Monday, May 2, 2011

Richard H. Brodhead: The Duke of Disdain

Richard H. Brodhead: The Duke of Disdain

Although history is replete with records of those in high office who manifest feelings of contemptuous aversion to others of a lower and vulnerable standing, in the twenty-first century haughty disdain is not apt to take the top place in the list of qualifications for being an American university dean or presidency. Yet Richard H. Brodhead as Dean of Yale College and after 2004 as President of Duke University has repeatedly allowed disdain to color his writings and dead literary people and his treatment of real human beings. I have become something of an authority on Brodhead's character after 23 June 2002 when he disdainfully defamed me while ignoring the work of my mentors and other scholars in his New York TIMES review of the second volume of my biography of Melville.

Perhaps the best way of seeing Brodhead's disdain in its unforced, natural form is to look at it when it is not directed at living persons such as the Yale instructor James Van de Velde, me and my older Melville colleagues, or Duke’s lacrosse coach, Michael Pressler, and the Duke lacrosse players and their families.

I point to Brodhead's THE SCHOOL OF HAWTHORNE (1986), where one trips hard against this remarkably invidious and quite gratuitous comment: "Thomas Bailey Aldrich, a once-admired poet more forgotten now than even the word 'limbo' can suggest, found his poetical vocation while reading Longfellow."

As someone who knows first hand just how much pain Brodhead's snide innuendo can inflict, I wince at the disdain in this sentence as I retype it. Poor Aldrich! Not even lying in limbo--still more forgotten than that! Here his elitist contempt masks Brodhead's own ignorance, for his disdain is grotesquely misapplied.

Yes, popular writers fall out of favor, and may become neglected if not wholly forgotten. But this egregious slurring of Thomas Bailey Aldrich (whose THE STORY OF A BAD BOY, at least, ought to awaken kind memories in an English professor) exposes something shameful.

Brodhead is gratuitously slurring a man he should have been reading. While preparing a book called THE SCHOOL OF HAWTHORNE a genuine scholar at Yale, inching down the aisles of the Sterling Memorial Library while compulsively reading old novels, would have seized on that very Thomas Bailey Aldrich's THE STILLWATER TRAGEDY, not poetry but a (once) popular novel.

Brodhead ought to have known the book, for it shows Aldrich as a proud member of the school of Hawthorne. THE STILLWATER TRAGEDYopens with a passage written in loving homage to Hawthorne's set piece in THE HOUSE OF THE SEVEN GABLES on the passage of the night and the morning while a corpse awaits discovery. Brodhead's arrogant ignorance pokes out through his disdain.

When disdain forms a dark pillar of your character you may often neglect to do the basic homework which a research topic demands. Brodhead wrote a book about dead white men whom he could link to Hawthorne, and famous dead white men at that. Anyone who knew American literature would have known not just about Aldrich as a member of the school of Hawthorne but would also have known about other men, no longer famous, who were in Hawthorne's classroom, as well as women, including the famous Harriet Beecher Stowe.

Brodhead had not read Stowe's Hawthorne-influenced New England novels, or else he would have made them part of his book. Brodhead simply did not know who attended "the school of Hawthorne," and he ruined the topic for anyone else. Because the august Oxford University Press published his book, no one else is going to publish a better book called THE REAL SCHOOL OF HAWTHORNE.

Michael Rubin on 6 June 2006 in the NATIONAL REVIEW ONLINE accused Brodhead of having "a history of allowing public relations to trump principle." Rubin explained the Yale precedent: "On December 4, 1998, senior Suzanne Jovin was found stabbed to death and left at an intersection in a neighborhood adjacent to the Yale campus which housed many Yale professors and graduate students." Brodhead, acting for Yale, was obsessed with avoiding adverse publicity. Rubin continued, "When Jovin was murdered, justice took a backseat to damage control. Within days New Haven police and Yale officials publicly fingered political scientist James Van de Velde, Jovin’s senior essay adviser."

According to Rubin, "Yale administrators did not care that there was neither evidence nor motive linking Van de Velde to Jovin. Her body had been found a half-mile from his house. Just as at Duke, Brodhead spoke eloquently about the principles of due process, but moved to subvert it. Citing the New Haven Police Department’s naming of Van de Velde among 'a pool of suspects,' Brodhead cancelled Van de Velde’s spring-term lecture, explaining that 'the cancellation of the course doesn’t follow from a judgment or a prejudgment of his hypothetical involvement in the Jovin case.' As at Duke, Brodhead insisted that due process would prevail. Despite Van de Velde’s stellar student reviews and distinguished record, Brodhead then let his contract lapse. Van de Velde left New Haven, his career in shambles."

Disdain was at work in Brodhead's treatment of the Yale instructor James Van de Velde. According to one of Van de Velde's students, Clinton W. Taylor, Van de Velde was an anomaly at Yale: "He was a star lecturer and had been a residential college dean. He was also a former White House appointee under George H. W. Bush and a member of the U.S. Naval Intelligence Reserves. Most Yale professors lean to the left of the student body; few in the political-science and international-relations departments have real-world experience.”

Van de Velde was the subject of personal jealousy and political animosity. Many faculty members -- including Brodhead -- looked askance at his desire to emphasize practical policymaking over theory. Some questioned, for example, his willingness to help Jovin write -- in 1998 -- about the threat posed by Osama bin Laden to the U.S. to be unscholarly. From an academic point-of-view, Van de Velde was a black sheep." Debbie Schlussel in WordNetDaily wrote on 20 July 2001 that Van de Velde's life has been "bludgeoned": "Van de Velde is alive, but Yale has unjustly taken his life and dreams away from him. Academic freedom be damned."

"A handsome, popular professor," according to his student Taylor, "Van de Velde's courses, like 'International Drug Trafficking: National Security Dimensions and Drug Control Strategies,' were cited by Spin Magazine as among the coolest in American collegiate life, and he got rave reviews from students. He'd also begun a promising career as a television commentator on national security issues." At Yale, according to Schlussel, "all things good and decent, all of Van de Velde's wunderkind achievements and accolades made him a target – of colleagues, of Yale, of the NHPD. With a strong tinge of jealousy, they were out to get the ascendant handsome, young, connected, Republican white male. The nerve of this man to invade Yale's political science department – populated by aging liberal academics – and to actually become a popular professor to boot."

Physically Van de Velde was no cosseted, genteel junior appointee as Brodhead had been in the 1970s. According to the blogger Patriotlad, Van de Velde's "schedule was all work, study, and working out." Van de Velde could take care of himself physically and intellectual but he was no match for the politically and institutionally powerful Brodhead.

Brodhead was disdainful of James Van de Velde in part, surely, because he was a real-world non-ideologue who was intruding upon safe, conventional Yale beliefs. Brodhead himself was an eminently safe man, having been an undergraduate at Yale, graduate student at Yale, assistant professor at Yale, and successively promoted until he became Dean of Yale College. What's wrong with that?

In Brodhead's case, it meant that he never learned how to learn to do research. He learned how to be a critic, not how to be a scholar, a person who actively adds to knowledge. The New Criticism had been dominant at Yale since 1953, when Charles Feidelson replaced Stanley T. Williams, the teacher of the great Melville graduate students of the 1940s. After Feidelson, scholarly research all but died at Yale as one critical dissertation after another was written.

The original New Critics of the 1940s, including some who taught at Yale, had been trained as scholars, but Yale became a place where those who had never done scholarly research taught those who would never do scholarly research, and would be distrustful and hostile toward it. Even aside from the disaster of having each Yale generation farther and farther from real scholarly work, it's always bad for a school to hire its own. It guarantees that no new literary approaches will be attempted, it perpetuates old values and approaches. It discourages fresh thought.

Such coddling was unintentionally devastating to a favored student like Brodhead, for it deprived him of the necessity to test himself in job market and to face the challenge of dealing with a non-homogeneous set of colleagues in another part of the country. (I speak from the experience of having been hired back at Northwestern, finding out after two years that I was expected not to think non-authorized thoughts about literary creativity, and setting myself the goal of getting out fast.) Brodhead had been pampered all his academic life—to his great detriment.

On June 6, 2006 , as the Lacrosse Hoax was unravelling, when it was becoming clear that the rape accusation against Duke lacrosse players was false, Rubin summarized: "On March 25, Duke University President Richard Brodhead issued a statement declaring, 'Physical coercion and sexual assault are unacceptable in any setting and have no place at Duke.' Of course, he issued the caveat, 'People are presumed innocent until proven guilty,' but on campuses today, such presumption is secondary. On April 5, Brodhead canceled the lacrosse team’s season and promised an investigation of the culture of college athletes as well as Duke’s own response. The lacrosse coach resigned." The coach, Michael Pressler, in fact had been forced to resign, and later successfully sued Duke for his mistreatment and co-wrote an account of the experience, IT'S NOT ABOUT THE TRUTH. Still later, when Brodhead slurred Pressler disdainfully in violation of their agreement and his underling James Burness repeated the slur to a reporter, Pressler successfully sued Duke University, making Duke pay for its having hired the Duke of Disdain.

Rubin went on to explain how "Brodhead’s willingness to offer up a sacrificial lamb undercut justice in other ways." Rubin pointed out: "Brodhead has never apologized." He concluded: "If Brodhead recognizes his error in the Jovin case, he should apologize to Van de Velde, its other victim. That he repeats his mistakes—at Yale canceling a class; at Duke, a lacrosse season—does his leadership a disservice. Although just yesterday [Rubin was writing on 6 June 2006] he agreed to allow a 'probationary' reinstatement of the lacrosse team, at Duke, he has affirmed those who, with accusations of racism and adherence to political correctness, demanded premature action. He has treated the accused cavalierly. Justice should take its course. Brodhead need not act until the charges are dismissed or a verdict returned. But, if then, it transpires that he has once again tarred the innocent, he can prove his leadership with an apology or a resignation."

In 2004 Duke needed someone who had a lifelong history of dealing deftly with tough, gnarled issues whether aesthetic, intellectual, social, or political. Duke needed someone capable of rising up in extraordinary circumstances and by God doing the right thing, right then, out of experience, powerful instinct, or innate majesty of soul. Instead, Duke got Richard H. Brodhead, the Duke of Disdain.

Will the current DISCOVERY process in two lawsuits bring forth more examples of Brodhead’s disdain for his students and selected PC targets as we learn just how he obstructed justice and just how he engaged in constructive fraud (the two charges going to trial)?

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