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In response to last week’s news that the Durham prosecutor has finally dropped the rape charges against the college lacrosse players, Duke University president Richard Brodhead issued a statement that expressed relief, labeled the remaining charges questionable, and called for the replacement of the prosecutor.

It’s about time. The incident occurred in March, and the initial reaction of Duke was horror: marches, signed faculty denunciations, and a terrified administration trying to line up evidence to convict its own students. That was bad enough, but the racial demagoguery of the prosecutor running for re-election was apparent during the spring primaries, and the administration at Duke responded with silence. Every piece of evidence that has emerged in the months since has revealed the worthlessness of the case, and the Duke response was yet more silence. Finally, now, Duke’s president has gotten around to defending the students.

In a recent article, Brodhead suggested it would take two to five years for the school to recover. Duke should be so lucky. I imagine it will be much longer before Duke ceases to be known as the school that throws its students overboard at the least sign of storm clouds.

Indeed, the school didn’t just push them off; it tried to tie them up first. The Brooklyn professor K.C. Johnson has been obsessively following the case. As he notes, in the initial weeks after the incident, the university worked hard to convict the students: “Duke administrators actively assisted the state. Without informing President Richard Brodhead, administrators demanded from the captains a candid account of the evening’s events, allegedly citing a non-existent ‘student-faculty’ privilege to encourage the captains to disclose any criminal activity. Multiple sources confirm that Coach Mike Pressler, apparently acting on orders from above, instructed the other players not to tell their parents about the police inquiry. Meanwhile, Dean Sue Wasiolek arranged for a local lawyer, Wes Covington, to act as a ‘facilitator’ in arranging for a group meeting with police.”

Maybe the Duke lacrosse case will mark a turning point in the way business is conducted at schools across the nation. Once the students are free of the final charges, the civil lawsuits will begin, and it’s apparent to most legal observers that the prosecutor, Mike Nifong, is doomed. But libel and slander claims against Duke administrators and professors will probably follow—and, at that point, what lesson will American universities learn from the case? For decades now, administrations have been terrified of their far-left constituencies: the women’s studies departments, the ethnic student groups, the radical faculty members. If serious damages are awarded as a result of the university’s sacrifice of its lacrosse players, then other college administrators may learn they have to resist the knee-jerk surrender they have practiced for years.

And yet, what is a school supposed to do? When American schools surrendered their authority as standing in loco parentis to their students, those schools were also freed from the responsibilities of standing in loco parentis . It now seems obvious that the lacrosse players did not rape the stripper they hired for their party, but what were they doing with a stripper in the first place? Somewhere between 1960 and today, Duke lost the parental ability to object to its students hiring naked women to decorate their parties. And, as a result, students at the same time lost the ability to claim parental protection from their schools.

Typically, the college administrators understand this, while students don’t. For years, American undergraduates have acted with a 1950s sort of belief that the college’s shadow will protect them from all but the worst of behaviors. But all the talk of universities as businesses, serving students as customers, came from somewhere—and it has consequences. Once the special in loco parentis relation was gone, American colleges really were nothing more than business, and they have no more need to complain when local authorities mistreat their students than a grocery store has when police arrest one its customers. Less, as a matter of fact: From Duke’s point of view, the student customers are cycled out in four years, while the local Durham authorities are around forever.

Add in the race politics of American college campuses, and the decision to fling the accused students overboard is an obvious one for any administrator at any American school. Can you honestly say that any other university would have behaved better? Still, they might have tried. No parents I know will be sending their children to Duke University for a long, long while.

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