There is a near irresistible urge to believe what we want to believe, even in the face of conflicting evidence. Seldom has that regrettable impulse been demonstrated more starkly than in 2006 when three members of the Duke University lacrosse team were charged with raping a woman they had hired to perform at a party as an “exotic dancer.” The accused were white men from well-to-do Northern families and the accuser a poor local black woman with two young children to support. With its overtones of racism, regionalism, gender advantage and class privilege, the situation couldn’t have been more dramatic—or potentially explosive.

Those who followed the case over the year it made national headlines will recall that the case against the three men was so flimsy it never came to trial. There was never any physical evidence that a rape occurred; the accused had airtight alibis for the period during which the rape supposedly took place; and the accuser changed her story substantially every time she retold it. The district attorney who doggedly pressed the case—acting solely on the woman’s accusation while disregarding all the indications she was lying—was disbarred.

William D. Cohan’s The Price of Silence: The Duke Lacrosse Scandal, the Power of the Elite, and the Corruption of Our Great Universities is an engrossing piece of reporting—the 600-plus pages read like a short story. Cohan uses the Duke incident not only to shine a light on the dangers of acting on preconceptions but also to examine the fabric of the modern university as it tries to strike a balance between serious academics and big-time athletics.

The book also has much to say about the hazards inherent in striving to achieve a racially and economically diverse student body. Cohan’s detailed account of the vibrations set off by the district attorney’s very public pursuit is a vigorous antidote to the here-today-gone-tomorrow school of journalism. (It may seem a small thing, but Cohan does the reader a great service here by listing and identifying the principal players at the beginning of the book. Other authors should take note.)

No one emerges unsullied here. Off the field, the lacrosse players routinely acted boorishly and entitled. The supposed victim had a history of dissembling and behaving erratically. Liberal members of the Duke faculty were just as quick to portray the team members as villains as the more conservative voices in the community were to blame the woman for inviting her own misfortune. Duke officials are shown to have been self-serving and vacillating, willing to throw the accused students to the wolves while piously declaring that the law should be allowed to take its course.

A Duke graduate and a contributing editor of Vanity Fair, Cohan has gleaned the larger lessons from this messy affair by demonstrating how a rush to judgment can damage or destroy countless lives. It’s a useful template for anyone who’s more concerned with achieving justice than reinforcing stereotypes.

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