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He Criticized My Views! He Said My Political Views Are Wrong, Here Are the Right Ones! He Let Me Know That He Knew What I Was Up To!

I'm not an expert on the Dartmouth governance debates, and for all I know there might be something wrong with what the Administration there is doing. But some of the arguments this post (which I mention because it was linked to at InstaPundit) struck me as not terribly persuasive:

Claims of Censorship and Intimidation at Dartmouth

This morning's edition of The Dartmouth carries a worrisome story by reporter Rebekah Rombom....

As the Association of Alumni prepares to vote on a new proposed constitution this fall, heated debate has persisted throughout many sectors of the Dartmouth community. Factions on both sides participate, with weblogs becoming an important media for political dialogue.

The website voxclamantisindeserto.org vocally criticizes the proposed constitution and other administrative affairs. A recent alumnus heavily involved with the website is alleging that he was intimidated in private meetings with members of the Alumni Relations administration because of his views on the proposed alumni constitution.

Nick Stork '06 issued a public statement on the website accusing Vice President for Alumni Relations David Spalding '76 of intimidating him and criticizing his views during a June 7 meeting in Blunt Alumni Center.

According to Stork, he went to Blunt for a morning meeting with Spalding and Assistant Director of Young Alumni and Student Programs Rex Morey '99 to make up a missed lunch for Greek leaders days before.

When he entered the room, he noticed a BlitzMail message concerning the constitution he had sent to members of his fraternity, Gamma Delta Chi, lying on top of a stack of papers in the conference room.

Later in the interview, Spalding neither confirmed nor denied that he had a copy of a Stork's BlitzMail message that was not sent specifically to him.

"I don't recall having a private e-mail that he sent to his Gamma Delt brothers," Spalding said.

Stork alleges that in the meeting, Spalding advocated for the newly proposed alumni constitution, a reversal of his constant dedication to neutrality on the subject.

"I think effectively what he did during the meeting was to say: your political views are wrong, here are the right ones," Stork said, referring to anti-constitution posts on voxclamantisindeserto.org.

"I think when someone tries to let you know that they know what you're up to, there is a serious intimidation there." ...

Harsh — the administrator criticized a student's views. He apparently effectively said "your political views are wrong, here are the right ones." He communicated to a vocal critic of the administration that he was paying attention to people's criticisms of the administration.

I take it that the student might have been somewhat worried that the administrator would somehow affect the closing days of his school career (the student was about to graduate), but it would take someone with a pretty poor view of Dartmouth to think that there's that much of a chance that the administrator would, say, urge professors to unfairly lower the student's grades or some such. (Top universities, to my knowledge, are known for leaving the individual grading decisions to the professors, except to the extent that they leave them to TAs.) And if this was the student's view of Dartmouth, then I'm surprised he had spoken out in the first instance, since the administration could (if it's willing to break all the rules) retaliate against a student whether or not an administrator decides to personally argue with the student. All the evidence suggests is that the administration is willing to talk back to students who they think express unsound views. Not a lot to build a case of intimidation and censorship (much less, as the blogger later says, "indecent tactics"), it seems to me.

Some of the other items in the post might be more troubling, depending on the facts; the post discusses the administration's statements to another student who works for a Dartmouth-affiliated charity, which might be proper or might not be, depending on the facts. The post also argues that the administration has been disingenuous in its public comments; I can't speak to that, but in any event that claim strikes me as separate from the claim of censorship and intimidation-by-criticism. One might also argue that the administrator might have been rude or petty in his actions (as opposed to censoring or intimidating or indecent), though we'd need a good deal more information to evaluate that, it seems to me.

The post also suggests that the administration might have gotten the e-mail to the fraternity brothers by monitoring student e-mail accounts — this would be troubling, but a more probable explanation, I suspect, is that one of the many recipients forwarded the message on, and it eventually got forwarded to the administrators. The post proceeds to argue that even this explanation is troubling, because "it means that a recipient of Nick's e-mails felt that the proper thing to do with a piece of political expression with which he disagreed was to surreptitiously forward it to a College administrator, whom he or she expected would take corrective action. This is not the mark of a campus with an atmosphere fostering of free speech. It is the mark of the precise opposite: chill." But if the "corrective action" is the administrator's "criticizing [the speaker's] views" and saying "your political views are wrong, here are the right ones," that sounds to me like free speech — something even administrators may sometimes be entitled to exercise.

I mention this partly because I've seen similar arguments before in other contexts. Sometimes (perhaps here) they are simply inartful representations of legitimate grievances — for instance, perhaps there really was something more being done to Mr. Stork than "criticizing his views." But sometimes they represent the view that freedom of speech means freedom to speak without criticism, without people tracking what you're saying and faulting you for it, without the "chill" that comes from the possibility that your speech will lead to public disagreement and condemnation. That's not what freedom of speech can be or should be.

UPDATE: For an example of the broader phenomenon I describe, see the incident described in this post from last March. The incidents are of course not identical, but both seem to me to exhibit the "how dare [proessors/administrators] criticize students, 'demean[ their] ideas,' and 'dishonor[ their] perspective'" argument.

UPDATE: I initially misread the story as suggesting that Nick Stork had been an alumnus at the time of the conversation (the trouble with blogging from bed late in the evening); I now realize (thanks to a commenter) that he was an about-to-graduate student. I've updated the post accordingly, but I think my argument is still sound.

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. Dartmouth:
  2. Probable Lying at Dartmouth.--
  3. Intimidation at Dartmouth?
  4. He Criticized My Views! He Said My Political Views Are Wrong, Here Are the Right Ones! He Let Me Know That He Knew What I Was Up To!
18 Comments
Intimidation at Dartmouth?

I fear that Eugene may have misunderstood some of the underlying facts surrounding the Dartmouth episode he discusses. As a result, he seems to have misunderstood the concern about intimidation. Were the claim simply that there was an effort by an administrator, even a vigorous effort, to change a student's mind on a political debate than Eugene plainly would be correct. But the claim by the young man here is not merely that "He criticized my views and said my political views are wrong..." but a specific concern of intimidation that the student should cease his activities in opposition to the proposed new Dartmouth alumni constitution or the administrator would make public or otherwise use against the student information that the student preferred to remain confidential.

Eugene relies on an account from the student newspaper, excerpted in another blog. But that newspaper article is derived from an underlying text from a campus blog, "Vox Clamantis in Deserto." Eugene focuses only on the political disagreement, but not the not-so-veiled threat that lies behind it:

Next [the administrator] began questioning me about my personal life, including my membership in student groups. He had made clear to me that he knew which groups I belonged to, what positions I held, and who my friends were. As I answered his questions, I got the distinct impression that he was checking his notes against my replies, verifying the records in a file he had compiled on me.

***

I left that room feeling extremely intimidated, as if I'd been operating under [the administrator's] microscope for a year and nobody had bothered to tell me that my actions were being recorded and monitored. No students at an institute of higher learning, or anywhere for that matter, should endure intimidation of any kind, especially because of their politics. [His] condemnation of my political views, followed by his inquisition into the personal and private details of my life, affectively threatened those freedoms which ought to be sacred.

The clear concern expressed here is not about a political disagreement, but rather that the administrator was threatening to use this personal information to try to embarrass this student and/or his friends. As I read Eugene's post, he seems to misunderstand the phrase in the story "I think when someone tries to let you know that they know what you're up to" to mean that the administrator was monitoring the student's political views, when in fact, the reference is to the administrator monitoring the student's personal life.

And that seems like a clear case of it could be a case of intimidation to me.

Update:

I should have clarified that I was assuming the facts as stated by the former student (sort of like a summary judgment analogy), which is what I understood Eugene to be doing as well in his analysis. So I didn't mean to be prejudging the case just based on the little that is known publicly now. I have changed the final sentence of the post to reflect this.

11 Comments
Probable Lying at Dartmouth.--

I'm kind of between Todd and Eugene on the intimidation at Dartmouth issue (though I'm closer to Todd's view). If Nick Stork's account is true, an administrator calling Nick Stork in for a talk and letting him know that they have a dossier on him and saying that "We know who your friends are" seems to be a veiled, but real threat to interfere with his life. In form, it is similar to the classic threats of physical violence indicating that "We know where you live" or indicating that the threatener knows the names and ages of the victim's children. The obvious difference is that everyone would know that the Dartmouth administrator is not threatening violence or kidnapping, but Nick Stork was left to wonder just what sort of damage Vice President Spalding was threatening. (It is, of course, possible either that Stork's account is false or that the administrator made the threat accidentally. But if an administrator disclosed to me that he had a file of information on me, including an email not sent to him, and if the administrator actually said something like "We know who your friends are," I would interpret that as a threat of harm to me or my friends, unless there were some reason for such a bizarre statement.) On the advantage of ambiguity about what one might actually do in threatening, see Daniel Ellsberg and Thomas Schelling.

On the other hand, as far as finding it intimidating to be called in by a college Vice President and harangued over criticisms that Stork posted online, I mostly agree with Eugene. Unless the administration is not supposed to be taking sides (and it isn't, see below), there is nothing wrong with an administrator calling in a student to argue with him about his views regarding a new Dartmouth alumni constitution to make it harder for write-in candidates to win a seat on the governing board of the college. One should expect people committed to the opposite side of a public dispute to be angry with you. Putting aside the implicit threats mentioned in the first paragraph (and other issues), that an administrator would call you in to argue with you suggests good faith and the willingness to take your ideas (and you) seriously, even if the arguments made were somewhat harshly worded and dismissive.

But there are two reasons that Eugene's sound principle may not apply here.

First, for whatever reasons, the administration is officially not taking sides in the dispute over the new Dartmouth constitution. Thus, leaving the issue of intimidation aside, Vice President Spalding may be in direct violation of the administration's policy and its public assurances to the Dartmouth community. This is hardly a hanging offense. Individuals may have strong feelings even when in their official capacity they should not. Perhaps it is worse that Spalding called in Nick Stork for a seemingly official meeting to harangue him in violation of the policy, rather than that a casual campus conversation simply got out of hand, but it is still an understandable offense against university policy, not a serious wrong in itself. And the victim of this wrong seems to be the university in general or its administration, rather than Stork himself, who had no a priori right not to be criticized for his views.

Did Somebody Lie?: But the last issue--one that neither Todd nor Eugene addresses--is serious: someone is very probably lying.

Compare Nick Stork's account of the meeting with Vice President Spalding's account.

Here is Stork's account (in part):

Mr. Morey responded by describing the postings on www.voxclamantisindeserto.org. including my own, as incorrect, spiteful, and "flat-out lies." Mr. Spalding altogether agreed and began a lengthy diatribe advocating the proposed alumni constitution.

Mr. Spalding then pointed to the email I had sent to my fraternity brothers. He began quoting it to me. He became agitated. He criticized the views I expressed and the way in which I expressed them. Next Mr. Spalding began questioning me about my personal life, including my membership in student groups. He had made clear to me that he knew which groups I belonged to, what positions I held, and who my friends were. As I answered his questions, I got the distinct impression that he was checking his notes against my replies, verifying the records in a file he had compiled on me. As the meeting ended, Mr. Spalding once again attacked the "Vox Clamantis in Deserto" website. . . .

I left that room feeling extremely intimidated, as if I'd been operating under Mr. Spalding's microscope for a year and nobody had bothered to tell me that my actions were being recorded and monitored. No students at an institute of higher learning, or anywhere for that matter, should endure intimidation of any kind, especially because of their politics. Mr. Spalding's condemnation of my political views, followed by his inquisition into the personal and private details of my life, affectively threatened those freedoms which ought to be sacred.

Mr. Spalding's actions were clearly not those of an official intent on "remaining neutral on the alumni constitution." In the service of his biases, he used his position as an administrator to attack my ideas, my politics, and my privacy.

Now compare this to what Spalding told the Dartmouth newspaper (I am assuming that the newspaper quoted Spalding correctly, which is not certain):

In an interview with The Dartmouth, Spalding said he possessed no private information that had been sent through BlitzMail.

"I guess I'm cautious around the words 'that he sent privately to his fraternity brothers.' I think that if you go on the Vox Clamantis website, most of that information was there," Spalding said. "I don't remember anything private that was sent."

Later in the interview, Spalding neither confirmed nor denied that he had a copy of a Stork's BlitzMail message that was not sent specifically to him.

"I don't recall having a private e-mail that he sent to his Gamma Delt brothers," Spalding said.

Stork alleges that in the meeting, Spalding advocated for the newly proposed alumni constitution, a reversal of his constant dedication to neutrality on the subject. . . .

Spalding said that the constitution did come up during the meeting, but that he and the administration continue to remain neutral on the issue.

"I may have suggested that commenting that the administration was misleading the alumni about what students think, that that really wasn't true," Spalding said, citing student satisfaction surveys. "I certainly would have taken issue with him on that question, but I don't remember debating the constitution with him."

Now it is highly unlikely that both Nick Stork and Vice President Spalding are telling the truth.

Private Email: Spalding claims:

"I don't recall having a private e-mail that he sent to his Gamma Delt brothers."

But Spalding also says,

"I guess I'm cautious around the words 'that he sent privately to his fraternity brothers.' I think that if you go on the Vox Clamantis website, most of that information was there. . . . I don't remember anything private that was sent."

Wait a minute! How can Spalding know that "most" of what is in the private email is also available on the public website if he doesn't remember having seen the private email? I find it hard to see how Spalding could be telling the truth here.

Further, Stork is quite emphatic that Spalding quoted from the email in their meeting. Someone is probably lying about the email.

Neutrality on the New Constitution: Stork claims that Spalding argued at length in favor of the new constitution and against Stork's opposition to it. Spalding claims that he was neutral in his comments. Either Stork or Spalding is very probably lying.

Evasiveness in Wording: For the most part, as the Dartmouth newspaper points out, Spalding neither confirms nor denies Stork's account. He uses locutions such as "I don't remember" and "I don't recall," phrases commonly used by people who are being less than candid. The differences between what Stork reports and what Spalding recalls are so different that it is highly unlikely that both are telling the truth as they remember it.

6 Comments
Dartmouth:

I appreciate Todd's and Jim's responses, linked below; as I noted at the outset, there may well be some misbehavior of various sorts by the administrators. But the student account that Todd points to seems to be a little odd as an attempt at intimidation:

Next [the administrator] began questioning me about my personal life, including my membership in student groups. He had made clear to me that he knew which groups I belonged to, what positions I held, and who my friends were. As I answered his questions, I got the distinct impression that he was checking his notes against my replies, verifying the records in a file he had compiled on me.

If a student holds positions in groups, that sounds like a pretty public matter; it's hard for me to be too troubled by the university administrators' knowing this. If indeed the administration had somehow compiled a dossier on all this person's friends, that would be intimidating in more a spooky stalker way than anything else; but I'm not even sure from the account that this is quite what was going on (though maybe I'm just drawing an inference here from how unlikely I think it is for administrators to spend time doing this). Todd also writes:

The clear concern expressed here is not about a political disagreement, but rather that the administrator was threatening to use this personal information to try to embarrass this student and/or his friends. As I read Eugene's post, he seems to misunderstand the phrase in the story "I think when someone tries to let you know that they know what you're up to" to mean that the administrator was monitoring the student's political views, when in fact, the reference is to the administrator monitoring the student's personal life.

How exactly would the administrators be likely to use their knowledge of the groups to which the student belongs -- or even who his friends are -- "to embarrass this student and/or his friends"? Presumably the student thinks that his public statements were quite sound, so even if the administration somehow reports on the student's public statements to the groups to which the student belongs, the student ought to be proud of the statements rather than embarrassed. Perhaps the student was worrying that the administration would argue to the groups (and the student's friends) that it thought the student's public statements were mistaken; but it seems to me that someone who makes public statements criticizing the administration should be prepared for the administration's responding that those statements are mistaken. Now obviously if the administrator was actually threatening to blackmail the student with the revelation of some private information (the student's grades, the student's medical history, or what have you), that would be different. But I didn't get any sense of that from the post.

I think it's great that students are willing to publicly criticize the university administration. I think universities shouldn't expel students, discipline students, grade down students, and the like because of the students' criticisms. But students should be ready to be criticized back, and to be remonstrated with by those who take the criticisms personally. Likewise, if a student holds a position (doubtless publicly announced) in a student group and makes public statements, it may well be that the other members of the student group will be told of the student's public statements; public speakers and group leaders should be prepared for that.

Again, as I've said, it may be the administrators were rude, petty, or dishonest (or maybe not). But it's important, I think, to distinguish that from actual censorship or intimidation.

13 Comments