Brave new hoax
Via Instapundit comes the unsurprising news that the UMass student who claimed he was interrogated by Homeland Security officers after ordering a copy of Mao's Little Red Book through interlibrary loan was making the whole thing up.
According to the Boston Globe, the professor who originally fed the media the lies the student, who remains nameless, told him confronted the student when questions were raised about the veracity of the story. According to this professor, the student then confessed to lying. A UMass administrator says the university plans to take no action against the student, since the exchange "took place between a student and his faculty members." The trouble now is that as long as the student who allegedly told two of his professors his incredible tale of homeland absurdity remains unnamed and unidentified, so thoroughly underground that no journalist has spoken to him and so thoroughly shielded that the university is not even planning to have a chat with him about academic honesty, it begins to look like there may be no student at all. Cynics will wonder exactly who committed the hoax and will ask why UMass administrators aren't pursuing an issue that has more than a few loose ends hanging from it.
At the very least, UMass administrators might want to take steps to ensure that professors aren't so gullible in the future. The commenters at InsideHigherEd.com could tell right away that this case smelled wrong. Why couldn't the student's professors?
UPDATE 12/28/05: InsideHigherEd.com has pulled its initial article and replaced it with a full update. The new article contains a link to a PDF of the original.
December 21, 2005
Regarding the Solomon Amendment
At ACTA Online, I've been writing a lot lately about Rumsfeld v. FAIR, the Supreme Court case centered on whether the government should be allowed to withhold federal funding from schools that bar military recruiters as a way of protesting "don't ask, don't tell." I'd encourage readers who aren't already following the case to begin doing so--the debate about the validity of the Solomon Amendment contains within it a number of pressing interlocking questions about what constitutes free speech, what the government's responsibility to that nebulous category "academic freedom" is, what kinds of strategies would best serve law schools and other educational entities that object to "don't ask, don't tell," and, most basically, whether the government has the right to attach stipulations to the immense amount of money it hands out to higher education each year in the form of research grants and contracts.
My own position is that despite the heinousness of "don't ask, don't tell"--and I do think it's heinous--law schools are acting in bad faith when they bar, or seek to bar, recruiters from campus, particularly when they describe that barring as a legitimate expression of their institutional free speech. Schools that are genuinely concerned about the free exchange of ideas don't work hard to prevent their students from having as much informed access to as many potential employers as possible; they also don't place their own institutional activism ahead of their obligation to ensure that students may explore the full range of professional options open to them. That position has, in this binarized political climate, come to be labelled the conservative position; likewise, people who see the Solomon Amendment as a violation of schools' academic freedom and who think schools ought to be pre-emptively protesting a policy for students who, presumably, can't decide for themselves what to think about it, are seen as occupying the liberal side of the debate.
A piece in The New Republic plays with this rigid conservative-liberal split. "The Liberal Case for the Solomon Amendment" sees T. A. Frank arguing three interlocking points: first, that barring recruiters is not a good way to protest "don't ask, don't tell"; second, that our rapidly shifting cultural attitude toward homosexuality indicates the policy just won't survive much longer anyhow; and third, that what the debate about military discrimination against gays misses is that higher education has become impossibly and shamefully hostile to the idea of any educated person opting for military service. An excerpt:
No one among the classmates I knew in college would have been willing to take a few years to serve in the military while their friends were launching their lives and careers. This isn't simply selfishness; the entire structure of society discourages it. Charles Moskos, a Northwestern University sociologist who specializes in military issues, likes to point out that, in his Princeton class of 1956, over 400 students of about 750 served in the military. By 2004, that number was down to 8 students out of about 1,100. These numbers are for undergraduates, of course, not law school students. But the fact is that the entire culture of elite education--undergraduate, graduate, and professional--has grown hostile towards the idea of military service over the past 50 years. Permitting the Pentagon to puncture the self-imposed bubble of privileged schools is essential to changing this mindset.
The Solomon Amendment controversy, in sum, awakens two competing liberal imperatives: promoting equality for gays and lesbians; and encouraging all members of society--and not just a segregated warrior class--to sacrifice for our national security. One of these efforts is going quite well; the other is going quite poorly. This suggests that liberals who passionately support the universities in the lawsuit have the wrong fight on their minds. Military culture with respect to gays and lesbians is not going to change in response to a boycott by a few schools. (If anything, such a boycott would only make military culture more insular and therefore less tolerant.) And "don't ask, don't tell" is likely to disappear on its own. On the other hand, while most Americans have grown more tolerant of gay rights in recent decades, elites have become increasingly unwilling to serve in the military. The real shame at the heart of the Solomon Amendment scuffle, then, isn't the possibility of students being confronted by representatives from an organization that discriminates against gays and lesbians. It's the possibility of elites becoming even more isolated from the armed services that keep all of us safe.
No doubt, most of the law school deans and gay rights activists who support the ban on military recruiters consider themselves to be enlightened and progressive. But sometimes being progressive involves emerging from righteous isolation and deigning to mingle with an imperfect world.
Frank's invocation of academe's self-important insularity, and the suggestion that the "barring recruiter" approach is an involuted style of protest that does nothing practically beneficial for anyone but the academics who gratify themselves by adopting it, resonates provocatively with some of the exchanges between FAIR's lawyer and Supreme Court justices during the case's opening arguments earlier this month. The TNR piece, as well as the transcript of those arguments, are well worth a look.
December 18, 2005
The University of Pennsylvania nipped a public relations disaster in the bud two weeks ago when it decided not to prosecute a student for publishing photographs of two students giving a live sex show in their dorm window. Now the University of Western Ontario faces a similar publicity dilemma. Last fall, a freshman student performed a full strip tease, including lap dance, for a co-ed group of fellow dorm residents. The event was elaborately documented, and is now elaborately available on the internet for all to see (warning: that last link goes to the photos themselves).
The University is, as one might predict, "investigating" the incident. But the twist here is that there does not seem to be anything to prosecute. No one filed a complaint, and the event took place in the privacy of a dorm room. And when university administrators questioned the student stripper, she declared that no one forced her to strip, and that she agreed to be photographed. In other words, unlike the woman student at Penn, who performed live for several days running in her window and then filed a complaint when her performance was recorded and disseminated, this student has and had no qualms about either her walk on the wild side or, apparently, its electronic publication.
Western Ontario officials appear to be more embarrassed by the event than the students involved, but they also seem to recognize that they don't have any real jurisdiction over what goes on in the privacy of dorm rooms or over what students choose to post on the worldwide web: "We certainly regret this has happened," said Susan Grindrod, who is vice-president of housing at UWO. "It's not something the university condones and we are very disappointed in these students, but rooms in residence are considered to be students' homes, and what goes on between consenting adults in the privacy of their homes is considered to be their business." Grindrod added that "I'm not sure how we would regulate students' blogs and websites even if we wanted to."
Personally, I don't think the University should be embarrassed at all--except, perhaps, insofar as it has been shown to be totally typical in a moment when typicality is not indicative of respectability. Students are doing this sort of thing everywhere; it's part of the debauched party atmosphere of the contemporary college campus. What's different about the University of Western Ontario is that administrators recognized in the moment that there are real limits to how much they can control the choices and the behavior of students. That's unusual these days, and it's something to be proud of.
Thanks to Fred Ray for the link.
December 16, 2005
As an exhausting semester comes to a close, and as I read of others whose exhaustion has knocked them flat, I am, I have to say, somewhat disinclined to continue my regular routine of posting frustrating and infuriating stories about higher education administrators who, in one way or another, just don't get it. There is an inexhaustible supply of such stories. And even though they are the subject of this blog, there are times when I find it all too exhausting for words. I'll get over it, just as soon as I've had some rest. But in the meantime, I'll recommend some restorative reading.
I recently re-read Shirley Jackson's final and finest novel, We Have Always Lived in the Castle. I first read this book when I was sixteen, sitting by a pool, on a family vacation. It didn't strike me much one way or another at the time, and I quickly forgot all about it. But I found that I was reminded of it by Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping, which I also recently re-read. I thought it was funny how one book could remind me of another book I didn't remember, and wanted to find out what the association was--if any--that my mind was making. I'm glad I did. I answered my question--the similarities between the books are astonishing, and have as much to do with a certain elegiacally eerie tone they both possess as with their broadly similar plots about women whose distaste for convention leads them to choose lives as outcasts. But I also discovered a marvelous gem of a book by a writer who has been virtually forgotten, and who is remembered, when she is remembered at all, for a single story that owns the dubious distinction of being a permanent fixture on the high school English syllabus: "The Lottery."
"The Lottery" has always stayed with me--unlike We Have Always Lived in the Castle--because the older I get, the more I see it played out in real life. Jackson's story of a town that ritualistically stones a random citizen each year is a damning and dead-on metaphor for the uglier inevitabilities of collective life, and I've seen similar, if less physical, stoning take place over and over during the years--families do it, communities do it, workplaces do it, and academe most certainly does it. "The Lottery" is a hell of a parable about how communities need scapegoats. But it's also only part of the larger story Jackson was telling with her work. We Have Always Lived in the Castle describes the life of a family of outcasts from the perspective of the outcasts themselves, and as such it is less interested in why ostracism occurs than in why some people might choose to embrace the fact that they have been cast out. If "The Lottery" has the feeling of a parable, We Have Always Lived in the Castle reads like a fairy tale in which the ultimate happy ending can only happen when you have alienated everyone so much that they will finally leave you alone.
There is a rare purity and simplicity about Jackson's prose in this little novel. The language is clean and consistent in tone, even though the story is utterly strange and bizarre in affect. The effect is not to make one feel that one is being given a window into a mad psychological world whose rules differ from our own--though the narrator clearly is not quite "right"--but rather to convey the wonder of living beyond convention, of having the freedom to cherish what one values while dispensing with everything--and everyone--else. Jackson's is necessarily a world that has no problem with a little tactical murder now and then, and as such her portrait of individual liberty is a disturbing one. But it's magical nonetheless, with a purity of expression and a clarity of purpose that both make her work wonderful and, I suspect, tells us something about why it has been conveniently forgotten.
Here's the opening:
My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all, I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had. I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the death-cup mushroom. Everyone else in my family is dead.
The last time I glanced at the library books on the kitchen shelf, they were more than five months overdue, and I wondered whether I would have chosen differently I had known that these were the last books, the ones which would stand forever on our kitchen shelf. We rarely moved things; the Blackwoods were never much of a family for restlessness and stirring. We dealt with the small surface transient objects, the books and the flowers and the spoons, but underneath we had always a solid foundation of stable possessions. We always put things back where they belonged. We dusted and swept under tables and chairs and beds and pictures and rugs and lamps, but we left them were they were; the tortoise-shell toilet set on our mother's dressing table was never off place by so much as a fraction of an inch. Blackwoods had always lived in our house, and kept their things in order; as soon as a new Blackwood wife moved in, a place was found for her belongings, and so our house was built up with layers of Blackwood property weighting it, and keeping it steady against the world.
Jackson had a knack for establishing--in a very few opening words--alternative worlds with immense gravitational pull. Here she does it by talking about gravity itself--the weight of the Blackwoods' possessions anchors their home and their family life in time and place. But you get, too, the sense of a strangely unmoored consciousness describing the respectable historical solidity of her family estate, one that seems as attached to death as it is to non-sequitur (the mushroom comes off, syntactically, as a family member). The rest of the novel continues in this peculiarly powerful way.
December 6, 2005
Enough! Or too much
When it comes to respecting students' civil liberties, university administrators are having a particularly bad run lately.
Hampton University threatened to expel a group of students for distributing anti-Bush literature, and only sort of backed down when FIRE pointed out that punishing students for expressing their views in a manner that is fully covered by the First Amendment is inconsistent with the university's claims to "be a champion of free speech and free expression." Hampton is sticking to its claim--but it is also still penalizing the students by requiring them to perform community service to atone for the sin of handing out flyers.
Marquette University has suspended a dental student for posting critical comments about his classmates and one of his professors (all unnamed) on his blog. The student declined to sign an "admission of guilt," which would have obligated him to go on academic probation, to apologize to his classmates, and to enter counseling for both his negative attitude and for the alcohol problem administrators believed they could diagnose by reading his blog. Now, if he wants to return to dental school, he must repeat the fall semester (at a cost of $14,000), enter counseling, and apologize publicly to his class. He must also return a $5,000 scholarship he received from Marquette. The student has retained a lawyer, and has deleted his blog.
And at Bellarmine University, students understand the importance of free speech but professors don't. One Bellarmine student has raised eyebrows by wearing a white-supremacist armband around campus. But while his fellow students can separate their distaste for the symbol from their respect for his right to wear it, professors are having some trouble with that distinction. Joshua Golding, who chairs Bellarmine's philosophy department, wants to see the university forbid the student from wearing his armband. He has emailed the entire student body and faculty expressing his belief that "Bellarmine is perfectly within its rights to tell this fellow this is out of place." Meanwhile, students have held a "Sit in for Free Speech" to defend their campus against the sort of censorious intrusion Golding is endorsing.
I've been writing about free speech on campus for almost four years now. I've been steeped in these issues for so long that it sometimes seems unintelligible to me that there could really still be higher education faculty and administrators who don't get it. How couldn't they? This stuff is all over the news all the time, and the issues are parsed with great consistency from one case to the next. And yet, as these cases remind me, there are still an awful lot of folks in higher education who are ignorant of the what free speech is and why it matters, who are unprincipled in their actions when it comes to suppressing speech they find offensive or disruptive, and who don't seem to grasp the philosophical rationale for defending free expression on their campuses. That's scary, to say the least.
Thanks to Maurice Black for alerting me to the Marquette and Bellarmine cases.
December 5, 2005
And a little bit more...
The University of Pennsylvania investigated more than one student for posting photographs of the couple who had sex three days running against a dorm window earlier this fall. One of them was so angered by the hypocrisy displayed by the Office of Student Conduct that he filed a complaint of his own:
One senior who wished to remain anonymous said he filed an indecent exposure complaint against the couple in late October but that the Office of Student Conduct decided not to act on the grievance.
The student said OSC Associate Director Ed Rentezelas e-mailed him last week to say that there would be no investigation into his claim.
"Our office will not be taking any further action in your case," Rentezelas said in the e-mail, which the student forwarded to The Daily Pennsylvanian. OSC officials did not return calls to verify the authenticity of the e-mail.
History professor Alan Kors -- who served as an advocate for the Engineering junior initially charged by the University with sexual harassment for taking and distributing the sex-scene photos -- said he does not think that indecent-exposure charges are necessary.
"Let's put this behind everyone," he said. "I hope people will just leave [the couple] alone."
The student who lodged the indecent-exposure complaint said he filed it after the OSC investigated him for downloading and e-mailing the pictures and creating a group on facebook.com making light of them.
"At that moment, I got very angry. I was basically outraged," he said. "I was just trying to show [the OSC] how ridiculous it was" that they were investigating him and not the couple, he said.
The student said the investigation into his actions ended in late October. Though he was forced to remove the Facebook group, the student was never charged with any violations.
People watching this case unfold have wondered how it is that the University never seemed to contemplate pursuing the exhibitionistic couple for behavior that violates the Pennsylvania criminal code. Now they know why. A double standard was consciously and deliberately upheld in this case.
Today's Daily Pennsylvanian calls on the OSC to be accountable for its actions. Noting that bad publicity was the only thing that stopped Penn from unfairly pursuing baseless charges against a student last week, a staff editorial argues that Penn owes it to the university community to adopt more transparent procedures:
How many more cases are there like this?
In the 2001-02 school year, the OSC pursued 91 conduct-related disciplinary cases. There could be dozens of cases, similar to the photography incident, where students were being unfairly charged.
Do not think that most of the incidents were related to alcohol either; only 21 of them did.
The only information provided about these cases is that 23 incidents involved "disorderly conduct" and 31 cited "computer misuse or piracy." Making matters worse, the OSC has not made new statistics publicly available since 2002.
These cases are translating vague policies -- such as the prohibition of "harrassing communications" -- into action. Unless the public can actually see this happen, no one will have an idea of how the policies apply to real life.
The OSC's role is to decide if students are guilty of misconduct, and they should make the University community aware of the results of the proceedings. In the interest of student privacy, they can withhold names. But they shouldn't allow another incident like this to go under the radar.
Informing the public would make the OSC's actions more fair and accountable, and hopefully avoid another black eye for the University.
Implicit in this editorial is another recommendation: that Penn should abandon its vaguely worded policies in favor of more tightly framed ones that are less susceptible to abuse.
December 4, 2005
Turning the tables at Penn?
The University of Pennsylvania gave itself a black eye last week when the media got word that the university was unfairly prosecuting a student for publishing photos of a couple having sex up against a dorm window. Penn backed down in the wake of national media mockery, and dropped charges against the student photographer who was being illegitimately accused of sexual harassment, among other things. Now the question is what, if anything, does this unsettling window into the usually confidential operations of the Office of Student Conduct reveal about that office's own conduct?
Alan Charles Kors, a Penn history professor with a long history of defending the expressive rights of students against repressive and censorious administrations, suggests that where there is smoke, there is fire. In the comments to a Daily Pennsylvanian piece on the case, Kors argues that the focus should not be on either the student photographer or the student whose erotic activities he exposed. Rather, the focus should be on the Office of Student Conduct itself:
The deepest question here is whether or not Penn students have the rights and the protections from capricious power that are their moral due. Students should be alarmed by the behavior of the Office of Student Conduct. This one undergraduate had the integrity, dignity, and force of character to say no. (He also had a graduate student advisor, Andrew Geier, who is the true hero in this, and whose concern for undergraduate rights is a great gift to Penn.) Many students---bullied by an OSC that clearly has lost its judgment, its common sense, its belief in equity, and its respect for students' rights---simply would have signed a terrible and immoral settlement in order to avoid worse punishment. If this had been a fraternity student exposing himself sexually above Locust Walk, and a young woman had photographed it and posted in on a blog about Penn and her life at Penn, the photographer would have been deemed an official hero and the fraternity student (or perhaps the whole fraternity) would be gone. I also would beg the Penn community to leave in peace the individuals who were photographed. Enough is enough. It's fun to be young; it's terrible to bring irresponsible charges against someone rather than to assume responsibility for one's own choices and behaviors; and it's awful to suffer unduly. Let's put this particular event behind us quickly, and let's focus on the real issue: the powers of an apparently unfair and indecent OSC that has such control over your lives and your futures.
Kors has intimated more than once over the past week that Penn's OSC could stand to be investigated. But it seems highly unlikely either that Penn will initiate such a process or that Kors can command one, despite the timely judiciousness of his comments. Penn will wait, in the manner of embarrassed universities everywhere, for the media furor to die down and for the minute attention spans of the public to turn to the next big scandal. And then, unless other students who have compellingly damning stories to tell come forward, the Office of Student Conduct will quietly but surely return to business as usual.
Thanks to Maurice Black for the link.
December 1, 2005
Penn gets it right
The University of Pennsylvania has dropped charges against the student who posted photos of a pair of fellow students having sex up against a dormitory window. Here's to administrators who are willing to admit when they've made a mistake--or, to put things more circumspectly, who have the sense to back down when they are backed into a corner.
The Daily Pennsylvanian reports that the woman pictured in the telltale photos has retained a lawyer and will pursue all available options for legal redress. Meanwhile, Penn history professor Alan Charles Kors points out that it would be premature to assume that all is now well in Penn's Office of Student Conduct:
Alan Kors, a History professor and renowned defender of freedom of expression who had come to the photographer's defense, believes that the situation points to a larger problem on campus.
"If this Office of Student Conduct was willing to pursue this case with these facts, then what cases don't we know about?" he asked. "That is frightening because most [students] plea bargain."
Geier said that before he agreed to advise the student, the photographer was on the verge of agreeing to the OSC's initial proposal.
Kors called for a University investigation into the office and its definition of students' rights as well as what constitutes certain violations.
"We have got to know what criteria of student conduct this office is working with," he said, adding that the OSC is "clearly out of its mind and out of control."
If there are other Penn students who have horror stories to tell about their experiences with OSC, now is the time to come forward.
More on Penn free speech flap
The University of Pennsylvania appears to be steadfast in its intention to punish an engineering junior for photographing two fellow students openly having sex in their dorm window and then posting the photos on the internet, despite the fact that everyone who has been asked appears to think the university is way out of line in doing so. Both the Chronicle of Higher Education and InsideHigherEd.com have picked up the story. The latter reports that concerns about another Water Buffalo Incident are running high--so much so that Alan Charles Kors, the history professor who in 1993 defended Penn student Eden Jacobowitz against egregious sanctions for protected speech, has offered to defend the student Penn is presently disciplining.
Kors went on to co-author with Boston civil liberties lawyer Harvey Silverglate The Shadow University, a landmark study of how America's colleges and universities routinely violate the civil liberties of students and faculty. FIRE (the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education) was founded in the wake of The Shadow University, and has done enormously important work defending First Amendment rights on campuses where administrators disrespect and dishonor them.
Kors spoke with both the Chronicle and InsideHigherEd. Here's what he had to say to the Chronicle:
Mr. Kors said on Wednesday that although the university is a private institution and is not legally held to the same First Amendment standards as a public institution, university policies protect students' right to free expression as if it were. Taking a photograph of a public event and then disseminating it is a matter of free expression, he said.
"That's university law," Mr. Kors said. "The very existence of an investigation of protected speech is chilling."
If anybody did anything wrong, he said, it's the students who were having sex near a window for all the world to see. He added, however, that he hopes the university doesn't investigate those students either.
"Don't make love in an open window," Mr. Kors said. "I wish that people had more respect for privacy, but there are times when it's appropriate to close the blinds."
And here's what he had to say to InsideHigherEd.com:
In Jacobowitz's case, Alan Charles Kors, a professor of history at the university and co-author of The Shadow University, successfully helped the student defend himself. Ultimately, in September 1993, the executive committee of the university's Board of Trustees passed a resolution that guaranteed policies that supported the fundamental importance of freedom of speech and expression for students, explained Kors Wednesday.
University administrators, Kors said, did not want to give the perception "that students at Delaware Community College had more First Amendment rights than University of Pennsylvania students."
On Wednesday, hoping to head off another "water buffalo" situation and to draw attention back to the 1993 resolution that would appear to vindicate the photographer, Kors became a player in the latest case centered on student freedom at the university by officially becoming an adviser to the student.
"This whole situation was settled back in the early 1990s," he said. "If administrators pursue this, they will make a fool of a great institution. They will have shown an incredible failure to protect the liberty of students at the University of Pennsylvania."
"If they didn't want pictures taken of them," asked Kors, "why didn't they just close the blinds?"
And here is what Kors told the Daily Pennsylvanian:
"It is as outrageous as a case could be," he said. "If a student at Penn does not have the right to take a photograph of what is in plain sight ... then you have no rights. And I don't want to teach at a university where students have no rights."
Kors added that the photographer did not perform any actions that are out of line with University policy.
"In 1993 and 1994, this University promised and made it public policy that University of Pennsylvania students would have at least the same rights as students in public universities that are governed by the Constitution," he said.
Kors said, however, that disciplinary action is ridiculous considering that the student acted completely within his rights.
"Penn students have the right to free speech and free expression," he said. "The University appeared to have remembered that lesson for a long time, and now it appears to have forgotten it."
The accused student has declined to accept the punishment Penn has proposed for him. In response, Penn administrators are scheduled to meet with the students involved in this case today. Here's hoping they adjust their punitive and outrageous tactics before then.