Thursday, April 07, 2011

The Crusade Against David Protess

The outrageous crusade of Northwestern University administrators against David Protess continued yesterday as officials spoke to journalism professors and then made a public statement attacking Protess. Now the accusation of “lying” against Protess is running along the bottom of the screen all morning on the Chicago TV channels. But the evidence offered for it is shockingly weak. As I've previously noted, and the AAUP has confirmed, Northwestern still refuses to follow its own rules in suspending Protess.

The administration finally revealed what it seems to think is its smoking gun: the fact that Protess edited a 2007 email he forwarded about student memos to remove the phrase “we share everything with the legal team.” To the administration, this constitutes a firing offense. In my eyes, it only proves that Protess is an innocent man.

Protess says that he took out the line because it was inaccurate. Unless the administration can prove that every single bit of information found by students was shared with the legal team, and that Protess knew this to be the fact, then he seems to have an airtight defense. It may be unwise to edit out inaccurate information from old emails when you forward them, but it's not lying. Trying to provide accurate information is the opposite of lying.

University spokesperson Al Cubbage declared in his statement, “Medill makes clear its values on its website, with the first value to 'be respectful of the school, yourself and others - which includes personal and professional integrity.' Protess has not maintained that value, a value that is essential in teaching our students. That is why Medill Dean John Lavine has assigned the course to another faculty member this quarter and Protess is on leave.”

It's notable that Northwestern administrators claim that Protess violated some vague public relations language (“be respectful”) on a school website, rather than an actual enforceable policy of the university. That's because there is no Northwestern policy I can find requiring faculty to “be respectful,” and there shouldn't be. The university rules on integrity refer to research and academic publication, to prohibit fraud and plagiarism in professional work. But there is no general rule I can find anywhere on Northwestern's website that prohibits the vague crime of “lying” to administrators.

Why are Northwestern administrators doing this to Protess? I suspect there are two reasons. First, the administration and its lawyers screwed up the legal case, and they're looking for a fall guy. They choose a bad approach by invoking journalistic privilege alone and then followed it up with terrible execution. What kind of incompetent lawyers would respond to a subpoena by asking employees to please forward them crucial emails, rather than going to the university server directly? The second reason for going after Protess is personal revenge. People don't like it when they feel like they're being lied to, and so they want to retaliate.

Unfortunately for Northwestern administrators, anger and revenge are not adequate cause for dismissal under Northwestern's rules.

One journalism professor leaving the meeting with Northwestern officials declared, "I'll definitely get fired if I talk to you." Yet administrators feel free to smear Protess without restraint. This reflects an appalling atmosphere of repression and administrative control.

At the moment, we need to defend Protess from this unjustifiable dismissal. But we also need to start to talk about other dismissals: at what point will Northwestern's faculty stand up for their own rights and make a vote of no confidence in the president and the administration? And will they have the courage to do this in the face of an administration that declares it has the power to suspend anyone who angers them?

So, let's summarize: Northwestern administrators have offered no evidence that Protess intentionally lied. They have not pointed to any university policy he has violated. They have not explained how any minor misconduct he is, at worst, accused of could outweigh his accomplishments and justify his suspension or firing. And they have violated every procedure in their own Faculty Handbook to suspend Protess without any due process. Northwestern administrators need to start obeying their own campus rules before they smear faculty with false accusations of violating the rules.

Crossposted at Daily Kos.

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