The Arizona Desert Lamp

Tin-medal reporting on tin-hat brigade

Posted in Campus, Media, Politics by Evan Lisull on 4 September 2009

UA Guardian Story on Wildcat front pageThe story pictured on the right – pitched on the Wildcat’s homepage as a developing “exclusive” investigation – packs a pretty strong opening punch. Unfortunately, the article itself doesn’t quite live up to the hype:

UA faculty and staff “concerned about abuses of power at the UA,” have created an anonymous blog as a place to “speak only, without fear of reprisals.”

Juan R. Garcia, a professor of history who posts on the Blogspot.com site, “UA Defender,” said he knows the site’s founders, and many faculty, staff, and even a few administrators, who post on the blog.

The site’s author, writing under the pseudonym Evelyn B. Hall, posted that “four month’s (sic) into her tenure as provost, the deans were ready to oust Meredith Hay over her budget over-reaching.”

Among the blog’s most serious allegations: UA department heads gave Hay an unofficial straw vote of “no confidence” last fall semester.

The blog states that although the deans may have been powerful enough at the time to stand up to Hay, they decided to “give her a break,” after which the provost replaced many of them.

The blog also states it is “imperative” that faculty and staff move this semester for a vote of “no confidence” in Hay and Shelton.

How, exactly, is access to a blog that has been publicly available since September 1 “exclusive”? At any rate, the post for the last allegation can be read here. The post makes many assertions, but this one (which the Wildcat somehow missed) is a real doozy:

I have no doubt that they are going to try to go after tenured faculty next, even though that seems to be next to impossible.

Actually, it would be exactly impossible, unless by “go after” the writer is suggesting that Shelton and Hay will launch a counter-blog, designed to harass the faculty to the point of leaving. Suggesting that President Shelton and Provost Hay are planning to systematically take down the tenure system is guano crazy, and should raise some eyebrows with regard to the rest of this site.

Take, for example, the “serious allegation” that the Deans covered up a no-confidence vote against Provost Hay. Here’s that claim in context:

Last fall, four months into her tenure as Provost [August 30, 2008 or later (source) – EML], the Deans were ready to oust Meredith Hay over her budget over-reaching. She swept their lines without consultation and at the time, the Deans were powerful enough to force her to put it all back. They should have done a vote of “no confidence” then, but they gave her a break and she’s been able to replace a lot of them now. Department Heads gave her a straw vote of “no confidence” last year, but they didn’t make it official. She’s now replacing them.

Much of this is water-cooler talk, but there are two assertions of fact: (1) ‘A lot’ of deans have been dismissed and replaced since Fall 2008; (2) a vote of “no confidence” was passed, but ‘was not made official.’ Curiously, the author doesn’t list any names of deans that were removed, even though such information is public and its disclosure would imperil no one’s employment. Dean Donnerstein’s mysterious departure may fit the bill, but the post and article both neglect to mention him, and provide nothing but speculation that his dismissal was driven by political reasons. Further, one dean does not make ‘a lot.’ The new Humanities dean was the interim since July 2008; the law dean departure was announced long before the purported Provostnacht; the Phoenix Medical Center dean’s departure was announced in April; the new nursing dean replaced an interim dean in March 2009, after a nine-month search that started in June 2008; the new College of Medicine dean had served as interim dean since July 2008; etc.

I’m more than willing to be proven wrong on this, and any names of other deans that might qualify should be noted in the comments. The bigger issue, however, is that as the complaint currently stands, it has absolutely no backing evidence. This isn’t so much a problem for the UA Defender, which is more than entitled to be wrong, as it is for the Wildcat, which is also entitled to be wrong but generally prides itself on being the paper of record. Reporting such an unsubstantiated claim, without exercising even a modicum of fact-checking, is unbecoming of quality newspaper reporting.

Tin Foil LOLMeanwhile, the ‘straw vote’ allegation has percolated through the local rumor mills since at least this June (and we certainly weren’t the first to hear about it). Most of the local papers were aware, as they are aware of many things which don’t get published. There is a reason, however, that journalists don’t publish everything they hear, and that this rumor wasn’t published until now. It has nothing to do with LaRouchean cover-up theories, and everything to do with semi-ritualistic adherence to this idea of ‘journalistic integrity’. A distinction exists in the journalist’s mind between reporting and rumor-mongering, and the difference comes down to sources. Information that can’t be confirmed independently should be viewed with distrust.

To further illustrate this point, take an example from the entry from this site on the firing of Juan Garcia, the only named source for the Wildcat article. In the comments of that post, user id “rosalind garcia” wrote the following:

Actually, the emails were leaked all over campus by the President’s office and they were requested by the Star through the Freedom of Information Act. Since Juan’s email is monitored daily by the administration since his dismissal, I am not the least bit suprised [sic] that they sent copies of the emails to Mackey via Juan’s computer to make it appear that he was the source of the leak.

On its face this is absurd – information requested through FOIA isn’t “leaked.” Emails of university administration are subject to public scrutiny, and no ‘leak’ was required to obtain the emails. That aside, though, these allegations make for one hell of a story. HEADER: “Shelton monitors professor emails.” The nut graf: “The source, writing under the user name ‘rosalind garcia’, posted a message stating that, ‘Since Juan’s email is monitored daily by the administration, I’m not the least bit surprised that they sent copies of the emails to [Aaron] Mackey via Juan’s computer to make it appear that he was the source of the leak.'” Hey, that’s another bit: “Administration accessing professor’s computer without permission.”  Wait – “Friend of professor: administration committed identity fraud.” Bonanza!

A lot of allegations make for really good stories, but that doesn’t mean that they’re good journalism – yet. Right now, the allegations on the site amount to little more than the “he said, she said” assertions of dissatisfied faculty. This does not mean that it should be entirely dismissed – in fact, there is almost certainly a kernel of truth to them. For now, though, the story amounts to little more than a breathless writeup of a ‘blog with unknown influence and dubious sources of information. Hopefully, future stories in this vein won’t be based entirely on allegation.

Incidentally, it’s been interesting to observe which blogs get their posts cited, and which ones don’t.

As for the group actually being discussed, whom we’ll dub the Evelyn Hall Society – several members of this coalition have made allegations to this site, as well as to local papers. All of their allegations have been fascinating; none of them have been accompanied with so much as a whit of supporting evidence.

Trust me – if you can provide any outside proof backing those allegations, we’ll break out the red HTML-ink. Honest. If you can provide a substantive lead, we’ll do our best to chase it down (although our time is necessarily limited – seek out one of our colleagues if we take too long).

What we don’t really care about are comments like this one:

I am outraged by the firing and treatment of V.P. Garcia. It was unfounded and disgraceful.
What kind of dictatorship has the U of A become?

Garcia avows that, “we [i.e. the members of UA Defender] will not devolve into personal attacks” – except, of course, for those times when Provost Hay is referred to as the “Ice Queen,” and described as having a “textbook abusive personality.”

If this movement is serious about its cause, it might start by providing evidence for these things that have happened, rather than constructing castles in the air and crying, “Down with feudalism!” Drop the revolutionary rhetoric, and instead start compiling a dossier of information to back up these allegations.

For instance: if non-tenure faculty are being dismissed for their opinions, why aren’t they coming forward? Presumably, if they’ve actually been dismissed, they have no fear of reprisal – after all, they don’t work for President Shelton or Provost Hay any more. Another: if faculty are so unanimously opposed to Provost Hay, why not commission an outside polling company to demonstrate that fact?

In another post, ‘Evelyn B. Hall’ writes that contributors to the site must:

• to stick to the facts (and document them if contestable); and
• to make clear the difference between facts and opinions.

The only documentation that the UA Defender provides on its entire site is the Shelton-Hay-Garcia email exchange that was released several months ago – the rest is an unfortunate muddle of fact, opinion, and panic. Presumably, these professors wouldn’t let their students turn in an argumentative essay without citing sources; the same standards should apply to their arguments as well.

UPDATE: A thousand blessings upon our commentariat! Commenter ‘Word Girl’ points out this story was reported by Tucson Citizen blogger-reporter Renee Schafer Horton on Wednesday. Since she’s an actual journalist, it’s worth reposting her complaints, which very much echo our own:

I take a little offense at one statement in the blog that news of problems with Shelton/Hay weren’t adequately reported by the press. One of my biggest frustrations as the Citizen’s higher ed reporter was that no one would talk on the record about various rumors I heard, including the straw vote of no confidence that apparently occurred last fall in regards to Hay. That vote is detailed on the UA Defender blog here, and I specifically asked Shelton about it when I was first leaked the information. He flat-out denied a vote was ever taken … and since no department head would go on the record saying it WAS taken, I couldn’t report it.

So, before the UA Defender says the media hasn’t done a good job in reporting all sides of the story, people on the blog need to recognize that the press CAN’T report the story with only anonymous sources and rumor. Give me your names, give me information about what has happened, and I’ll be happy to report it on my blog and/or pitch it as a story to the Tucson Weekly, the Chronicle of Higher Education or Inside Higher Ed. If you’re a UA employee and have facts or documents about what is happening in this reorganization that you think need to be reported, I’m ready, willing and able. E-mail me at rshorton08(at)gmail(dot)com.

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9 Responses

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  1. Word Girl said, on 4 September 2009 at 8:28 am

    “Provostnacht”! You guys are great.

    Can it be a Wildcat “exclusive” if the Tucson Citizen reported it a day earlier? http://tinyurl.com/nabsh2

  2. Dave said, on 4 September 2009 at 10:13 am

    If only they had listened to the my other response instead! http://i13.photobucket.com/albums/a270/diggertrock/survey.png

  3. Wildcat said, on 4 September 2009 at 1:17 pm

    It’s exclusive because they were the first to get someone on the record confirming it was a legitimate blog and not some idiot posting random rumors.

    • Evan Lisull said, on 5 September 2009 at 2:21 pm

      Meh – a commenter named “Juan R. Garcia” posted a comment way back on August 29.

  4. Charlene said, on 7 September 2009 at 9:31 pm

    Evan said, regarding deans fired –or pressured to “step down”: “I’m more than willing to be proven wrong on this, and any names of other deans that might qualify should be noted in the comments.” OK Evan, here’s another one: Check out Dean Maurice Sevigny, former dean of the college of music. We’d love to know what the real story is there.

    • Evan Lisull said, on 8 September 2009 at 11:08 am

      Charlene, thanks for the tip! Another email mentioned Dean Sevigny as well, so we’ll do our best to see what we can find out over the next few days.

  5. Evelyn B. Hall said, on 7 September 2009 at 11:20 pm

    Thank you, Evan, for your critique. Following is a copy of the comment we posted on the EBH site regarding your story here:

    We have been chastised in the “Arizona Desert Lamp” by Evan Lisull, far more experienced as a blogger and journalist than the members of our EHB team, for allowing to appear on this site too many posts which (1) make unsubstantiated allegations, and (2) express “opinions” that are little more than name-calling. Accordingly, we have removed from our site those comments noted by Evan that fall in the second category, and, with respect to those in the first category, we reiterate, from the “Rules” section of our initial “Welcome post” the following 2 rules, which Evan quoted and which in fact we have not enforced as strictly as we should have:
    1) stick to the facts (and document them if contestable); and
    2) make clear the difference between facts and opinions.

    In our defense we can say this: We have in fact thrown out a good many would-be posts that made serious but unsubstantiated allegations. In other cases we’ve said to the author “we’ll post this if you sign it.” And while we acknowledge the need for our contributors – and ourselves — to abide more strictly to our rules, doing so is easier to manage on a site run by a single author than on a site run by a team. Nonetheless, Evan’s point is valid. Unsubstantiated claims weaken rather than strengthen the case you wish to make. “A lot of allegations make for really good stories,” writes Evan, “but that doesn’t mean that they’re good journalism – yet. Right now, the allegations on the site [UA Defender], amount to little more than the “he said, she said” assertions of dissatisfied faculty. This does not mean that it should be entirely dismissed – in fact, there is almost certainly a kernel of truth to them.” (http://desertlamp.com/2009/09/04/tin-medal-reporting-on-tin-hat-brigade/#comment-2024)
    To this we can add that some of the unsubstantiated allegations to which we, too, attribute a kernel of truth – or more – remain unsubstantiated at the moment only because those involved are unwilling or unable to substantiate them in public, either because of legal actions pending or in process, or because (so we are told) the conditions of their re-assignment included an agreement to refrain from speaking of that re-assignment in public. We are not journalists, we are not attorneys; our purpose is to ask those who CAN nail down the facts here – journalists, attorneys, the Board of Regents – to do so expeditiously.

    In the short time this blog has been in existence, it has taught this particular team-member this: I have a low tolerance for comments that are aggressively stupid; contemptuous and condescending; snide and dismissive. And guess what. That’s probably exactly what the other side is saying about some of mine. So for that reason, we are especially grateful to those of you who have managed to formulate your comments with civility, consideration, and measure. Please, now, add to that, in the future, the facts to back up your allegations. Otherwise, if you are not prepared to back them up, please confine your comment to stating that it is your opinion that such-and-such occurred.

    • Evan Lisull said, on 8 September 2009 at 12:20 pm

      Many thanks for the response. While I felt a bit of trepidation taking the challenging tone in the piece, such an angle was opted for in hopes that it would encourage more useful leads and claims that can be verified – not to impugn the authors and to dismiss out of hand their complaints. Already, this seems to be the angle that the site is going – and for that, its authors must be commended.

      We’ll do our best to follow up on the leads that we get, but of all the points in this comment the one I would most strenuously disagree with is the idea that we are somehow “experienced” or “experts.” Especially when it comes to intra-university politics and issues like “shared governance,” we are more or less naifs. Many of these basic concepts are new to us; in this, we suspect that you are not alone. Although it is the journalist’s job to tell the story (and yes, do the FOIA busywork), walking us through some of these issues is almost always helpful. In many cases, we find ourselves in a sort of Rumsfeldian conundrum, not knowing even what questions we should be asking.

      For future reference, please do not hesitate to email us – my personal email is emlisull “at” gmail “dot” com. Any emails specified as off-the-record will remain so – even though we hope that some quotable sources may emerge in the days to come.

      (Feel free to cross-post this to your site as well – I don’t know how much crossover currently exists between our sites.)

  6. REBG said, on 8 September 2009 at 8:18 pm

    Check out Skip Jubb, who was forced out at UA South; Chuck Tatum, who was Humanities Dean; Juan Garcia, who was also the Dean of University College which served more under-represented students (including Arizona Assurance Scholars) than any other college on campus. Ed Donnerstein will not talk, but Maurice…maybe so.


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