Another Duke Scandal?
This post was inspired by a juxtaposition of two documents. One was an article written for a journal published by Universiti Teknologi MARA (UiTM) in Malaysia. I had to edit this article and it was not always a pleasant experience. It was full of grammatical errors such as omission of articles, sentences without subjects and so on. But at least I could usually understand what the author was talking about.
Taking a break, I skimmed some higher education sites and, via a blog by Professor K.C. Johnson, an historian at Brooklyn College, New York, arrived at a piece by Karla Holloway, a professor at Duke University (North Carolina) in an online journal, the Scholar and Feminist Online, published by the Barnard Center for research on Women. The center is run by Barnard College, an independent college affiliated to Columbia University.
A bit of background first. In March of this year, an exotic dancer, hired to perform at a party held by Duke University lacrosse players, claimed that she had been raped. Some of the players certanly seem to have been rude and loutish but the accusation looks more dubious every day. The alleged incident did, however, gave rise to some soul searching by the university administration. Committees were formed, one of which, dealing with race, was headed by Professor Holloway. Here is a link to Professor Holloway’s article Take a look at it for a few minutes.
Professor Holloway, after some remarks about the affair that have been criticized in quite a few places, describes how tired she is after sitting on the committee and that she is thinking of quitting.
I write these thoughts, considering what it would mean to resign from the committee charged with managing the post culture of the Lacrosse team's assault to the character of the university. My decision is fraught with a personal history that has made me understand the deep ambiguity in loving and caring for someone who has committed an egregious wrong. It is complicated with an administrative history that has made me appreciate the frailties of faculty and students and how a university's conduct toward those who have abused its privileges as well as protected them is burdened with legal residue, as well as personal empathy. My decision has vacillated between the guilt over my worry that if not me, which other body like mine will be pulled into this service? Who do I render vulnerable if I lose my courage to stay this course? On the other side is my increasingly desperate need to run for cover, to vacate the battlefield, and to seek personal shelter. It does feel like a battle. So when asked to provide the labor, once again, for the aftermath of a conduct that visibly associates me, in terms of race and gender, with the imbalance of power, especially without an appreciable notice of this as the contestatory space that women and black folk are asked to inhabit, I find myself preoccupied with a decision on whether or not to demur from this association in an effort, however feeble, to protect the vulnerability that is inherent to this assigned and necessary meditative role.
Until we recognize that sports reinforces exactly those behaviors of entitlement which have been and can be so abusive to women and girls and those "othered" by their sports' history of membership, the bodies who will bear evidence and consequence of the field's conduct will remain, after the fact of the matter, laboring to retrieve the lofty goals of education, to elevate the character of the place, to restore a space where they can do the work they came to the university to accomplish. However, as long as the bodies of women and minorities are evidence as well as restitution, the troubled terrain we labor over is as much a battlefield as it is a sports arena. At this moment, I have little appreciable sense of difference between the requisite conduct and consequence of either space.
Getting to the point, I am fairly confident that no journal published by Universiti Teknologi MARA would ever accept anything as impenetrable as this. Even though most people writing for Malaysian academic journals are not native speakers of English and many do not have doctorates, they do not write stuff as reader-unfriendly as this. I must add that, being allergic to committees, I am much more sympathetic to Professor Holloway than some other commentators.
If Professor Holloway were a graduate student who had been reading too much post-modern criticism and French philosophy, perhaps she could be excused. But she is nothing less than the William R. Kenan Professor of English at Duke. We surely expect clearer and less “reader-othering” writing than this from a professor, especially a professor of English. And what sort of comments does she write on her student essays?
Nor is this a rough draft that could be polished later. The article, we are told, has been read generously and carefully by Robyn Wieger, the Margaret Taylor Smith Director of Women’s Studies and Professor in Women’s Studies and Literature at Duke, and William Chafe, the Alice Mary Baldwin Professor and Dean of History at Duke. It also got an "intuitive and tremendously helpful" review from Janet Jakobsen, Full Professor and Director of the Barnard Centre for Research on Women.
Duke is, according to the Times Higher Education Supplement (THES), one of the best universities in the world. This is not entirely a result of THES’s erratic scoring – a bit more about that later – for the Shanghai Jiao tong ranking also gives Duke a high rating. UiTM, however, is not in THES’s top 200 or Shanghai Jiao Tong’s 500, even though it tries to maintain a certain minimal standard of communicative competence in the academic journals it publishes.
So how can Duke give professorships to people who write like that and how can Barnard College publish that sort of journal ?
Is it possible to introduce a ranking system that will give some credit to Universities that refrain from publishing stuff like this? I am wondering whether somebody could do something like Alan Sokal’s famous Social Text hoax, sending pages of pretentious nonsense to a cultural studies journal, which had no qualms about accepting them, but this time sending a piece to journals published by universities at different levels of the global hierarchy. My hypothesis is that universities in countries like Malaysia might be better able to see through this sort of thing than some of the academic superstars. An NDI (nonsense detection index) might then be incorporated into a ranking system and, I suspect, might be the disadvantage of places like Duke.
Another idea that might be more immediately practical is inspired by Professor Johnson’s observation that Professor Holloway has a very light teaching load. She does in fact, according to the Duke website, spend 5 hours and fifty minutes a week in the classroom and, presumably, spends an equivalent time marking, counselling and so on. This is about a half, maybe even a third or a quarter, of the teaching load of most Malaysian university lecturers. It might be possible to construct an index based on teaching hours per dollar of salary combined with a score for research articles or citations per dollar. Once again, I suspect that the score of Duke and similar places might not be quite so spectacular.
Also, one wonders whether Duke really deserves quite such a high THES ranking after all. Looking at the THES rankings for 2004 and 2005, it is clear that Duke has advanced remarkably and perhaps just a little unbelievably. In 2004 Duke was in 52nd place and in 2005 it rose to eleventh, just behind the Ecole Polytechnique in Paris and equal to the London School of Economics.
How did it do that? More in a little while.