December 29, 2010

Honoring One of the Perpetrators at Duke

By KC Johnson

Each year, the American Historical Association---the nation's leading professional organization of historians---confers the Eugene Asher Distinguished Teaching Award, which "recognizes inspiring teachers whose techniques and mastery of subject matter made a lasting impression and substantial difference to students of history." At the 2011 annual conference (held January 4-7 week in Boston), the AHA will add recently-retired Duke professor Peter Wood to the Asher Award's list of "inspiring" teachers of history.

For those who followed the lacrosse case, Wood needs no introduction; he was among the most outspoken anti-lacrosse members of the Duke faculty. Wood's commentary, however, differed from that of other anti-lacrosse extremists, most of whose public remarks focused on assumptions of guilt about the criminal case (the Group of 88's statement) or race-baiting demagoguery. Wood, on the other hand, tended to use the lacrosse case to speak out about the character of students in his classes. He did so through a string of statements that contained stereotyped, malicious, or evidence-free things about his own students. That such a figure could subsequently win an award specifically designed for "inspiring" students in his classes is nothing short of astonishing.

Even before the lacrosse case broke, it was clear Wood didn't much like Duke students who played lacrosse. In 2004, he wrote to a dean complaining about lacrosse players allegedly missing one of his classes to attend practice. (He didn't mention that the players had acted appropriately and had received advance permission from the relevant dean.) After the false rape charges prompted a campus investigation of the 2006 lacrosse team, Wood expanded on his critique. But he gave an account of his (lacrosse-playing) students' classroom behavior that differed wildly from that of the other nine faculty members interviewed by the investigatory committee, and even Wood's teaching assistant declined to corroborate the Asher Award winner's version of his students' behavior. Wood also seemed to invent a past that never existed: the committee's report coldly noted that Wood's "more recent statements about the behavior of lacrosse players [in his 2004 class] have been significantly more negative than what he said in the letter he wrote in 2004."

The AHA likes to pride itself for its commitment to diversity and its hostility to stereotyping. How, then, to reconcile those beliefs with Wood's denial (in the April 1, 2006) to the New York Times that he was biased against all athletes? Wood claimed that his distaste was confined to members of the lacrosse team, whose backgrounds differed from those of other athletes. "The football players here," he bizarrely stated, "are often rural white boys with baseball caps or hard-working black students who are proud to be at Duke." Imagine the AHA (or any major academic organization) conferring a teaching award on a professor who had attacked his own students from a majority African-American sport, but who had denied an anti-athletes bias by saying that he welcomed "hard-working [white] students who are proud to be at Duke."

Wood struck next in a July 2006 interview with a local alternative weekly, during which he revealed that he had taught two of the indicted players, including Reade Seligmann. Wood then described his lacrosse player-students' personal character: "Cynical, arrogant, callous, dismissive---you could almost say openly hostile." Yet Seligmann's personal traits were almost uniformly praised throughout the lacrosse case. I e-mailed Wood several times requesting even one piece of evidence to substantiate his attack on his own student's character. He never replied. At one point, an exasperated Kathy Seligmann, Reade's mother, phoned Wood to ask for the basis on which he had maligned her son. Wood hung up the phone on her. Imagine the AHA (or any major academic organization) conferring a teaching award -a teaching award!---on a professor who had maliciously attacked the character of an African-American female student in his class, and had then hung up the phone on the student's mother when asked to supply evidence for his public remarks.

Wood's campaign of wild allegations about his own students' character climaxed when he told the New Yorker that his teaching evaluations for a spring 2004 class featured a student who wrote, "I wish all the Indians had died; then we wouldn't have to study them." Wood immediately concluded that the remark came from one of the lacrosse players in the class. Leaving aside whether a professor should publicly discuss, with a reporter, student comments from supposedly confidential teaching evaluations, how did Wood know that a lacrosse player had made the offensive remark? He explained how he analyzed the evidence to the New Yorker: "I had sixty-five students. Ten lacrosse players. Most of the students loved [the class]. It was a good class." Imagine the AHA (or any major academic organization) conferring a teaching award on a professor who had publicly claimed that one of his African-American students had advocated genocide against Native Americans---solely on the basis of an anonymous student evaluation in a class where 85 percent of students were not African-American.

Wood has never apologized for---much less retracted---any of these statements he made about students in his own classes.

I e-mailed AHA executive director James Grossman to ask about the criteria used for conferring an award for teaching excellence upon a man with a record of making misleading (or worse) public attacks on his own students. Grossman pointed me to the Asher Award guidelines---which, in fairness to the AHA, do not automatically exclude professors who publicly malign their own students. (How anyone could consider such a professor an "inspiring" teacher of history, however, is hard to see.) Grossman also explained that Wood was "selected by a peer review committee selected by the Association's Committee on Committees"; and that he was disinclined to second-guess the panel, given his "considerable respect for the peer review process."

Since links to each of the interviews Wood conducted on the lacrosse case or to posts containing these links appear on the first page of a Google search for "'Peter Wood' Duke," it strains credulity to believe that the committee was unaware of Wood's record in the lacrosse case. Perhaps this was, then, a massive breakdown of the peer-review process, yet another example of how "groupthink" in faculty committees produces distorted decisions. Or, perhaps, the committee members actually considered Wood's treatment of his students who played lacrosse to be a positive qualification for his candidacy. Either way, it seems to me that the Asher Award committee could have found one history professor who was both an excellent teacher and who hadn't compiled a shameful record of publicly and repeatedly maligning his or her own students.

By giving Wood the Asher Award, the AHA has made Wood's shame its own.


KC Johnson is a Professor of History at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center, and author of the blog Durham-in-Wonderland. He is co-author, with Stuart Taylor Jr., of "Until Proven Innocent."

Comments (1)


I know the internet has been lelcad Gutenbergian (or Gutenbergesque?) in the way it's changed the world of communication. For sure, the days are gone when one could just take his past writings and throw them into the fireplace.

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