Thursday, October 25, 2007

Assessing Duke's Burness

What follows are excerpts in italics from Duke senior Elliot Wolf’s Chronicle column today, after which I offer comments in plain text.

Now Wolf:

[…] Beyond the trials of the lacrosse situation, John [Burness, senior vice president for public affairs and government relations,] has consistently been willing to engage me in the variety of positions I've held since coming to Duke.

Upon the announcement that his departure from the University . . .I must thank him for putting up with me for the past three years. That he did, for so long, says a lot about him and about his commitment to the University . . ..

Our relationship began my freshman year, when I called him demanding various internal documents on University finances, and it continued as I scrutinized public records on the University's income and expenditures.

I eventually wrote a column on the University's tax return, which John felt the need to write a guest column refuting.

Subsequently, we discussed issues ranging from the University's purchase of 12 off-campus houses formerly occupied by students to the (lack of) detail in the University's financial statements and the Durham Police Department.

Although we often came down on different sides of various issues, he was ready and willing to take time out of what he described in an e-mail announcing his retirement as "70-plus-hour work weeks" to engage me-but not without humorous jabs here and there. […]

But now the conspiracy theories surround him. Comments on various blogs and The Chronicle's Web site suggest (without any evidence) he is being fired for his handling of lacrosse.

For what it's worth, during an interview with me two years ago, prior to lacrosse, he indicated that he would likely retire by the end of this year.

And many more comments argue that this is a positive development for the University.

Despite our various disagreements and the recent controversy over the handling of the lacrosse case, I cannot agree with that assessment. […]

Most [students] don't understand exactly what he is responsible for and by extension how hard it will be to replace him.

But believe me, it will be.


As the column excerpts suggest, Wolf has been an informed critic of the University who’s not been afraid to examine aspects of its functioning most student leaders would shy away from. He’s written more than one column that must have had some Allen building occupants reaching for their Maalox.

So Wolf’s praise of Burness is praise indeed and to be respected.

But we need to bear in mind that Wolf’s assessment is based solely on his direct contacts with Burness.

Any current assessment of John Burness’ service to Duke should include an explicit recognition that there’s a great deal we don’t know about his role in Duke’s actions and inactions in response to the Hoax.

Let’s acknowledge, as Wolf does, that so far we’ve heard only accusations that Burness worked behind the scenes to undermine the lacrosse students.

Acknowledging that is only fair. It’s also the principal reason why I’ve said next to nothing about those accusations. There’s a heavy burden on those making the accusations to produce “the beef” so the rest of us can make up our minds about them.

We may end up only with claims and counter claims of what did or didn’t happen during unrecorded conversations.

And while the claimants and counter-claimants may be telling us what they believe to be true, it may be impossible for the rest of us to reasonably determine whether Burness in fact acted to undermine the students.

What’s certain is there’s much about Burness’ role in the Hoax we don’t know, but need and deserve to know.

Was Burness an important advisor who helped determine the Univeristy’s bungled and shameful response to Crystal Mangum and Mike Nifong’s lies? Or was his role primarily to pass on to the media and public decisions and statements he had little or no part in formulating?

Is it possible that while publicly stating and affirming the University’s positions as he’d be expected to do, Burness spoke in private, and sometimes questioned parts of President Brodhead’s and BOT Chair Steel’s “throw them under the bus” strategy?

We don’t know yet whether Burness ever said something like “Dick, you really should meet with the lacrosse parents.”

Or, “We need to make some kind of statement supporting Reade Seligmann and condemning the racists. We certainly would if Seligmann were black and the racists white.”

Or, “Dick, that was an ugly scene last night with those ‘activists’ circulating ‘Vigilante’ posters right outside your office windows. You really should issue a statement condemning them. They’re heightening the danger the lacrosse students are facing.”

One thing is obvious: There’s a need for a full, fair inquiry into what Burness and other University leaders did in response to the Hoax.

I plan to post again concerning Burness and the Hoax.

Closing item: In a time when so many move quickly beyond policy and practice differences to launching ad hominems, it’s good to learn that Wolf and Burness contended over the past few years in a civil manner.

Their achievement is not to be taken lightly on a campus where many routinely compare the President of the United States to Hitler and raise no objection when a member of Congress, speaking on the House floor, says the President enjoys seeing our troops in Iraq have their heads blown off.


Anonymous said...


If you will remember, Mike Nifong had several character witnesses who vouched for his professionalism at his ethics hearing.

While I apprciate the fact that Elliott Wolfe had a cordial relationship with Burness, it does nothing to alleviate the smear job that Duke put on the lax players. Where was Burness when this all happened?

If Burness's recent public comments about the former former lax coach are accurate, he was an overpaid hack.


kaz said...


Since I don't see a prominent public email address for you, I'm going way off topic to direct you to the most humorously viscious smack down I've ever seen on the web. On the receiving end: a McClatchy reporter in Iraq. Below is a copy of the blog page in question. The reporter may have sobered up for a few minutes - he took down his whole blog after the vituperation became lengthy and the rout complete.

Anonymous said...

Burness will be exposed, along with the rest of the adminstration when the remainder of the lawsuits are filed. The mistake of the '3' is that they settled with Duke without discovery. JIC,there are witnesses and tapes of the things Burness said to ' throw the players' under the bus.
Soon it will all be out!!