Friday, March 18, 2005

The Dumb E-mail Faculty Did Not Get This St. Patrick’s Day

When the Marquette Tribune did their usual St. Patrick’s Day story, they of course dealt with the issue of student drinking, and mentioned a “memo” that faculty got last year.
Last year, the Office of Academic Affairs issued a memo giving guidelines to faculty in order to discourage student drinking on St. Patrick’s Day. No memo has been sent out this year, according to several professors.

University Provost Madeline Wake, who did not issue the memo last year, said she does not intend to issue a similar memo this year, and she is not aware of any such memo being issued by anyone else.
That’s good news, since the “memo” in question – actually an e-mail – was entirely ill-advised.

Sent out by Vice Provost for Undergraduate Programs and Teaching Thomas Wenzel, it first outlined a number of innocuous things the administration was doing – for example having residence hall staff wear t-shirts that said “Smart, Safe, Sober.” But it then went on to say the following:
Administration and Student Affairs senior administrators are requesting that Academic Affairs support these initiatives by doing the following:
  • Not cancelling classes on Wednesday, March 17
  • Announcing at Monday classes that students are expected to be at Wednesday classes
  • Having a requirement such as a quiz or assignment due for March 17 classes
  • Contacting DPS to escort any intoxicated students out of class
  • Not making jokes about drinking on St. Patrick’s Day
Would you please convey these requests to your faculty and encourage them to do what they can to discourage unsafe behavior and promote a proper academic environment during this holiday period on Wednesday and Thursday.

Thank you for your help in this matter.
This was sent to all deans, and then duly forwarded on to departments and individual faculty.

Clearly, this missive was the work of administrators who had too much time on their hands.

No doubt some students drink to excess, and no doubt it’s a bad thing. But trying to tell faculty how their run their courses is simply out of bounds. Even worse is trying to tell faculty what sort of jokes they can tell. If being dour moralists about drinking would actually help students, faculty would then have a moral obligation to be such, but it’s not clear that would help students, and it’s certainly not something the Administration can decide for individual professors.

In a modern university, when something is defined as a “problem” the understanding is that the university needs to “address” that “problem.” It’s considered desirable to have meetings and issue statements and produce “guidelines” and “directives,” but it’s not in fact considered necessary that any of those things have a plausible connection to the “problem” being addressed.

As journalist Charles Peters has explained, in a bureaucracy “make believe equals survival.”

The “Media Guidelines” Memo

This was hardly the first misguided missive that the Administration sent to faculty. In January 2003, all faculty were sent a memo titled “Guidelines on Talking to Members of the Media” signed by Provost Madeline Wake and Senior Vice President Greg Kliebhan. The memo conceded that faculty have a right to talk to the media about their academic specialties, but then went on to list the “guidelines” that applied if the media should ask for information about Marquette University. Quoting the memo:
  • Ask the reporter their name, media outlet (i.e., Journal/Sentinel, WISN-TV, etc.)
  • Do not answer their questions immediately.
  • Tell them you will return their call within the hour once you have the time to locate the information and confer with your colleagues.
  • They may push you a bit and say “c’mon you know the answer to that…just tell me now because I’m on deadline.” Tell them you will make every effort to get back to them quickly.
  • Call Ben Tracy, Director of University Communication, and let him know what the reporter is asking you. In consultation with your Vice President or Dean, Ben will provide some guidance in forming your response.
Sometimes, media simply want the “official” version of information, such as enrollment figures, fund raising data, and so on. It’s fair enough that nobody should claim to be providing “official information” without it being vetted as really official.

But the media might ask faculty all sorts of questions about Marquette that positively should not be vetted with the Administration, such as “what is faculty morale like,” or “what about diversity at Marquette,” or “is drinking a problem among Marquette students.”

One bizarre thing was that faculty were instructed to -- in effect -- lie to journalists and claim that they don’t have particular information available when they in fact do. This to provide an excuse to get the information properly vetted before being given to the media.

Just blurting out the truth can be dangerous.

But the most bizarre thing was that the memo was signed not only by Provost Madeline Wake but by Greg Kliebhan. Kliebhan is the top business-side bureaucrat in the University, and has no business giving faculty directions of any sort regarding what they can say.

A day and a half later, after a firestorm over the first memo, Marquette issued a “clarification” saying that the memo really only concerned the giving out of official information. Perhaps that was indeed the intention, but if so the memo should have been written to say that.

Opposing the Iraq War

In winter and spring of 2003 the nation was moving toward war with Saddam’s Iraq, and during the run-up to the war Provost Wake felt moved to e-mail to all faculty an essay titled “War and the Campuses” by one Paul Loeb. Wake appeared to be urging faculty to take class time to discuss the coming war.

Unfortunately, the essay had a leftist anti-war bias and, despite some superficial rhetoric to the contrary, a condescending and arrogant tone toward those who supported the war. In the essay:

  1. It’s assumed that most students oppose the war, and need to be encouraged to express anti-war sentiments by faculty. The typical student response is assumed to be “anger, fear, mourning, and perceived powerlessness.” Students are to be encouraged not to “bury their doubts, fears, and questions.” If some students support the war, this is supposedly because of “an environment that equates patriotism with blind obedience.” The notion that students may need to be encouraged to speak out in the face of faculty and campus activist opinion that strongly opposes the war is nowhere to be found.
  2. Faculty are urged to “raise difficult questions about the roots and consequences of our [U.S.] actions.” They are not urged to raise any questions about the consequences of not acting. They are urged to be critical of the use of American power (“Pax Americana”), but not to be critical of Saddam or (say) the actions of the French. It is American actions that are viewed a problematic, but not anybody else’s.
  3. It is assumed that “the most idealistic and engaged” students will be opposed to the war. It is asserted that such students “will feel powerless, when their most heartfelt actions and outcries will seem to have been spurned. Some may be tempted into self-destructive political rage, blindly lashing out.” Students who favor the war are clearly seen as not “idealistic” nor “engaged” and indeed are demeaned as sheep who just follow the crowd or passively watch TV.
  4. American political leaders are demeaned as “treating democracy with contempt,” and are accused of “dismissing citizens who disagree as misguided or worse.”
Again, a firestorm erupted, and only a day later Wake issued a “clarification.”
I am writing to clarify my intent in sending the essay by Paul Loeb earlier this week. My intent was to ask you to acknowledge the crisis of war with respect to the various perspectives of students as they struggle with the issues. This intent includes students who favor or oppose the war and those who are uncertain. The university does not have a position on the war, but rather believes that our role is to facilitate discussion that includes all viewpoints. In that regard, the university believes we have a duty to respect each individual student as a person and their views. I thank you for your understanding and your commitment to providing a truly transformational education for our students.

Madeline Wake
Interestingly, the same administrators who are insisting that information from Marquette be properly vetted are themselves having to issue a lot of “clarifications.”

Even assuming that Wake didn’t intend to endorse the ideological biases of the Loeb essay, the e-mail was highly problematic. A Provost simply isn’t charged with telling faculty how to use class time. An exception would be in the case of real abuse of academic responsibilities. But talking about the Iraq War in a (say) calculus class is arguably an abuse, and not doing so clearly isn’t.

Some liberal faculty, who were out of sympathy with the war, objected to Wake’s message on exactly these grounds.

Conclusion

Thus, it’s dandy that faculty got no advice or guidance about this St. Patrick’s Day. Perhaps Marquette administrators are learning.

We don’t expect them to do anything really sensible, like firing about half of all administrators here so that only necessary work gets done.

But when they sit down together with the intention to “address” an “issue,” perhaps they are sometimes deciding that the best thing to do is . . . nothing.

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