Post Classifieds

Reporting class sparks controversy over academic freedom

By Chase G. Hall
On February 27, 2012

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.

A report on campus alcohol use was released this December. The university has since launched an initiative to combat binge drinking and other alcohol abuses. DePauw is also a member of a national collaborative to address high-risk drinking.

Tatge said that many students had previously expressed interest in pursuing stories about drinking on campus.

And not all students in the class were troubled.

Sophomore Abby Dickey said she was surprised by the packet, but understood the point Tatge was making.

"I personally don't think he was in the wrong for what he did," Dickey said. "It was just for the purpose of telling how to get a good story... I just think that it's hard coming from Ohio University, a big school where it would have been fine. But at DePauw I think it's different."

Ohio University currently has about 36,000 students enrolled, where DePauw has 2,302 according to the schools' websites.

The DePauw contacted three other students in the class, all of whom declined to comment. 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.

Tatge's lesson challenged the balance between a student's right to privacy and Academic freedom, the idea that both students and faculty must be allowed freedom of inquiry to advance knowledge, even if a lesson concerns challenging topics.

The university academic handbook "strongly affirms the principles of academic freedom" established in 1940 by the American Association of University Professors. That statement, which was updated in 1970, says that teachers are free to discuss their subject in the classroom, but should be careful to not include unrelated controversial matter.

But the statement wasn't designed to discourage controversy.

"Controversy is at the heart of the free academic inquiry which the entire statement is designed to foster," reads an AAUP interpretive comment from the 1970 updates. "The passage serves to underscore the need for teachers to avoid persistently intruding material which has no relation to their subject."

Tatge sees little controversy in the material he presented.

"I consider this the same as using 'Catcher in the Rye' or 'Lady Chatterley's Lover' or 'Ulysses,'" he said. "There's obviously decorum, and good taste and respect for one another ... but you're going to have to push the envelope a little bit to get people to think outside the box. I think DePauw has students that want to be pushed that way."

He also said no students approached or contacted him with concerns about the lesson.

Tatge said he has no regrets, except that he might have collected the packet of records instead of letting students take them home. Babington and Harvey are currently working to gather the packets.

Tatge also wishes students had not told Stephens about the exercise.

"It's nothing to hide," Tatge said. "But why upset someone?"

Meanwhile, Harvey and Babington continue to gather information, but declined to characterize their actions as a formal investigation. Babington said she is working with students, while Harvey is concerned with what happened in the classroom.

They both mentioned that complaints about class conduct, grades or material surface weekly.

"This seemed different," Babington said. "And you know, there are those complaints that come up all the time. This felt like it was maybe in a different category."

Casey, who was also brought into the conversation, says that although "emotions were running high," it's important to move forward judiciously.

"The welfare of your students... is always at the forefront and by virtue of my position I must defend academic freedom," he said. "I have to defend the possibility of difficult discourse in the classroom."

Despite the difficult discourse, Dickey thinks most students could find the lesson.

"I think what we all got out of it was be careful what you post online, and that you really can get records on anyone," Dickey said.

But, she still isn't sure if the shock value was worth the price.

After the administration completes its fact-finding mission, Harvey will make an ultimate decision on whether a line was crossed.

-Matthew Cecil contributed to this story. 

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