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.

Steel, now sixty-two years old, seemed to be understanding of the "bad boy" behavior that had occurred in the house at 610 North Buchanan. "I think that part of growing up is doing things that aren't right," he said. "That’s how you learn what's right. As I tell my kids all the time, if we have a contest of who’s made the most mistakes, I win. Making mistakes is part of life. Whether I think having bars that have exotic dancers is right or wrong, that's completely legal and they exist in our community and in our society, so you and I can have an opinion. So I made a decision: When I became a partner of Goldman Sachs, I would never go to a strip club again, because I said I can’t go and have some kid from Goldman Sachs see me and tell everyone at Goldman Sachs he saw Bob last night in a strip club, and then me look at a woman employee in the eye, and have her think that I'm going to view her in a balanced way. I can’t, so I have never been since then. My brother's bachelor party, at his wedding, was the last time. I used to joke with my wife: Someday, when all this is over and I don't have a job, I'm going to go to Las Vegas for a week and go to strip clubs so I can make up for it, but I haven't done that yet. So I made that decision... that it's not really what we should do, for a variety of reasons, and my life hasn't been adversely impacted. I haven't missed that much. But I think the idea that kids do dopey things is kind of what kids do. Do I think that it was a pretty heavy dose of dopey things at this event? Yeah, and I can tell it in a way that sounds insidious. I might personally think the cumulative impact of having strippers, swearing, making ethnic comments, using a broomstick as an alleged sex toy, rifling their purses, and things like that – assuming those things are all true – I personally might feel that that’s pretty unattractive. So I do, but kids do dumb things. Did you ever drive after drinking too much? I did. And could something terrible have happened? Could I have injured someone? Yes, and I did that. You know, boy, am I lucky."

As for what he believed happened in the bathroom that night, Steel said, "I felt there was zero chance that there was a group activity, that thirty guys saw something that was incredibly unattractive or whatever. These guys are like your and my kids. They're babies. Someone would've told their parents that 'I saw this' or whatever. I don't believe there’s any group thing that happened,something that they all saw. I just don't buy it, because I just think some kid would've broken to his mom, or some dad [would have] said, 'Tell me the truth or I'm taking away your car.' We have no idea what happened in a bathroom with one person or two persons. I have no clue, no idea. And again, you and I have dealt with things where you don't know, so you have to hope for the best and plan for it not being the best, but I have no idea. Today, what do I thinkI just don't know. And then you get the issue of, there are like seven clicks on this dial of what it could be. I don't need to be graphic. You can imagine seven clicks, some of which you can go, 'That’s not so great,' or other clicks you can imagine, 'That's pretty unattractive.'" Was justice served? "We have a legal system that has a process by which the wheels of justice turn," he said. "I believe that that process, after it wound its way to the right conclusion, I believe that it was an extremely unusual and messy, non-normal process this time, but in the end, yes, the exoneration seems like the right outcome."

Steel said he felt good about most of his decisions along the way and suggested that he had yet to receive the credit he deserved for navigating Duke through rough waters. "My biggest fear, some nights when I went to bed," he said, "was that I used to remember the exact distance, 3.8 miles from Duke was North Carolina Central, and that this could've turned into a very messy black/white confrontation with people driving by, shooting guns and things like that. It could've happened in a second. They had Black Panthers on campus, and things like that. No one's ever written about the management of that dynamic, point one. And there were reports of guns being shot. There were Black Panthers on campus who had guns. And the fear of an incident spiraling out of control. No one's ever said, 'You guys did a good job.' No one's ever said there wasn't anything violent; it never turned into a black-white situation. No one's ever given anybody any credit for managing that. We discussed that a lot. No one’s ever written it. It's fine with me. I don't care."

Then, he said, "Number two, I busted my ass to keep the board on the same page. We've got a lot of strong personalities on the board. You never heard the board break apart once. They were managed to be on the same page, and I must have spoken to every board member a bunch of times, basically saying, 'Listen, what do you think?' because my view was having the board break apart – and there were some people that were more student-sensitive on the board – John Mack [the former chairman and CEO of Morgan Stanley] – he’s a handful. So keeping the board together was, I thought, my job, and I give myself a good grade on that.” He said the decision to suspend the season was particularly unpopular. "There are people that will go to their grave being angry at me because we robbed their boys of the ability to play," he said. (Duke successfully appealed to the NCAA to allow the lacrosse players to have a fifth year of eligibility to make up for the lost season.) "So," he continued, "suspending the season, relieving Pressler, very controversial at the time. We had very little support for that from anyone. That was a lonely decision.... And then the decision to hire [as the new coach John] Danowski. We had three or four choices and I think we chose the right guy. I don't need a thank-you note from anybody. I'm just telling you I feel pretty good about it.”

On Memorial Day, 2013, Duke won its second national lacrosse championship under Danowski's leadership of the program, defeating Syracuse 16–10. Steel – who by then had been replaced as chairman of the board of trustees at Duke first by Rick Waggoner, the former CEO of General Motors, and then by David Rubenstein, the billionaire cofounder of the Carlyle Group, the powerful publicly traded Washington private-equity and asset-management firm – was very tempted to e-mail Brodhead. "When Duke lacrosse won the national championship [again that] year, and you looked at Danowski and you looked at the quality of kids, and you say the decision to basically replace the coach, take a pause, have Dick talk to the boys and look them in the eye and explain to them what being an athlete at Duke meant to be, had them think about whether they wanted to come back in this way, and the hiring of Danowski – you know, I sleep pretty well," he said. "But no one is ever going to write me a thank-you note from the 150,000 alumni at Duke and say, 'Good work, guys.'"