DURHAM, N.C. – Duke University President Richard Brodhead apologized Saturday for the school’s lack of full support for the three lacrosse players falsely accused last year of raping an escort service dancer.

It was Brodhead’s first public apology for the university’s handling of the case, which drew worldwide media attention.

Brodhead said his own biggest regret was “our failure to reach out to the lacrosse players and their families in this time of extraordinary peril. Given the complexities of the case, getting this communication right would never have been easy. But the fact is that we did not get it right, causing the families to feel abandoned when they most needed support. This was a mistake. I take responsibility for it, and I apologize.”

He added that some faculty made statements that were “ill-advised and divisive” and Duke should have done more to underscore that these were the beliefs of individuals, not the university as a whole.

And, he said, by deferring to the criminal justice system and “not repeating the need for the presumption of innocence equally vigorously at all the key moments, we may have helped create the impression that we did not care about our students. This was not the case, and I regret it as well.”

Brodhead, who did not take questions, made his remarks during a speech at the Duke Law School. He was there as part of a two-day conference focused on the lacrosse case and how it was reported by the media.

“If there’s one lesson the world should take from the Duke lacrosse case,” Brodhead said, “it’s the danger of prejudgment and our need to defend against it at every turn.”

His short speech was greeted with a standing ovation by many in the crowd. It’s not clear whether the apology will appease Brodhead’s critics, including alumni, players’ families and bloggers, who for months have attacked the administration’s handling of the situation.

Jay Bilas, an ESPN sports commentator who played basketball at Duke, said the apology was appropriate, but “woefully late.” In June, Bilas wrote a letter to the Duke alumni magazine suggesting that Brodhead was not an appropriate leader, but the letter was not published until this week, when it was posted online.

“The confidence in his ability to lead has been eroded,” Bilas said Saturday. “While Dick Brodhead is a terrific person and would make a wonderful head of the English department, he has demonstrated his ineffectiveness and his inability to lead, especially in a crisis.”

A seven-member committee of trustees and professors is now reviewing Brodhead’s first three years as Duke president. The panel will give its evaluation to the full trustee board by the end of the year.

Jack MacMillan, an Iron Duke athletics booster from Hickory, said the apology would help Brodhead weather the storm. “Anything he says will help the matter,” said MacMillan, 71. “The administration just folded up like an accordion when that case happened.”

Duke law professor Jim Coleman said in looking back on the case, it’s important to recognize that events were tied together. “None of this stuff happened in a vacuum,” he said. “What Duke did affected what others did.”

Emily Rotberg, a 2007 Duke graduate and former student journalist, said critics who attack how people reacted early in the case are usually “ignoring the context of complete confusion.”

Brodhead said he was initially concerned that if Duke spoke out too forcefully it might have appeared that “a well-connected institution was improperly attempting to influence the judicial process.”

But he added: “Even with all that, Duke needed to be clear that it demanded fair treatment for its students. I took that for granted. If any doubted it, then I should have been more explicit, especially as evidence mounted that the prosecutor was not acting in accordance with the standards of his profession.”

In Saturday’s remarks, the president announced that Duke would host a national conference of college student affairs administrators to discuss procedures for handling students who get charged with crimes.

After the dancer claimed she was assaulted at a lacrosse team party on March 13, 2006, Brodhead forced the resignation of the lacrosse coach and canceled the 2006 Duke lacrosse season.

All charges against the players – David Evans, Reade Seligmann and Collin Finnerty -were eventually dropped. Attorney General Roy Cooper declared the players innocent and Mike Nifong, the district attorney who brought the case, was disbarred.

Brodhead said he hoped that someday the case would be forgotten. “But if it is remembered,” he said, “let’s hope it is remembered the right way: as a call to caution in a world where certainty and judgment come far too quickly.”

(c) 2007, The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.).

Visit The News & Observer online at http://www.newsobserver.com/

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

AP-NY-09-29-07 1755EDT

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