The Arizona Desert Lamp

Ersatz Transparency

Posted in Campus, Politics by Evan Lisull on 30 October 2009

Tastes Like Butter!

Two seemingly unrelated stories in yesterday’s Wildcat underline the problems that this university’s administration has with something simple like transparency. First, we have an article on ASUA’s “Safe Ride-Along” program:

In an attempt to reach out to the UA student body, ASUA has launched a campaign to put senators in Safe Ride vehicles to probe for feedback. The Daily Wildcat sent reporter Shannon Maule along for a ride to get the story on this project.

What an awful experience. You’ve just finished studying, getting ready to relax at home, when suddenly you get shanghaied into talking not only with an ASUA Senator, but a Wildcat reporter. Also, the very unofficial “Probe Watch” goes up to two. In explaining the reasoning behind this program, Sen. Hilary Davidson offers the following:

The ride along is part of an overall design to lend transparency to ASUA, Davidson said.

“We want to be out there and meet each student and hear what they want to say because we represent the whole student body,” she said.

Meanwhile, the Dean of Students’ Office is apparently too busy sanctioning underage drinkers to find the time to put a decent sexual assault reporting protocol online. As a remedy for the future, they offer this:

The Dean of Students Office is investing into social networking sites such as Facebook, Twitter and Instant Messenger to reach out to students for safety and wellness concerns.

There’s a very important distinction between transparency and outreach. Transparency, in this context, refers to making the shadowy aspects of governance less so. It means making information about internal governing practices more readily available – releasing the budget and Senate minutes are examples of this. It does not mean rehashing campaign drivel in an awkward setting. Early in the article, Davidson states that the ride-alongs help to “reach out” to students, a nice way of describing administrative cheerleading. True transparency is not something that any PR department wants; the goals of full disclosure and a polished image are inherently at odds. Ride-alongs give the appearance of transparency, without actually delivering the goods.

The DoS approach is somehow even worse, exhibiting the weird Twitter fetish endemic in all sorts of inappropriate settings. Banal administrative accounts have sprung up like putrid toadstools, and rather than getting more information we simply find ourselves getting stupider with each and every tweet excreted by, say, the “UACampusRec” account. Yes, we know we are “phat,” but would you care to tell us more about this semi-secret third fee you’ve been striving for?  The Campus Rec expansion might be “Xciting” to some, but is it appropriate for an institution supposedly devoted to academics? State money and tuition dollars were quite literally spent to produce drivel like “Laura Wilder” and “Will Wilder,” a fact that should insult the conscience of anyone intelligent enough to attend the school.

Instead of treating their students like malleable automatons susceptible to the most obvious messaging, these administrative bodies might try a little forthrightness instead. Tell us a bit more about your internal operations, rather than telling us what you’d like us to do.

And really, stop writing like a eighth grader in an attempt to be “hip” with the kids.

Professors Against Free Speech

Posted in Campus, Technology by Evan Lisull on 9 February 2009

You would think that a day where the Police Beat has no marijuana citations is a good day. Yet in this case, it just means that the UAPD have moved onto more bizarre non-crimes:

A student was referred to the Dean of Student’s Office after sending unwarranted e-mails to a former teacher on Feb. 2 at 1.45 p.m.

Well, this is reasonable, I suppose. After all, this could very well fall under harassment, so long as the professor made it very clear to the student that he did not want the emails. If there imminent threats of violence, then authorities must be contacted. I wonder, though: why wouldn’t the professor just block the email address in question?

Police responded to the Koffler building in response to a person receiving unwanted e-mails. When they arrived, they made contact with a teacher who said he had been receiving e-mails from a former student. The student was mad about the grade he received in the professor’s class in the fall semester. The student said things like the professor was “biased” against him and did not like him. They also questioned the professor’s integrity and said that he should try to make things right. The e-mail also said, “You think you’re so tough. You don’t know what tough is.”

Apparently, expressing your opinion about a professor’s teaching style and questioning their integrity is ‘harassment.’ Readers can look forward to a live-blog from Tucson municipal jail after ASUA gets sick of our criticism and files for ‘harassment.’ Here’s the kicker:

The professor said he did not tell the man to stop contacting him yet. Police advised him to do so. He was told to contact police if he received another e-mail. [Emphasis added-EML]

A student is unhappy with the way that a professor has treated him in class. He decides that the professor should know about these complaints, and contacts him. This student does not swear, does not threaten violence (if “you think you know what tough is. . .” counts as a ‘threatening’ statement, then the word has lost its meaning), does nothing that constitutes a crime. Yet the unhappy professor, instead of doing something rational like writing back and telling him to stop contacting him or simply blocking the email, calls the police. These are the same police who, ostensibly, are working against real crimes, like bike theft and actual assault and drunk driving (not drunk walking!).

One would also be wise to note the chilling effect that this sort of action will have on free speech on campus. The idea that even mild criticism of a professor will merit a referral to the Dean of Students’ Office is extremely troubling. Professors have the right to be protected from genuine abuse, yes; but they do not have the right to have their delicate feelings protected by the police powers. If the university decides that this is indeed a violation of the Code of Conduct, the FIRE will have to consider making up a new ranking for the UA that is lower than the school’s current “red light” status.