers at other elite schools. That the theories of racism and sexism are problematic just adds to the overall concern.

What would be interesting and worthwhile is if Las Vegas laid odds on the truth or falsity of the next three allegedly racist incidents on campus. There’s nothing like money to cut through the academic fog.   

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