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Reporting class sparks controversy over academic freedom

Published: Monday, February 27, 2012

Updated: Wednesday, March 21, 2012 22:03

The university is reviewing what happened during an investigative reporting class taught by Mark Tatge, the Pulliam Distinguished Visiting Professor of Journalism, after several students thought the lesson hit too close to home.

In last Thursday’s Investigative Reporting Techniques class, which teaches journalism students how to access public information, Tatge passed out a 17-page packet detailing the Jan. 27 arrest of sophomore Alison Stephens.

The front three pages were Stephens’ Facebook and Twitter profiles, available online. Other documents included her booking record, permission to travel out of state, her father’s drivers license, police incident report and other court proceedings.

Tatge said that he chose the case to present because it was local, a breaking news story and involved a peer.

“I try to pick things that students will be interested in,” said Tatge, who has taught business journalism at Ohio University and Northwestern University, was a senior editor at Forbes magazine and wrote for The Wall Street Journal. “I guess I could pick something about patent law and have them go look up patent and trademarks, but I think they would be less interested in that than they would be about an arrest for drinking [and the other charges].”

According to the class description for the 300 level class on the university website, “Emphasis will be placed on how to background individuals and use public records to find information.”

But some students were uncomfortable discussing a fellow DePauw student, particularly one who had been arrested.

Four students in the seminar are in the same sorority as Stephens, Pi Beta Phi. A member of the men’s basketball team was also in the class, another connection to Stephens who plays on the women’s team.

News of the class traveled fast.

President of Pi Beta Phi Lauren McCormick, a junior, was handed the packet and in turn alerted Stephens.

“I feel embarrassed,” Stephens said. “I felt really uncomfortable walking around … I don’t think it reflects the person I am, so I was hurt.”

Stephens called her parents, who were already driving to Greencastle from their hometown in Kansas to watch her daughter’s team compete in a NCAC tournament Friday.

Her parents contacted Cindy Babington, vice president for student life, to express concern. McCormick also sent an email to Babington.

Both Stephens’ mother and McCormick declined to comment for this story.

That afternoon, Babington alerted David Harvey, vice president for academic affairs as well as President Brian Casey.

Harvey then contacted Tatge to learn more about the lesson, Tatge said.

Friday, Babington personally called students enrolled in the class to invite them to a conversation the next morning with her and Harvey.

Sunday afternoon, Casey altered flight plans to meet with the Stephens in an airport food court.

“You have a situation that really upset a particular person,” Babington said. “Anytime that happens you want to figure out the context of the situation in that class that was so concerning.”

Babington said resulting conversations within the administration seek to balance Tatge’s academic freedom to teach his class as he sees best while ensuring the welfare of students.

“We are simply collecting information,” Harvey said. “There has been no determination of whether there is a need to think about policies or whether there is a need to be implementing policies.”

Stephens’ arrest

According to the police report, Stephens was arrested during Winter Term on four misdemeanors: public intoxication, minor in consumption (Stephens was 19; she turns 20 today), resisting law enforcement and criminal mischief.

At 3 a.m. on Friday, Jan. 27, Public Safety received a call that a female was banging on the front window of Beta Theta Pi fraternity with a rock. Stephens then moved to the back of the house. As the police officer pulled up, Stephens ran towards her sorority house across the parking lot. While banging on the door to get in, Stephens was arrested. She apologized and was taken into custody.

At the Putnam County Jail, she submitted to a Portable Breath Test and registered a blood alcohol content of .210 percent. A majority of states in the U.S. use .08 percent as the legal level of intoxication for adults.

The arresting officer, Rick Keller, wrote: “Alison stated that she ran from me because she is on the basketball team and didn’t want to get into trouble.”

DePauw’s athletic code of conduct states that coaches don’t condone the illegal or irresponsible use of alcohol, but each coach can create his or her own guidelines.

“Alison did violate our alcohol policy and has served the consequences,” said Kris Huffman, head coach of the women’s basketball team. “She is still on our team.”

Stephens has played in games since her arrest, according to DePauw’s athletic website. Included in the court documents was a motion for permission to travel out of state to attend away games, which was granted on Feb. 1.

Huffman deferred comments on details of the team’s alcohol policy to athletic director Stevie Baker-Watson, who was not reached before deadline.

Academic freedom

Stephens is by no means the only DePauw student to get in trouble for drinking.

According to the 2011 DePauw University annual security report, 24 students have been arrested on campus for charges related to alcohol in the past three years. Another 506 students were referred to the Community Standards Committee for alcohol violations.

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Thu Mar 29 2012 12:02
It's about time that some people grasped the concept of public records and accountability for your actions. As a 19-20 year old, you are an ADULT and as such, your crimes are a matter of public record. In today's highly connected and electronic society, your actions as a 20 year old student will likely stick with you for years to come, regardless of whether or not you can get mommy to write a letter to a journalism professor.

It's deeply depressing that instead of promoting this accountability, the administration is desperately trying to protect its students from the cold hard world around them, creating graduates ill-prepared to deal with the harsh realities of adulthood. It just seems to be getting worse and worse.

Ross Chandler
Wed Feb 29 2012 15:05
What Tatge has done has been to teach basic journalism. When an adult enters the criminal justice system, he or she forfeits a degree of privacy (but not the presumption of innocence) as the case moves toward adjudication. As long as the instructor and students take both into account - including offering Stephens the opportunity to comment and consistently following the case - there is nothing wrong with the assignment. The problem appears to be that a student, her parents and the administration are concerned/upset/worried that a routine public matter involving an adult accused of misconduct is being used in this way. What would they say if it was a university administrator whose case was used instead?
Chase Hall
Wed Feb 29 2012 13:13
Editor's note:

Hi Paul, in your comment - " In order to gather information from his peers he impersonated a law enforcement officer" - you refer to Matthew Cecil, who was the Editor-in-Chief of The DePauw last semester.

In the story "Four arrested at Monon festivities," which ran in the Tuesday Nov. 15 issue of the The DePauw, Cecil interviewed two DePauw students that were arrested over Monon weekend. We have recently contacted both students and senior Scott Meyer said that he thought he had heard Cecil say he was with the police.

As policy, Cecil introduced himself as the editor of The DePauw newspaper and repeated himself when Meyer said he couldn't hear.

In the recent conversation, Meyer said he was in the library during the initial interview and misheard what Cecil was saying.

After introducing himself, Cecil explained The DePauw's policy in publishing the names of students who have been arrested. Cecil mentioned that the interview was for the student newspaper several times and Meyer then agreed to have his name published. Cecil then went on to ask Meyer what happened during his arrest.

Please direct any questions about this false - and serious - allegation to me at

Tue Feb 28 2012 21:54
So the newspaper should stop covering events that happen on campus because it might hurt some students feelings? Do you not understand journalism?
Tue Feb 28 2012 21:10
1) You wrote an article detailing how sad Allison was after this was shared with a class. 2) You proceeded to dig deeper and retell the story to the whole campus. This is just a classic display of hypocrisy.

At least Tatge was trying to teach the students. Are you trying to teach the community about sensitive personal data? The only thing I learned from this article is that The DePauw believes they are above and beyond the rest of the student body.

Additionally, you write "Ellen Kobe and Dana Ferguson, who are also members of the class and Managing Editors for The DePauw , were excluded from all coverage of this story to avoid conflict of interest." Please don't flatter yourself. If you stated that to demonstrate your ethics as a campus journalist , I hope readers are not fooled.

Earlier this year an Editor for The DePauw, whose name I will keep private, called two of his peer DePauw students for a story. In order to gather information from his peers he impersonated a law enforcement officer.

Please stop with articles like this. If you absolutely have to write it, then find a way to do it with some empathy.

How would you feel if a professor gave all of that information in hard copies to a group of students on campus? I doubt you'd be pleased with it. Following that event, would you want an article written in your college newspaper detailing your embarrassing incident?

I doubt you'd want that series of events to happen to you. This is a small school. Let's learn and grow together instead of shoving others under the bus for a story in the campus newspaper.

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