Marquette Dental Student Suspended Over Blog Posts
Anybody with any “blog sophistication” won’t take statements on student blogs very seriously. But what if you are a university administrator who knows little about blogs and is very thin-skinned about anybody saying anything that might in any way reflect badly on your program or students or faculty?
You might go ballistic over a student blog.
This is exactly what happened when Marquette Dental School Associate Dean for Academic Affairs Denis Lynch learned of a student blog that made one negative comment about a professor (who was not named), a negative comment about 25% of the year-two dental school class (with nobody named) and talked about going out on a few occasions and drinking too much.
Lynch freaked, and wrote the student a letter (dated November 2, 2005) accusing him of “crude, demeaning and unprofessional remarks” that “violate standards of acceptable behavior as described in the Standards of Conduct, published in At Marquette (2005-2006, pages 209-211), as well as the School of Dentistry’s Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct. . . .”
Lynch then went on and claimed that the student had violated Section IV, Subsection E of the Marquette Dental School Code. He offered the student the option of signing “an admission of guilt” and accepting a punishment that included probation for the rest of the student’s Marquette career, making a public apology to his dental school class, and making an appointment with the Director of the Marquette University Counseling Center “to assess both your alcohol abuse and the underlying basis of your remarks posted on your blog site.”
Just What Did the Student Say?
We have examined the entire content of the blog (which is now offline, and comes to 48 pages when printed). The vast majority of the material is innocuous, about classes, trips and video games.
The most offensive comment is one in which he refers to a teacher who taught him in eight credits worth of courses during the past semester as a “cockmaster of a teacher. I don’t even gratify him by calling him a professor. He is one who teaches, as in should teach infants and children.”
Harsh comments, although the teacher is not named. Presumably, a fair number of people in the Dental School could identify the person, although only a handful of those would have read the student blog, and most of those would be students. Undoubtedly, most of them have said similar things to each other about one or another of their professors.
Does Marquette Forbid Student Criticism of Professors?
Ironically, Marquette University encourages students to post public comments about their professors, and these comments can be very negative.
An online posting board called “DogEars” can be accessed via a link from the student government web page.
Although there is a disclaimer saying that Marquette is not responsible for the content of DogEars, the link can only be interpreted as Marquette encouraging students to go to the site and review their professors. Anybody in the Marquette community can read the reviews.
The comments can be extremely negative. For example, one professor was described as a “prime example of a white elitist male.” Another was described as “extremely, extremely biased. Choses favorites like it’s his job. Doesn’t read papers – I even turned the same one in twice to prove this.”
And of another professor: “. . . this course was very frustrating, overwhelming, boring, uninteresting, confusing, unorganized. I need more adjectives!” And of a different professor: “I believe this to be the worst class I have taken at Marquette, and that is saying a lot.”
And these faculty were attacked by name, and by students who were anonymous.
Note that all of these comments were about professors who, in the University’s rigorous and systematic teacher evaluations, are viewed as at least average instructors. Most professors leave behind an “unsatisfied customer” or two, and anybody with any sophistication about student comments knows this.
The Dental School is listed in DogEars, and students are allowed to leave comments.
But a student posting a negative comment about an unnamed faculty member on his blog is something the Dental School doesn’t seem to tolerate.
Other “Unprofessional” Things on the Blog
The student, apparently in a bad mood, said of the students in his Dental School class “I don’t know how I am gonna manage the same 80 people for the next 3 years, especially when 20 of them have the intellect/maturity of a 3 year old, or are just a plain pain in the ass.”
We frankly doubt anybody was personally offended by this, since we imagine none of the student’s cohorts think of themselves as among the twenty he is denigrating! Indeed, the statement is pretty obviously hyperbole.
The blog entries do contain several descriptions that sound like binge drinking, although one of the cases was a “Champaign brunch” which the Dental School gave for students on the Dean’s List. The student said he left “full and buzzin’ a little bit from the booze.”
Does Any of This Merit Punishment?
Of course, many kinds of bad behavior don’t break any rules, and this student’s Dean’s List status suggests somebody who basically has his “head together.”
The student supposedly violated Section IV, Subsection E of the “Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct” in the Dental School student handbook. That section reads:
E. Interpersonal Interactions – Each member of the MUSoD community is obligated to conduct interactions with each other, with patients and with others in a manner that promotes understanding and trust. Actions, which in any way discriminate against or favor any group or are harassing in nature, are condemned. Respect for the diverse members of the MUSoD student body, administrators, faculty, staff and patient base is expected.This statement is so absurdly vague that is could be stretched to cover about any kind of uncivil behavior, but it must be stretched to the breaking point to apply to comments directed against unnamed individuals on a blog.
The Marquette Dental School’s own ethicist, Dr. Daniel D’Angelo, examined both the postings on the student blog and various codes of conduct relevant to the case (including those cited in the November 2 letter from Lynch accusing the student of misconduct) and concluded that “. . . it is my opinion that [the student’s] entries on his blog do not rise to the level of ethical violations of the aforementioned codes of conduct.”
D’Angelo’s comments were included in a letter given to the Student-Faculty Review Committee of the Dental School.
D’Angelo went on to say that the blog entries might be found “rude, distasteful and imprudent,” but that that “doesn’t make these entries unethical or immoral.”
On the issue of “professionalism” (rather than ethics broadly), D’Angelo admitted that the criteria are more vague, but urged that any sanctions “should reflect the seriousness of the behavior and should not be unduly or unjustly harsh.”
Reached for an interview today, D’Angelo pointed out that “It’s a blog,” and noted that the student’s statements were not made in public, nor in front of patients nor was there any evidence that they actually caused harm.
The student’s blog most certainly describes instances of what sounds like binge drinking. The problem, however is that there is a clinical definition of “binge drinking:” From the Journal of Studies on Alcohol (1998):
Binge drinking describes an extended period of time (typically at least two days) during which a time a person repeatedly becomes intoxicated and gives up his or her usual activities and obligations in order to become intoxicated. It is the combination of prolonged use and the giving up of usual activities that forms the core of the clinical definition of binge drinking.Occasionally going out and drinking too much is fairly typical student behavior, and it’s not really “binge drinking.” This is not a niggling difference. A binge drinker has a clinical problem. The student who occasionally goes out and drinks too much doesn’t, although it would be better if he didn’t do that.
Occasional excessive student drinking essentially is never punished unless it leads to something else: disorderly conduct, disturbing the peace, or (in an academic setting) disruptive behavior or poor academic performance.
Indeed, two blogs of Marquette Law School students, both of them roughly comparable to the Dental student’s blog, describe instances of excessive student drinking. Eminent Domain, for example, has an account of the blogger contemplating getting “hammered” at a wedding ceremony.
The Law on Caffeine shows the student blogger saying “Well I took a vacation to end my bender, but after everything was said and done, I drank more on vacation than I did during my pre-vacation bender. Basically I need a vacation from my vacation.”
The Law School hasn’t seen fit to punish these student bloggers.
Were alcoholism a serious issue here, the Dental School might have reason to take action, but a clinical assessment of the student done by a psychotherapist at American Behavioral Clinics said of the student that “it became clear that he does not presently have any issues that would concern me clinically.” And further, the student’s “behavior regarding the use of alcohol is recreational or episodic in nature and in no way would I characterize it as overuse or abuse.”
Asking for Due Process, and Getting Hammered
Given the weak case against him, the student, rather than “copping a plea” and signing the letter admitting to unprofessional behavior and alcohol abuse, asked for a hearing.
This hearing, which took place this last Thursday, was a travesty. To say it resembled the Inquisition would be unfair to people like Tomás de Torquemada. Dr. Anthony Ziebert, who was presiding, refused to hear much of the testimony that the student had prepared.
D’Angelo, slated to testify for the student, was told not to bother coming in, since he would not be allowed to speak. He was told that a letter he wrote would be entered into evidence, and he submitted one.
We were asked by the student’s lawyer to testify about blogs, and particularly what norms apply to student blogs. When our time came, we were curtly told we could not speak, because the committee knew what blogs were and what the standards were. We replied that “if you really knew that, we wouldn’t be here.”
The student was berated and harassed by Lynch, who asked him (paraphrasing) “would you be proud for your mother and father to see your blog.” Lynch also showed the student a photo of the 80 students in the second year Dental School class and asked him to circle the ones who have the intellectual maturity of a three year old.
The student’s lawyer, Scott Taylor, was particularly disturbed by comments from Lynch that showed anger that the student had had the temerity to actually ask for a hearing. Lynch said (again paraphrasing) “if he was truly sorry for what he did he would have signed the letter [admitting guilt].”
In reality, the student appears to be sorry for offensive comments on his blog site, but doesn’t feel the need to confess to things that aren’t true.
A Draconian Sentence
This anger is the only thing that can explain the harsh sentence that the student received. In a letter dated this past Friday, the student was informed:
- He was suspended from Dental School immediately, and would only be readmitted in the Fall of 2006, at which point he would have to complete the entire second year. In other words, a semester of academic work and a year of the student’s life would be thrown away.
- He must forfeit a prestigious scholarship he had won.
- He must make a public apology to his Dental School class. It is specified that “That apology must explicitly state your contrition for the crude, demeaning and unprofessional remarks posted by you on your blog site and an admission that you violated the School of Dentistry’s Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct, specifically Section IV, Subsection E and the related Marquette University Standards of Conduct.”
According to Taylor, before the hearing there was a consensus that the student merited, at most, a punishment well short of suspension. Yet the student was suspended, apparently because he asked for a hearing.
It is true that prosecutors routinely cut a deal for reduced punishment when the accused will “cop a plea.” But it’s not clear that Marquette students should be treated like felons, nor that something that prosecutors are forced to do because of the caseloads they deal with is appropriate at Marquette University.
According to Taylor, the student will appeal the ruling. Dental School Dean William Lobb can take several courses of action on the appeal, including upholding the sentence, overturning it or ordering a new hearing. Lobb, when reached yesterday, declined to comment on the case, not having seen the Student-Faculty Review Committee report.
This is far from the first time that Marquette administrators have gone ballistic about something students said when cooler heads would have blown it off, or at least thought about the issue a bit and consulted other people. The Office of Student Development, for example, freaked when the College Republicans put up a fund-raiser in the Union for an organization that supplies needed equipment for American snipers in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Likewise, Communications School Dean William R. Elliott freaked when the Tribune printed the name of a teacher who had tuberculosis, thinking this was a violation of privacy. In fact, the entire Journalism faculty and local media people called in to consider the issue judged that the student paper had done the right thing.
But this is the first case we know of (there probably have been many we don’t know of) when a precipitous and emotional reaction from University administrators led to a punishment that, if it stands, will ruin a student’s career.
Offended at blog statements that were ill-considered, but did not clearly (and probably did not at all) violate any ethical or professional norms, they imposed a tough sentence.
When the student had the temerity to ask for the hearing he had every right to, they ignored the expert testimony of their own ethicist, refused to hear the testimony of a faculty member who could discuss the prevailing norms of student blogging, and came down on the student like a ton of bricks.
The entire process did not look like the adjudication of a case of student misconduct. It looked like a vendetta.