Friday, January 06, 2006

Marquette Faculty Expert Speaks Out on Dental School Blogger

Erik Ugland is a member of the Communications College faculty who teaches Public Policy in Telecommunications, Ethical Problems of Mass Communication, and Media Law. As such, he’s qualified to address both the legal and the ethical issues raised by the punishment meted out to a Dental School student for some comments he posted on his non-university connected blog.

Ugland was critical of the University in the wake of the imposition, by a Student-Faculty Review Committee, of a set of draconian punishments on the student.

We asked him for his response to the latest development in the case — the decision of the Dental School Dean William Lobb to reduce the punishment. Here is his reply.
It is ironic and sad when university professors and administrators — people who are trained and paid to educate — are unable to recognize a “teachable moment” when it occurs. This situation was begging for a restrained, dispassionate response — a simple conversation perhaps between the dean and the student about the virtues of professionalism and civility. Instead, it erupted into a senseless battle.

I understand the temptation to punish those who criticize you. But ultimately your character is revealed not by what people say about you, but by how you respond. The university missed a real opportunity here to bring one its students back into the fold through dialogue. It could have been a breakthrough moment for the student, and it could have provided a concrete illustration of the ways in which the university gives life to its cura personalis mission.

Instead, the university resorted to clumsy punishments that will do nothing but entrench the student’s animosities and exacerbate the public perception of Marquette as a place where loyalty is coerced instead of earned.
Amen to that.

Ugland isn’t the only faculty member critical of the actions of the Dental School. The School’s own ethics expert, Dr. Daniel D’Angelo, in the run-up to the Student-Faculty Review Committee hearing, informed the Committee by letter that the student’s actions, while perhaps “rude, distasteful and imprudent” were not unethical nor immoral. D’Angelo further addressed the issue of codes of professional behavior and said “I am of the opinion that these codes were not violated” [emphasis in the original].

Our own opinions about this issue are hardly a secret.

The only faculty member to (semi)support the Dental School’s actions is Law School Professor Christine Hurt. But she, while insisting that there is a legal case for punishing the student, questioned whether “having to restart dental school is the proportionate sanction,” and suggested that “a warning may have sufficed as discipline.”

Since we believe that faculty are the core of any university, we find it disturbing that the Dental School administration did something so far out of line with faculty opinion — not to speak of student opinion and public opinion.

(The Dental School might claim that faculty and students on the Committee supported the punishment, but the entire proceeding was dominated by two Dental School administrators, and nobody will come forward to defend what the Committee did.)

Of course academics can be wrong, and even outright corrupt. But if this is true of the Marquette faculty, then the institution is hopeless, and no high-handed actions from administrators are going to help anything.

But on this issue the instincts — and disciplined analysis — of the faculty are right.

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