Several times a week I pass an empty lot at 610 N. Buchanan Blvd on my run around Duke University’s East Campus. The address is infamous as the site of an event that thoroughly rattled the nerves of Duke University and the wider Durham community. On March 13, 2006 two strippers were ordered to the house that once stood there, where several Duke lacrosse players lived and were hosting a party. What exactly did occur that night remains unclear, but as the case unfolded it became undeniable that it was not what many people initially assumed. The odd contortions of the case have been well documented and much rehearsed; it even has its own Wikipedia page.
Six years later, the memory of the case continues to affect the Duke community; the empty lot remains like a scar on the collective psyche of the University. This lingering psychological effect came powerfully to my attention through the comment section of an article that Duke’s independent student newspaper, The Chronicle, ran when the University announced the impending departure of Sam Wells, Dean of the Chapel. The comments betray a general sense that the University leadership as a whole, Wells included, abandoned the falsely accused players to a miscarriage of justice. Instead of rebutting the shrill outcry of the Durham community and national media, the University leaders appeared to concede the players’ guilt. Calling for the re-evaluation of “community standards” (or the apparent lack thereof) was seen as a tacit admission that something criminal had taken place.
It turned out that none of the criminal accusations against the players was justified, and certainly the nightmare of scrutiny, hate, and fear that the accused players suffered is on all levels regrettable. But the events of six years ago today, then as now, did not need to involve any criminal activity in order to be an appropriate occasion for some University-wide self-reflection about the habits that shape our community life for good or ill. Wells called for precisely such reflection in the sermon that he preached in Duke Chapel on April 2, 2006.
Wells’s sermon invites the University to answer a crucial teleological question: “What is this university for?” In response to this implied question, Wells offers an articulation of the university’s usually unspoken “law”:
Learning and discovery require imagination, and that imagination is formed by disciplines of loving attention to detail, rigorous but generous dialog with a wide range of voices, deep but undaunted respect for traditions and those that uphold them, earnest searching for goodness, truth and beauty, and constant vigilance in regard to the social significance and embodiment of knowledge. Such disciplines train our desire. …
[T]his ‘law’ isn’t just about the classroom. It’s about every habit and practice of campus life together – for learning and discovery lie in every aspect of college life, even emerging from moments of regret and shame. The task of a university is to help its members so to internalize the law that they come to take it for granted – that it becomes their desire.
Wells preached these words six years ago as the University was reeling from rumors about the events at 610 N. Buchanan Blvd, and just three days after students had gathered on the Duke Chapel quad to tell stories of sexual assault as part of Take Back the Night. In that context, words that ask a community to reevaluate its purpose and reorient its life toward its ultimate goals read especially poignantly, but they are no less necessary six years later. These words demand much more of a university than simply keeping underage drinking in check. They also consider the university’s task much more, well, universally. That is, a university isn’t primarily for amassing general knowledge of what is in the world, but rather for cultivating a community in habits that allow it to use its knowledge and talents for the flourishing of good in the world.
The University had the house at 610 N. Buchanan demolished in 2010. I couldn’t help but think, when I first noted its absence, that destroying it would not erase the memory or heal the wounds. But neither forgetting nor merely remembering will be adequate. Learning to be the kind of place where the entire set of events that was the “Duke lacrosse case” could not happen will require honest acknowledgement of past mistakes and renewed commitment to something like what Wells calls for in the last lines of his sermon. Wells notes that, as far as the deepest concerns of University life go, the “lacrosse case” isn’t really about the lacrosse case at all:
This week has not, fundamentally, been about the disputed facts of an ugly evening. It has been about renewing all who care about Duke in their loyalty to the fundamental law of the university: and that law is about the education of desire.
The lacrosse case was just one among many kinds of events that could have exposed our need, as a university community, to learn to love the right things, and to love them rightly. I hope that when we at Duke think of the lacrosse case in the future, it becomes an occasion to ask ourselves about the “education of our desire,” and, if necessary, to reorient ourselves toward the flourishing of good.