Duke Lacrosse and the Fog of Scandal
Credit: Michael Krinke / Getty Image

When Crystal Gail Mangum, an African-American exotic dancer, accused three white members of the Duke Lacrosse Team of raping her at an off-campus house party in 2006, the story took over the national conversation about race and higher education. For some, Mangum's alleged victimization was both a crime and a symptom of the culture of consequence-free privilege incubated at elite academic institutions. For others, the story seemed suspiciously purpose-built for moralistic grandstanding. Duke University reacted to the scandal by canceling the 2006 lacrosse season and by tacitly cooperating with Durham prosecutor Mike Nifong, who would later be disbarred, fired and jailed – for 24 hours – for what amounted to charges of prosecutorial misconduct. In June 2007, the university settled with the three accused players, paying them $20 million each. Duke's total tab for the party that night: around $100 million. In his new book "The Price of Silence: The Duke Lacrosse Scandal, the Power of the Elite, and the Corruption of Our Great Universities," William D. Cohan presents the first authoritative account of what happened on the evening of March 13, 2006 and the chaos that followed. Cohan’s clear-eyed reporting tracks how administrators, lawyers, police, media personalities, Mangum, and the exonerated players reacted to the spotlight and the shadows it cast. In the book, Cohan speaks with a number of important figures who had never before spoken publicly about the scandal, including both Mike Nifong and former Duke University Board of Trustees Chairman Robert Steel.

Robert Steel is a man of prodigious pedigree. A native of Durham, North Carolina and a 1973 graduate of Duke, Steel eventually joined Goldman Sachs & Co. in its Chicago office, as an institutional salesman and, during the next thirty years, worked his way up to becoming a partner and a vice-chairman of the firm. He was a partner of the firm on the day Goldman Sachs went public in May 1999, making him wealthier than he could possibly imagine.

After leaving Goldman in 2004, Steel has had a variety of impressive jobs including: serving as Undersecretary for Domestic Finance under Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson, his former Goldman partner, who recruited Steel to the Treasury during the financial crisis of 2008; serving as the CEO of Wachovia Corporation, the big North Carolina bank that was sold to Wells Fargo during the financial crisis; and, most recently, serving as a Deputy Mayor for Economic Development during most of former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg's final term in office.

During the fourteen months of the lacrosse scandal at Duke, which started in March 2006 and continued through April 2007 – and beyond – Steel was the Chairman of the Duke Board of Trustees. The Duke administration, led by Richard Brodhead, who Steel recruited to Duke, from Yale, asked Steel not to talk to me about the lacrosse scandal. Steel did it anyway. For the first time, this is his version of what the scandal felt like from his perspective running the Duke Board of Trustees.

"When I first heard about it, I didn't know all the details, but you had the idea there was an incident, and you wondered if it was kind of garden-variety misbehaving," Steel recalled during an interview at New York's city hall. “And then it became clear it wasn’t garden-variety misbehaving. It had other aspects to it."

Once the board realized how serious the allegations were, it kicked into a higher gear. "We're stewards of the university," Steel said. "Here you have an institution that’s one hundred years old. Universities in America are extremely durable institutions. How do you manage through this in the best way that’s consistent with the values that you think should be undergirding the institution, and what are the values? It's complicated, because here you have an incident that developed a scale and an interest and a complexity that was outside the normal things we do. The press office at Duke issues press releases, copies of reports, presidential speeches, and discusses, in Duke's case, national championships. All of a sudden, you have multiple TV cameras outside, reporters all over the campus, national news covering events, and we weren’t prepared to deal with that. We just weren't."

Steel said the university did its best to deal with the situation in real time but sometimes events overtook it. "Everyone wanted instant resolution or instant perspective when, in fact, facts came out over time," he said. "And certain things came out as facts that later turned out not to be facts. So I think that it's complex, is the real issue." One of the crucial principals that the Duke board stuck to – which was often parroted by Brodhead – was that there was a legal process that had started and there was little the university could do until that legal process resolved itself.

"You have a legal system, you have a university judicial system and you have a sense of fairness in how you're trying to manage people's understanding of the situation," Steel said."Universities are exciting because of all the different cohorts and perspectives that exist there, and all these cohorts, I think, have a focus and the ability to pull together, whether it’s students, faculty, blue-collar workers, the community, alumni, or the administration, and the board. These were all groups trying to deal with this. So the strategy, I think, from the board was to provide guidance and be available to the management of the university, which is the executive office, and so that's what we tried to do. We're lucky because we had, on the board, people that understood legal issues. We had a State Supreme Court justice. We had a dozen attorneys, several from North Carolina, some of whom were African-American, some of whom were white. We had people that understood the politics of North Carolina, [one] who had been president of the North Carolina State Legislature. So we had a group of people, and we had previous trustees that did our very best to give advice to the president."

But often, chaos reigned. "It was pretty clear this situation had accelerant," he said. "It's a bit like the McNamarian 'Fog of War,' that when you're in war, it's not going to be clear what’s going on around you." Adhering to established principles was essential. "I believe boards have four functions," he said. "Number one is they choose the strategy; two, they choose the leader; three, they monitor the leader's actions relative to strategy; and four, they're available for consultation. That's what boards should do, in my opinion. It's pretty straightforward." He said that while the board made a few mistakes, overall the situation was handled well. "Our principles were right, that, one, the legal process has to be the predominant thing," he said. "I think there are some things we could have done better. I think our support of the students was deficient, and if I could wave a magic wand, I think we could’ve done a better job. It was complicated by the decisions that the coach should be relieved, because the coach" – Mike Pressler, the lacrosse coach who was fired April 5, 2006 – "would be the normal person that you would use as your valve to the students.... The key person in these boys' lives was the coach, and when the decision was made to relieve the coach, who takes the place in these boys’ Duke lives as their key contact, confidante, looks them in the eye and basically says, 'If you have any problem, call me'? Who takes that job? I don't think we did it very well."

Steel also said he wished he could have a "do-over" on Brodhead's April 20, 2006 statement to the Durham Chamber of Commerce – "If they didn't do it, whatever they did is bad enough." Steel said, "I think Dick's vocabulary, on occasion, strayed.... Dick is a talker. Sometimes you have to have a message and you don't say anything more. You get in, you get out. Dick tends to go on. We were practicing for depositions and [Duke's lawyer said], 'Dick, you’re the worst person I ever tried to teach about depositions. You talk too much. You're a professor. You explain everything.' The answer is, 'That's not something I can recall.' Then you're through. 'That's not something about which I have a recollection.' I've done this, unfortunately, a lot of times, but Dick wants to pontificate. He's an English professor."

Excerpted from "The Price of Silence: The Duke Lacrosse Scandal, the Power of the Elite, and the Corruption of Our Great Universities" by William Cohan, published on April 8, 2014 by Scribner, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc. Printed with permission.