On Thursday, October 11, 2007, former Eastern Michigan University President John A. Fallon, III filed suit against the university, the EMU Board of Regents, and Board of Regents Chairman Thomas Sidlik, demanding Fallon be reinstated as president, with back wages, attorney’s fees, and damages. Fallon was fired on July 15, 2007, after his mishandling of the murder of EMU student Laura Dickinson made national headlines. Fallon charges that the Board of Regents fired him because they believed he was going to allege they had violated the Open Meetings Act. He considers himself a victim who merits protection under the Whistleblowers’ Act.
Today, October 15, 2007, trial begins for Orange Amir Taylor, III, the EMU student accused of Laura Dickinson’s murder.
Following is an account of how a university’s leadership mishandled a murder investigation, and endangered those in their charge—a real-life cautionary tale, about the unintended consequences of the failure of academic administrators to model and demand transparency and accountability.
I. BLIGHT IN THE GROVES OF ACADEME
It ís the blight man was born for--
It is Margaret you mourn for.
--Gerard Manley Hopkins, “Spring and Fall”
Mark Twain once observed, “Truth is the most valuable thing we have. Let us economize it.” Judging by the manner in which they responded to the murder of Laura Dickinson, Eastern Michigan University officials must have a mountain of truth squirreled away in some dark corner of the campus.
Laura Dickinson, 22, was a transfer student finishing her first semester at EMU. On December 3rd, she was home in Hastings, Michigan, the small city in which she’d grown up, celebrating her father’s 51st birthday with the family. She returned to campus for finals, and her parents, Bob and Debra, spoke with her on the 12th, but, after that, they had been unable to contact her. On the 15th, they telephoned the university to ask that someone check Laura’s dorm room.
Laura was staying in Room 518 of Hill Hall, part of EMU’s Hoyt/Pitmann/Hill complex, three massive edifices on the periphery of the 23,000-student university’s campus. Each of these residence halls is 11 stories tall, the complex having been designed to hold over 1400 students, a population of sufficient size that those who roomed there would be unlikely to distinguish readily a fellow resident from an intruder.
As it turned out, EMU housing employees had already opened Laura’s door, responding to a complaint from an adjoining room of a strong, sickening odor. They found Laura’s dead body on the floor, wearing only a tank top pushed up around her shoulders. A bed pillow covered her face. Her discoverers immediately relocked the door, and contacted campus police.
Bob Dickinson was at his coffee shop, State Grounds, where Laura occasionally helped out, when EMU informed him that she had been found, dead. Dickinson was given few details, other than that the police had been called, and an autopsy performed. Because of the extent of the decomposition—Laura’s body had lain next to a heater for two days—the autopsy was inconclusive, but the university assured Dickinson that there was no reason to suspect foul play.
Laura’s stunned family groped for an explanation for their daughter’s death. Since the university seemed confident that she died of natural causes, her parents attributed it to a sudden, lethal resurgence of a stress-related heart arrhythmia with which she had been diagnosed two years earlier. Four days before Christmas, with no authoritative cause of death yet offered them, believing no will but God’s had precipitated their loss, Laura’s family held her funeral at the Thornapple Valley Church in Hastings, laying her body to rest in Riverside Cemetery.
Ten weeks later, the Dickinsons would begin to hear the truth about their daughter’s death, and about the blight of mendacity and careerism infecting the administration at Eastern Michigan University. The story made national headlines, shocking not only the general public, but even hardened members of the media who covered it. For laborers in the groves of academe, however, the blight destroying the soul of the postmodern university wasn’t much of a surprise at all.
II. BORN TO RUN
The ostrich is . . . a flightless bird that can never take to the skies, so instead, it’s built for running. . . . When danger threatens, ostriches can escape pretty easily by running away. . . . Ostriches like to live in groups [because] . . .at least one of them is likely to see danger coming. . . .
Ostriches do not bury their heads in the sand. When an ostrich senses danger and cannot run away, it flops to the ground and remains still, with its head and neck flat on the ground in front of it. . . .
Ostriches are omnivores . . . . [and will] eat things that other animals can’t digest.
--San Diego Zoo, Animal Bytes
Assume you are a normal human being. Assume you are also a university president. You have learned that the body of a female student has been found in her campus dorm room, dead, and nearly naked. While it is not an absolute certainty that she has been murdered, circumstances suggest this is the case. What do you do?
For most people, the answer is eye-rollingly obvious: you speak directly with the police, who have first-hand knowledge of the crime scene. If they think the death is a probable homicide, you immediately alert the campus community that a murder may have occurred in one of the dorms, and urge everyone, especially women, to take extra safety precautions until the police either rule out homicide, or apprehend the person responsible. You ask that any suspicious activity be reported to the police, whom you, personally and frequently, contact regarding the case. You promise to issue frequent updates to the campus, and you do so.
Was this how Eastern Michigan University President John A. Fallon, III, responded to the murder of Laura Dickinson?
Fallon responded to Laura Dickinson’s death much in the manner of a skittish ostrich that has spotted a cheetah, sprinting away from danger as fast as its long legs can take it, putting as much geography as possible between its feathery fundament and the cat’s teeth. Fallon understood that the discovery of a dead coed in a campus dorm, especially if that death had other than natural causes, might raise doubts about his wise stewardship. Unlike the ostrich, Fallon could not literally run from his problems, but he could employ other strategies to distance himself from the unpleasantness. He seems to have executed a four-point survival plan:
- minimize the spread of information concerning the death, diffusing any sense of alarm;
- rigorously sustain his personal ignorance of any facts or details concerning the death or allied events;
- delegate to underlings all responsibilities related to the death, including, shamefully, notifying the parents and attending the funeral; and
- blame any blowback on said underlings’ failure to keep you fully informed, expressing, more in sorrow than in anger, your regret for having placed your trust in persons undeserving of it.
The first part of what seems Fallon’s strategy, limiting and spinning information concerning a serious problem, is commonly called “damage control.” It is often the case that the implementer of the strategy is concerned more with controlling potential damage to his reputation than with damage, or in this case, danger, to others. Certainly, this seems to be have been the case, with respect to many members of the administration of EMU.
On December 16th, at President Fallon’s request, using information he provided and under his supervision, a member of the communications staff drafted the university’s official response to the discovery of Laura Dickinson’s body. At 4:53 p.m., Fallon emailed the staff person his approval of the draft, and, at his wish, it was posted:
The entire EMU community was saddened to learn of the death of one of our students on campus this week. We offer our most heartfelt condolences to the student’s family.
You may have seen reports in the media regarding this situation. At the request of the family and out of respect for their privacy, EMU will not release the student’s name or identifying information. EMU’s Department of Public Safety is working closely with the medical examiner’s office to determine the cause and circumstances of death. At this point, there is no reason to suspect foul play. We are fully confident in the safety and security of our campus environment, and our campus officials will remain vigilant in ensuring safety for all members of our campus community.
This singularly incommunicative communication conceals the name and hometown of the deceased—reasonable omissions, if one wanted merely to protect the family’s privacy. The press release also, however, conceals where or when she died; any concerns regarding the circumstances of her death; any humanizing details, such as her dreams or her major; even her sex is obliterated. With a few keystrokes, the nutrition major who wanted to help African children with AIDS was erased from the university’s official consciousness. Although the “entire EMU community” purportedly grieved the loss of, well, whoever, the President’s office arranged no campus memorial service for the anonymous deceased. And then, having expressed with dispatch the university’s sorrow over the loss, that same press release moves briskly on to a marketing effort in the guise of an “Editor’s Note”: Looking for an expert source for a story? Check out EMU’s Easter Experts online . . .
Of far greater consequence than the failure of this missive to honor the dead, was its endangerment of the living. President Fallon approved the inclusion of an assertion that “no foul play” had been involved in Dickinson’s death and the assurances that the campus was well secured and safe. Fallon approved these assertions and ordered the document posted, without, apparently making any effort to consult either the campus police, to verify its accuracy, or the university attorney, to check its implications. Long after it was evident to many EMU employees that campus security had been breached and that a murder had occurred, this message lingered in cyberspace, continuing to assert the antithesis of what more and more EMU employees knew to be the truth: that foul play was, indeed, suspected, and that the campus was nowhere near as safe as the university’s official statement claimed.
What makes this clumsy attempt at damage control especially reprehensible, is that those who believed its sanguine message about how safe the campus was might well have become less, rather than more, vigilant about their personal safety, at a time when there was good reason to believe a rapist/murder was roaming the campus. Still worse, it was common knowledge among administrators, including Fallon, that the master keys to every lock on campus had been stolen in August 2005. Laura’s keys and entry card had also been stolen on the night of her murder, which meant the murderer could use her card to enter Hill Hall. Although Laura’s dorm had been re-keyed, many other doors on campus remained unsecured, a state of affairs suggesting that the administration’s commitment to campus safety might be somewhat less vigorous than the press release asserted. Indeed, as late as June, 2006, six months after Laura’s murder, 500 faculty offices still had not been re-keyed.
Having issued a bland, uninformative account of Dickinson’s death, Fallon ensured his ignorance would be unflagging, by delegating every aspect of handling Dickinson’s death to underlings, primarily to Vice President for Student Affairs, Housing and University Communications James F. Vick. In a singularly déclassé move, Fallon delegated to Vick even the task of telephoning the Dickinsons to inform them of the loss of their daughter. It would be Vick who would communicate the few and vague details, to the stunned parents. It would even be Vick who sat with them in the student union, when they drove to the university after hearing the terrible news. It would be Vick who would represent the university at Laura’s funeral, as, apparently, Fallon had more important things to do than comfort parents at the graveside of a child, who died on his campus. Delegating these duties to Vick conveniently kept Fallon from situations in which grieving parents might pose awkward or embarrassing questions.
Other underlings were also utilized to distance Fallon from the investigation, in particular Cindy Hall, 50, the first female Director of the Department of Public Safety (DPS). An alumna, Hall had earned her bachelor’s degree in criminal justice at EMU, where she would be employed as a safety official for over a quarter of a century. Hall was also a graduate of the Northwestern University School of Police Staff and Command, and had earned a Juris Doctorate from the University of Toledo College of Law. It was her office that would have jurisdiction over the crime.
Hall herself had gone to Laura’s dorm room, shortly after the body was discovered. Suspecting Laura’s death was a homicide, EMU’s police had called in the Ypsilanti Police, the Michigan State Police, and the Major Crimes Task Force of the Washtenaw County (Michigan) Sheriff’s Office. Hall arrived around 1:30 p.m., and remained at the crime scene late into the night. The position of the body and the pillow on Laura’s face, among other details at the crime scene, suggested strongly that the young woman had been raped and smothered. Police officers and investigators from the EMU police, Ypsalanti, and Michigan State police forces and the county Major Crimes Task Force representative concurred that Dickinson’s death was almost certainly a murder. Chief Hall, however, was unwilling to refer to law enforcement’s involvement as a “homicide investigation”; the term of art she insisted on was “death investigation,” which, while not eliminating murder as a possibility, made natural causes and suicide more likely contenders than circumstances warranted.
Hall’s specious reasoning for using the term “death investigation” was that, since the medical examiner’s report was not yet conclusive, it was not absolutely certain the death was a homicide. It would seem to many that Hall concocted this phrase with her own and the university’s reputation primarily in mind, with justice for Laura Dickinson a distant second place, and with the safety of other the remainder of the campus community not even a blip on the horizon.
Hall’s immediate superior, Vice President Jim Vick, also appeared at Laura’s door soon after the discovery of her body. A singularly incurious gentleman, having gone to the effort of going to the threshold of 518 Hill, he neither entered the room, nor even leaned in to see for himself what had occurred. Vick later claimed that, from where he stood, he could see the body only below the knees. There are conflicting reports as to whether Vick saw or knew that a bed pillow covered Laura’s face.
Even though Hall was Vick’s subordinate, he delegated decisions about handling the death to her, justifying his doing so on the grounds that she was “the person in charge with the credentials to make that decision.” Like most universities, EMU has an attorney available to help handle complex problems, which the sudden death of a student on university property certainly is. Yet, he seems not to have been consulted regarding the advisability of alluding to a homicide investigation in an obviously obfuscatory manner. Vick obeyed his subordinate’s order, referring to the homicide investigation as a “death investigation,” including during his conversations with Fallon—the third member of this preternaturally incurious triumvirate, who never inquired whether anyone thought it possible the death was a homicide.
Among the actions for which Vick has been most widely criticized was his giving the order to shred an official document connected with the murder—the Department of Public Safety’s “Initial Draft Report,” which described the discovery of the body. Vick would later insist that he shredded this document at the request of Cindy Hall, who denies this was the case. Vick asserts the rather unusual claim that he shredded the document without reading it, because, he explained, he assumed it contained details about Dickinson’s death about which he had already been informed by DPS. “Shred before reading!” --Didn’t Maxwell Smart shout this into his shoe phone? The shredding may have worked in Vick’s favor, as it seems likely that the Initial Draft Report probably included grim details that would have made it obvious that Laura was murdered, and that the term “death investigation” obscured that fact.
As the days and weeks passed, and it became more and more evident to wider and wider circle of people that “foul play” had, indeed, been involved in Laura Dickinson’s death. Nevertheless, the official statement of December 16th statement, with its false assurances regarding the safety of the campus hovered, uncorrected, in cyberspace. Several EMU employees—including the DPS officer in charge of the case, the university ombudsman, and a member of the public relations staff—raised concerns regarding the statement, whose divergence from the truth was becoming increasingly apparent, yet no one took the initiative to delete the phrases concerning the safety oft the campus and the absence of “foul play” in relation to the death. No one alerted the campus community or the media that a murderer had struck the campus, and might strike again. Worse, when worried parents and students called or emailed to ask if there might be any danger, they were assured, by employees who knew better, that such concerns were unwarranted.
For ten weeks, the December 16th statement stood unaltered. It was finally removed on February 23, 2007, the day that President Fallon announced that Laura Dickinson’s death had been a homicide, and that EMU student Orange Taylor, III had been arrested and charged with the crime. Unsurprisingly, Fallon did not call Laura Dickinson’s parents with this information. The task of surprising them with the news that the daughter had been raped and murdered was delegated down past even Vick, to an administrator subordinate to him. It was the Ombudsman who was dispatched to Laura’s home town of Hastings, Michigan, to communicate the news, accompanied not by Public Safety Director Cindy Hall, but by a lower-ranking DPS police officer.
Unfortunately, the administration had been so focused on figuring out how to share this sudden forensic epiphany with the media, that no one bothered to ensure the parents were told before the newspaper and television reporters. As a result of EMU’s careless indifference, Laura’s mother learned her daughter had been raped and murdered not from any university employee, but from a reporter.
February 23, 2007 was the first day that the university told EMU students the truth about how the safety of the campus. It was the first day they knew that a rape and murder had taken place in Hill Hall. It was the first day they knew that no one had cared enough to warn them, and that they had been needlessly exposed to danger and lied to, by university officials who knew, or should have known, that a murderer might be roaming the campus.
February 23rd was also, coincidentally, the first day that students who decided to withdraw from Eastern Michigan University, would not receive a refund.
III. CRIME AND, PERHAPS, PUNISHMENT
He who does not prevent a crime when he can, encourages it.
The resistance to transparency of Eastern Michigan University’s administration didn’t end with the arrest of Orange Taylor. Officials concealed information concerning accused murderer almost as thoroughly as they had about the murder and the murder victim. This time the excuse was that they couldn’t share information about Taylor because of federal student privacy regulations. EMU’s prior dissembling about the Dickinson murder prompted critics to wonder whether the university might again be concealing information that could cast the university in an unflattering light. Had there been other incidents on campus that should have alerted officials a violent crime might occur? Could the intrusion into Laura Dickinson’s dorm have been predicted? Could her death have been prevented? Was EMU using privacy regulations to shield administrators who had failed to protect the murder victim? Had Taylor done anything suggesting he was dangerous, and might be worthy of expulsion? Were the policies and personnel that failed to safeguard her still in place? The Ann Arbor News would have to file a FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) request just to get a straight answer as to whether this was the first time Taylor had been arrested by EMU security officers. The newspaper’s investigative efforts revealed that Taylor had been arrested by campus police at least twice prior to his arrest for Dickinson’s murder.
Taylor’s first arrest by EMU Department of Public Safety officers was for illegally entering a locked campus office building. Around 6 p.m., on December 23, 2005, a female staff member in King Hall discovered Taylor crawling in through a window. When Taylor spotted her, he asked whether the darkened office building he was entering was a dorm, and, on being informed it was not, he departed, again through the window. The police questioned Taylor about this incident on January 26, 2006, at which time he reportedly admitted having illegally entered the building, purportedly in search of “girls and activity.”
According to the Grand Rapids Press, in January, 2006, Taylor was also questioned about a fire that occurred in King Hall during Thanksgiving Break in 2005, about a month before Taylor was spotted sneaking into the same building. The fire, which was ruled an arson, destroyed the three offices occupied by EMU’s Office of Student Judicial Services, the campus office which administers student conduct policies and investigates claims of student-to-student sexual harassment. For reasons as yet undisclosed, after police questioned Taylor regarding the arson in King Hall, they obtained a DNA sample from him. It has been speculated that it is possible this sample may have been used to link Taylor to the scene of Dickinson’s murder.
EMU police records do not indicate that Taylor was charged with the King Hall arson. According to the Ann Arbor News, records show that Taylor was charged regarding his December 23rd illegal entry of King Hall, with a trial date set for June, 2006. Then, the records connected to this incident stop abruptly. There is, apparently, no record of any trial. The Ann Arbor News suggests that, since Taylor was under 21, it is possible that Taylor may have been tried under the Holmes Youthful Trainee Act, in which case the record of any trial or its outcome would be erased.
EMU has chosen not to indicate what, if any, disciplinary action EMU imposed on Taylor as a consequence of the King Hall entry. It has been suggested that, should such records exist, they would enjoy federal privacy protection, as records of campus disciplinary actions and student grades generally do under the Buckley Amendment. There are, however, certain conditions under which a university can break confidentiality concerning disciplinary matters, if the university so chooses. The Buckley Amendment Clarification (1992), for example, indicates that campus police records are not considered “educational” records, and thus do not enjoy federal privacy protection. The Foley Amendment (1998) indicates that student disciplinary records are not protected as private, if the act for which the student is being disciplined occurred in conjunction with the commission of a crime. It thus seems possible that, had EMU wished to do so, they might have been able to be more forthcoming about Taylor’s campus arrest record without violating federal law.
A little more information is available, concerning Taylor’s arrest in November, 2006. Police officers responding to a complaint someone was selling marijuana at Eastern Eateries discovered Taylor with two bags of marijuana on his person, and arrested him. On December 13th, 2006, Taylor pled not guilty to the charge of possession of drug paraphernalia, a misdemeanor; subsequently, on January 9, 2007, Taylor would change that plea to guilty. What penalty, if any, Taylor received in connection with this arrest, as with the King Hall incident, has not been made public.
On the same day that Taylor pled not guilty regarding the drug paraphernalia arrest, he caught the attention of law enforcement in a different context. Security surveillance tapes of Hill Hall for December 13, 2006 show Taylor slip in a side door around 4:20 a.m., and head upstairs. Around 90 minutes later, the cameras captured Taylor again, this time leaving the building. In his hand was the gift bag that Laura’s “Secret Santa” on the women’s rowing team had given her the evening before at the team’s Christmas party. Two days later, Laura’s body would be found.
Travis Scott, Laura Dickinson’s boyfriend, asked angrily, in an interview with the Detroit News, “I want to know why this guy was even enrolled in school,” Scott said. “He has a criminal history on that campus for breaking and entering. How the hell is he a student?”
Mr. Scott poses an excellent question. It is doubtful he will receive a straight answer to it, at least from anyone in the current EMU administration.
IV. THE VESTIBULAR UNIVERSITY
The world is a dangerous place to live; not because of the people who are evil, but because of the people who don't do anything about it.
In March, 2007, the U.S. Department of Education notified Eastern Michigan University that they had received a complaint about EMU’s handling of the Dickinson murder from Security on Campus, a watchdog group which promotes campus safety. The Department of Education informed the university that they would be evaluating EMU’s compliance with the Clery Act. The EMU Board of Regents quickly hired the Detroit law firm of Butzel Long to conduct an independent review. As failure to comply with the Act could create serious financial and public relations problems, the Regents were well advised to do so.
The purpose of the Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Campus Crime Statistics Act (20 USC §1092 f) is to compel institutions of higher learning to keep and disclose accurate records of campus crime, and to warn the campus community when there is imminent danger. The Act is named after Jeanne Clery, a Lehigh University freshman murdered in her dorm room by another student. Only after Jeanne’s death did her parents learn that, in the previous three years, there had been 38 violent crimes on the placid-seeming Lehigh campus. To ensure universities would have to tell the truth about crime, the Clerys founded Security on Campus, and worked to get the Clery Act passed.
The Clery Act applies to institutions of higher learning participating in federal student financial aid programs, and thus to most colleges and universities in the United States. To be eligible to participate in these programs, universities must comply with the Act’s common-sense provisions. They must, for example, systematically record and disseminate information regarding campus crime. If there is reason to believe that the campus community might be in danger, a “timely warning” must be communicated to the entire campus. The Clery Act is enforced by the U.S. Department of Education, which can levy fines against institutions that fail to comply, or even render them ineligible to receive federal student financial aid dollars to an institution, a penalty which would be financially devastating to many universities.
Draconian though such penalties may seem, they are, sadly, necessary. Until the early 1970s, campus safety, particularly the safety of women students, was a matter of high priority to which considerable campus resources were dedicated. This was a consequence of the university’s perception that, while 18-year-olds may appear and indeed be mature, they still need some guidance and supervision. It was taken for granted that the college to whom parents entrusted their had a moral obligation to function in loco parentis. Universities took steps to protect students that included policies that may seem oppressive or quaint today. Male students were expected to be rowdy, prankish, and to get into minor scrapes, but serious misbehavior usually met with quick discipline, and expulsions were a not uncommon punishment for those who committed serious infractions. Female students enjoyed significantly greater monitoring and restrictions. Women’s dorms had “parietal hours,” fixed hours during which male guests were permitted to visit, and to enforce these rules, universities hired women to serve as a combination doorman and duenna. A man would be permitted entry into the locked women’s dormitory only as the guest of a female resident, who would be summoned to the front desk, to verify his identity and indicate she did, indeed, want him to visit. Men who passed that test would then be directed to sign the register, noting the time they entered the building. Upon leaving, they would sign out again, in similar fashion, always under the watchful eye of the person supervising the door. Violations of these rules, by either sex, were considered serious safety violations, and could result in suspension or expulsion.
While this was an imperfect system, violent crime against women in campus residences occurred far less often than it does today. As the residents of luxury apartment buildings know, having a live doorman guarding the entrance to your building and verifying the identity of persons claiming you invited them beats a simple locked door, hands-down. Unlike a human being, a lock can’t detect the illicit entry of a person who “tailgates” a person legitimately using a key, slipping in close behind them. Videotape evidence indicates that it was in this manner that Orange Taylor gained access to Hill Hall on December 13th.
By the early 1970s, most campuses had abandoned close supervision of student living arrangements. Students wanted freedom from supervision, and universities happily complied, freeing themselves of the expensive burden of protecting students for more profitable role of landlord. Unfortunately, in the rush to build dormitories that were more like apartment buildings and to give students autonomy over their living arrangements, most schools gave student safety short shift. At the same time, universities were also expanding greatly in size, becoming virtual cities, with the vitality of a city, but all too often with a city’s dangerous anonymity, an anonymity that fosters crime, as no one can tell an ordinary, fellow student from a predatory stranger. Colleges located near deteriorating urban areas were particularly vulnerable, as criminals found naïve students easy targets. Despite the alarming and increasing number of students who were becoming victims of violent as well as property crime on campuses across the country, few universities were willing to acknowledge the problem, and fewer still, to do anything about it. Only with the passage of the Clery Act did this trend reverse.
It is unfortunate that it takes a federal law to compel universities to manifest the most minimal level of human decency--warning innocent people that they may be in danger. It is even more unfortunate that federal law, as in the case of EMU, does not always suffice. The Department of Education and the independent Butzel-Long Report commissioned by the EMU Board of Regents separately reach the same conclusion—that EMU was seriously out of compliance with the Clery Act. Each report is especially critical of the university for misrepresenting the circumstances of Laura Dickinson’s death, and for failing to issue a “timely warning” to the campus community that a rapist/murderer might be among them.
It should be noted that, if Fallon chose consciously to ignore the Clery Act, such a choice, while immoral, would not have been entirely irrational. Having served as president of two other universities, Fallon would have known that even if an investigation revealed serious violations of the Act, the repercussions were unlikely to be significant. The DOE has never enforced its threat to bar any university’s eligibility for federal student aid. The largest fine they’ve ever levied is $250,000 (against Salem International University, in 2004). With EMU’s budget in excess of $286 million, a $250,000 fine would constitute less than 12% of a single year’s budget. Moreover, the costs of any fine would not be felt by either Fallon or, most likely, by any other EMU employee complicit in the mishandling of the homicide. The cost of the fine would simply be passed along to students, who would quite literally pay the price for the employees who failed them. This past semester, in part because of costs resulting from Fallon’s mishandling of Laura Dickinson’s death, tuition at EMU rose 8%.
Legal documents—aside from those wherein one’s name is mentioned—rarely make compelling reading. The Butzel-Long Report, however, does. It is a chilling account of the dysfunctional organizational dynamics that arise in an institution plagued by failures in leadership at all levels. Authored by attorneys David F. DuMouchel, Michael J. Lavoie, Richard T. Hewlett, and Timothy M. Labadie, the Report attempts to disentangle the Gordian Knot of conflicting accounts by Fallon, Vick, Hall, and others, concerning the university’s response to the death of Laura Dickinson. In the Report, Fallon comes across as uninterested in—perhaps incapable of—understanding what all the fuss is about, and unconvinced he’s done anything terribly wrong. Fallon’s self-absorption, moral indifference, and indecisiveness run through the document like leitmotifs, and are reflected in and imitated by successive, subordinate levels of administration. The Report reflects the callous amorality that spreads through a university’s administration, when directed by a secretive, evasive, self-important careerist too timid to demand accountability of others, and too self-excusing to demand it of himself.
Consider, for example, the unwillingness of many of those interviewed, to accept any responsibility for participating in a dangerous lie, and their apparent lack of any sense of guilt or shame at having done so. Each devises a more absurd, more tortured explanation than the next, to account for his failure to act, identifying someone else’s shortcomings, rather than their own, as the real cause of the problem. The Report notes the ubiqutous unwillingness of the EMU employees interviewed, to accept responsibility for their own actions:
It is clear to us that what prevailed at least in the aftermath of these events was a belief that one could be excused from responsibility if one simply passed along information to the next highest person in the organizational chart. That is not sufficient. The responsibility of the Chief of Police, the Vice President of Student Affairs, and other similarly-situated University officials is to not only provide information but to also provide meaningful, proactive recommendations regarding that information and what, if any, action should be taken because of it.
Individual accounts of what transpired at EMU often conflict with the facts, with accounts offered by other individuals, or even with the individual’s own prior accounts, which are also sometimes mutually self-contradictory. The document reminds one of Akira Kurasawa’s Rashomon, a film about a rape and murder, told from multiple, conflicting perspectives. So dense is the web of prevarication that it disturbs Butzel Long’s attorneys, who, presumably, are not unaccustomed to seeing truth treated like silly putty:
We also have documented numerous disturbing and disappointing inconsistencies in the explanations of what happened in connection with Ms. Dickinson’s death from many who were involved. Unquestionably, some of this may be a function of the traumatic and unique situation everyone faced. We are not satisfied, however, that all of the discrepancies in what we were told can be innocently explained.
The authors of the Report appear stunned, that for ten weeks, not one of the many EMU employees who knew a murderer might be loose on campus, exercised the thimbleful of initiative necessary to delete the misleading phrases about campus safety in the December 16th official statement about Dickinson’s death, much less issue a warning. No employee so much as raised the idea of warning the campus as a topic for consideration. On the contrary, several EMU officials actively preserved the illusion of safety, assuring parents and students who contacted their office that any worry was groundless. Few of those who actively or passively participated in the lie seem to feel any shame or guilt for having needlessly exposed co-workers and students to a violent criminal. Instead, a kind of cohesion arose among those who sustained the illusion of safety, the participants reluctant to impart information that might get others in trouble.
An institution whose leadership fails to engage with employees and demand accountability encourages poor performance. As time passes, continued lack of accountability results in the lowered performance level becoming the norm. As the employees’ quality of performance declines, they are less likely to be attractive candidates for jobs at other institutions. A lack of accountability thus leads to a depressed rate of employee turnover. As employees recognize that they’re permanently trapped with other low-performers, a strange realignment of loyalty set in—a perverse and convenient commitment to the welfare of incumbent administrators, as well as a certain callousness toward students. After years working alongside each other with little infusion of new blood and less chance of moving on, employees begin to believe their loyalty, responsibility and interest lie in protecting whatever administrator happens to be in power, and in preserving the “image,” however illusory, of the school. Students shrink in importance; they are little more than annoying transients, who, in contrast to your low-performing colleagues, aren’t going to be around you forever. Though the low-performers may eye each other with contempt, any criticism of their world triggers a “herd” mentality, and the members of the herd close ranks against the outside threat. The more serious and more justified the criticism, the greater the group’s cohesion and willingness to ratchet up evasion, obstructionism, and secrecy. The uglier the truth, the more justified the cover-up seems to them.
Some have defended EMU’s lower-level employees’ failure to act, on the grounds that they feared losing their livelihood—a most damning defense: how much better to be deemed merely thoughtless and self-centered, than to be considered the sort a person who weighs, with a cool calculus, the value of human life against the bother and disruption of getting another job.
The Butzel Long Report comes to some damning conclusions concerning the EMU employees’ failure to issue a “timely warning”:
[T]his failure, at least initially, is not surprising in light of the lack of any material training, experience, policies or procedures in the face of this exceptional and difficult situation. The failure to realize and correct or cure the initial mistake over the course of the ensuing two months is much more disturbing. Even more troubling are the reactions that occurred after an arrest was made, when many who were involved appear to have scrambled to find an explanation as to why any mistakes were not his or her fault, culminating in the varied and conflicting stories we were told. . . .
The authors of the Report suggest that Eastern Michigan University personnel didn’t t seem to grasp how serious their failure to issue the warning was, nor the profound, long-term repercussions of their apathy regarding others’ safety:
The mission of the Clery Act is to encourage and ensure the safety and security of those persons within the University’s campus community. The Clery Act’s requirements are not just an academic exercise without meaning or importance to the campus community. The trust placed by people in the campus community with the University was violated in a very real and personal way. Upon learning of the tragic circumstances of Ms. Dickinson’s death, persons in the campus community voiced widespread concerns of anxiety and a breach of trust. By complying with the Clery Act requirements and establishing a Compliance Program, the Regents and this University will take an important step toward restoring the trust and confidence of the campus community and ensuring the safety and security of those persons currently in the campus is community and for those coming to the University in the future.
It is worth noting that, had any EMU employee inside the university’s machinery of evasion made one anonymous phone call to the Ann Arbor News or to a local television station, the ensuing press inquiries would almost certainly have triggered the cessation of the problematical assurances about campus safety, and would likely have prompted a “timely warning”. Anger over the murder of Laura Dickinson would have been directed solely at her killer and not the university.
What does one do with people who, while not guilty of outright evil, fail to do that which is good? What do people deserve, who choose to ignore their basic moral duty to others, focusing only on their own immediate interest?
Before entering Hell in the Divine Comedy, Dante finds himself in a place called the ‘Vestibule.’ The Vestibule is not part of Hell, proper, but adjoins it, like a sort of infernal mud room. It is to the Vestibule, that Dante relegates the souls of opportunists, people who do not choose between good and evil, but forever position themselves according to what advances their own interests at the moment. Dante condemns such creatures to an eternity in the moment, trapped in the Vestibule, where they perpetually, and unsuccessfully, flee the stings of the wasps and hornets.
V. IMPLAUSIBLE DENIABILITY
What’s that smell in this room? Didn’t you notice it, Brick? Didn’t you notice the powerful and obnoxious odor of mendacity in this room?
--Big Daddy, in Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
As the story of the mishandling of Laura Dickinson’s murder began circulating through the media, even jaded commentators were shocked at the actions of EMU’s administration. They were especially dumbfounded by EMU President John A. Fallon’s persistent assertion of his ignorance regarding a murder investigation on his campus, a large-scale investigation involving several different police agencies, one of which was in his university’s employ. John Gibson, host of the FoxNews television program The Big Show, captured nicely the ubiquitous astonishment at Fallon’s dogged assertion of his cluelessness. After noting Fallon’s apology for mishandling the murder and assurance that “he’d never let it happen again,” Gibson commented acidly:
Well, that’s good to know. How many murders does he think he might have on the campus of Eastern Michigan that he might be tempted to pass off as natural causes deaths? He blames a university official below him, for not telling him it was a murder.
Let’s see. The scene goes like this: We’re in the University president’s office, and the dean of something or other comes in and says: “Mr. President, a student has died.” And the president says: “That’s a shame. Where are we going to put the library building?”
It seems to me absurd that the president of the university is saying he didn’t know. He should have known, and if he didn’t know, he should be fired. If you are in charge of the university, it is a basic requirement that you know if one of the students has been murdered.
Fallon’s declarations of ignorance struck many people as odd, as it would seem to be in a university president’s own interest, to keep up with campus news tidbits that are likely to come up over canapés at the next fundraiser—matters such as the Eagles/Hurons’ chances this year; how cutting the position of campus Writing Center Director ($82,000) is consistent with spending $1 million on an ad campaign asserting EMU’s commitment to “Education First!”; and how a coed ends up decomposing en déshabille in her supposedly secure dorm room.
What many outside academe may not realize is that ignorance of a certain kind can provide a crucial strategic advantage to an academic administrator. I allude here not to any natural or unintended ignorance, but to a perverse kind of Knowledge Management strategy from the Dark Side of business management theory, in which an administrator prunes, clips, and delicately trims his ignorance into imaginative topiary to strategically conceal his lapses and deficits. A brief overview of this business strategy, which I call ‘Ignorance Management,’ may reveal the strategic rationale behind John Fallon’s Colonel Klink-like expostulations.
Once a university president is officially informed about a problem, the responsibility for resolving that problem transfers immediately to him. Unfortunately, for today’s campus head, making decisions can be a process fraught with peril, as our campuses are peopled almost entirely by moral relativists—by people who do not believe in transcendent absolutes, and for whom moral norms are mere cultural constructs. If you’re just a professor, this isn’t much of a problem, and it can you’re your life a lot of fun; moral relativism allows you to pretend you’re an edgy, danger-seeking revolutionary, while holding the most secure job on earth, in the world’s most conformist profession.
Where moral relativism becomes problematic is when one finds oneself in the more grown-up position of academic administrator, particularly university president, where you have to make serious decisions about big things under considerable public scrutiny. Just making the decision isn’t hard for the moral relativist (which the university president almost certainly is). The problem is making decisions that don’t cause him trouble with the power bases in the campus community.
This concern is not new—campus leaders have always had to keep the opinions of the key players in mind—but what is new is that virtually none of these constituencies are traditionalists whose moral beliefs are clear and fixed. You’d be hard-pressed today, for example, to find a professor who gives a student an F for the course, for turning in a plagiarized paper. The problem with holding a position of authority over a community lacking a shared belief in fixed and transcendent truth, is that there are no fixed, external criteria to guide him in his decision-making, or the community in evaluating the quality of his decisions. “Right” and “wrong” lies only in the foggy eye of the moral relativist. The meaning of terms like these will vary according to a individual interests, prejudice, convenience, and the pollen count. The alliances among these constituencies shift continually. The various disciplines of the university reflect, despite the prefix, no ‘unity’; they constitute little more than a loosely bound confederation of warring city-states—sort of like Renaissance Italy, sans any Quottrocento aesthetics or, God knows, religious sensibilities. Academic administrators soon learn that, absent absolutes like ‘Truth’ and ‘Loyalty,’ morally relativistic superiors and subordinates alike will turn on you in a heartbeat, and will feel perfectly fine about doing so. The careerist administrator, interested in his own advancement above all else, hurls his moral compass down the nearest well, resolving to avoid risk by avoiding decision-making as much as possible. He realizes that Ignorance Management is the strategy that will offer him maximal protection and minimal risk. This, it appears, is what John Fallon realized.
Though the ability to make decisions fast and well is a skill traditionally cultivated by leaders, today’s academic administrators prefer to cultivate the skill of decision-avoidance through Ignorance Management. The more time you have to ascertain which way the wind is blowing, and with what velocity, the more flexibility you have in decision-making. Careful Ignorance Management allows one to delay solving a problem until it reaches that point in the problem’s natural evolution, that, while still small enough to be soluble, it has become large enough that solving it makes one seem sagacious and others feel indebted relief. The most adept practitioners embrace crises, which they consider interest-bearing assets; for them, solving a problem prematurely is irrational, like cashing a bond before it matures, a waste of opportunity resulting in a needlessly diminished return. The master of ignorance mentally thumps every problem like a cantaloupe, to assess its degree of ripeness, so he can time his production of a brilliant solution to coincide with his contract negotiation.
Ignorance Management is truly the Swiss Army knife of management tools, useful in multiple ways in multiple contexts. It can make one’s initial deer-in-the-headlights paralysis or self-serving inaction appear rational, even virtuous, in retrospect. It’s also a low-risk strategy, as one can’t be blamed for not resolving a problem no one told you existed.
It does, however, carry one great risk: its implementation requires one to depend on the cooperation of Knowledge Interruptors—of subordinates who control what one knows, and when one knows it. This relationship between Administrator and Knowledge Interruptor (KI) emerges gradually, as a kind of complex, dynamic system. It is a tacit relationship, the KI’s role never openly acknowledged—indeed, in many cases, the KI entirely unaware he has been selected and shaped for this purpose. The Administrator trains the KI to conceal or reveal information through subtle operant conditioning, with the main rewards to the KI being flattery by his superior accompanied by what the KI perceives to be an increase in his power and importance (“You talk to the parents, Jim, you’re better at that kind of thing.”). In this way, an administrator can leverage the concept of shared governance, which is designed to diminish one’s power, to one’s advantage. The KI, flattered to be in the Administrator’s confidence, may even begin to feel he’s running the university, as it’s his decisions that get implemented. Should something goes wrong, however, the KI will find himself chucked out on the doorstep, as the administrator parades his wisdom from the safe position of retrospect, and expresses regret for having misplaced his trust in an undeserving subordinate, who failed to keep him informed.
My observations here are, of course, satiric--though I can already sense the outraged emails pulsing their way through the ether, from the grownup versions of the earnest and literal-minded freshpersons who, no matter how many times you explain the conventions of satire, remain convinced that Jonathan Swift made Irish stew out of Irish babies. It’s just impossible for me to examine Fallon’s weasely exploitation of his subordinates’ weaknesses and trust and his pompous, self-serving pronouncements without donning satire, rather as one dons a pair of rubber gloves to clean the loo.
When, at last, the truth came out that Laura Dickinson had been murdered, and that the university had betrayed the trust of the campus community in general and Laura’s parents in particular, Fallon’s response was an unseemly attempt to pin the blame on underlings. He would have handled everything smooth as glass, if only someone had suggested to him it was a tad odd for young women to expire in their dorm rooms. According to the Butzel Long report,
Mr. Fallon said any direct or indirect evidence of foul play would have triggered him to think about the Clery Act and the need for a warning. He said if he had heard that the investigators believed homicide was probable, he would have gotten directly involved and assembled a team to determine what to tell the University community. He said he would have engaged in a careful analysis, including seeking advice from legal counsel, in deciding what to say. Mr. Fallon said he would have erred on the side of being overly cautious. He said his default position is openness and transparency in terms of disclosure of information. According to Mr. Fallon, Mr. Vick knew him well enough to know he would find a way to get information out about the case if he knew more.
On June 19, 2006, Fallon finally issued an apology—sort of:
Remarks to the Board of Regents ?June 19, 2007
Good afternoon, everyone.
One of this country’s great presidents, Harry S Truman, is remembered fondly for his Midwestern populism and plainspoken witticisms, the best known of which is “The Buck Stops Here.” Truman said, and I quote: “The President–whoever he is–has to decide. He can’t pass the buck to anybody. No one else can do the deciding for him. That’s his job.”
Ladies and gentlemen, President Truman was absolutely correct. And I, as president of Eastern Michigan University, did not, do not and will not pass the buck to anyone.
I concur with Chairman Sidlik and Regent Stapleton, who, in releasing the results of the Butzel Long report a week or so ago, stated that the University “got it wrong” in the aftermath of Ms. Laura Dickinson’s death. We did get it wrong, shamefully so.
In the 12 days since the report’s release, this administration and I have been encouraged to be silent publicly. That approach did not serve this situation well. This has given the false impression that I was indifferent to the conclusions drawn and indecisive about what my duties and obligations were.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
Today, I break this silence. And this is what I have to say:
To the Dickinson family, I say . . . my deepest sympathies again go out to you. Laura’s death was nothing short of tragic, and this University’s actions afterward compounded your pain. I am profoundly sorry for your loss.
To the EMU community, I apologize to you and say . . . never again will such a confounding series of mistakes be made on my watch. Since coming here nearly two years ago, I have undertaken an array of enormously difficult personnel and policy actions that were rooted in institutional improvement and development. And I intend to continue on this course, to redouble my efforts to build trust and to position human respect as the foundation for all of our work together.
Finally, to the community at large, I say . . . members of this University are working hard to create a university that is noteworthy and trustworthy. Our actions, presently and in the future, will prove that we have the determination and resolve to do what is right for all and in partnership with our community.
Mr. Chairman, that concludes my formal remarks. A copy of these words and my entire Board report, including highlights of our collective actions since we last convened, are included in your board books. The remarks also will be posted online.
Fallon’s explanation is acrobatic doubletalk, worthy of the wiggliest contortionist in the Cirque de Soleil. He constructs a perfect response that he would have expertly executed—if only Vick had dropped the slightest, most subtle hint that something about Laura’s death had not seemed right. His focus never leaves himself and his image (“This has given the false impression that I was indifferent…”). He never admits personal error. After saying he won’t pass the buck, two sentences later, he “concurs” that it’s “we” who got it wrong. Nothing, for Fallon, is ever his fault.
Fallon held high the shield of ignorance with a hypocritical gleam of virtue in his eye. Explanatory excuse having been offered, he then took the next step in the malefactor’s post-exposure playbook: he urged everyone “to move on” and forget the mistakes of yesterday. After all, he had done so. When the Ann Arbor News asked him what disciplinary action the Regents should visit on him, Fallon responded that he deserved “an admonishment fully short of a formal reprimand,” for he had been just “part of the machinery” responsible for the mishandling of the death—a peculiarly passive and mechanistic image for a self-styled leader. Most people who brought such disgrace on themselves and their university would feel obliged to tender their resignation—indeed, would want to do so, it being painful to work in a place where one will be perpetually reminded one behaved badly. Fallon, however, put in for a raise, then complained to EMU’s Board of Regents Chairman Tom Sidlik when he didn’t receive a rapid, affirmative response.
It thus must have come as quite a disappointment to the self-excusing Fallon, when, in July 2007, he apparently discerned that the Regents were considering suspending him for 30 days. Fallon could have simply accepted these modest consequences, and rehabilitated his image by taking an active role in ensuring full compliance with the Clery Act. Instead, he seized the moral low ground, arrogantly certain he couldn’t possibly be deserving of admonition. He grandly informed the Regents that it had become clear to him that they planned to “berate me as harshly and publicly as possible,” which left him “no recourse but to address the issues that have plagued this campus and me personally over the past several years.” Unsurprisingly, the Regents responded to this unveiled threat by immediately canning him.
By this time, the Dickinson fiasco had made national headlines. Fallon seized the media moment, and went on The Larry King Show, where he offered a stunningly inarticulate, evasive, and offputting account of his actions:
FALLON: I -- I was not told by the vice president for student affairs because I -- I think there was some concern, sensitivity to the university's position. But I also know that there was an intent to keep this under wraps. And in fact I felt betrayed, genuinely betrayed, by the very...??
KING: Because your own people lied to you?
FALLON: My trusted vice president for Student Affairs did not tell me the truth. He knew or should have known. And there was also a point in all of this when a police incident report was to have made its way from the Department of Public Safety through his office to the university's General Counsel and it was interrupted, that path was interrupted. And the incident report was ordered shredded by the vice president for Student Affairs. ??
KING: Does he still hold that job? ??
FALLON: He does not. He was separated, shall we say, from the university, he and the director of the Department of Public Service, separated from the university, and I was fired. ??
KING: Because? ?
KING: They didn't like your story or they didn't accept it? ??
FALLON: I -- well, I'm holding here, Larry, a 114-page half a million dollar report that was commissioned by the university. And I daresay any intelligent person that would read this would come to conclude what I did, that there's a direct inverse relationship between the contents of this report and the severity of the actions, the personnel actions that were taken as a result of this. ??
KING: Why do you think they did it? ??
KING: Why did they fire you? ??
FALLON: The Board of Regents? Well, I feel betrayed by them as well.
KING: Why? ??
FALLON: Because of that very fact. And I believe that this was, in fact, a cover-up -- these are terms that are not comfortable for me. There was in fact a cover-up and there was a need for a fall guy. These are Elmore Leonard terms, these aren't John Fallon terms, and that's the way it cut. ?
A girl had been raped and murdered in her dorm room, a few days before Christmas. The university concealed the truth about her death from her parents for ten weeks, then allowed the girl’s mother to learn her child was raped and murdered from a reporter. A campus full of innocent people were never warned a murdered walked among them—and John Fallon casts himself as the victim.
VI. HELP WANTED
In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act.
While John Fallon’s failed leadership of Eastern Michigan University has garnered considerable media attention, the body ultimately responsible for the quality of executive leadership on the EMU campus is the university’s Board of Regents. The Board has seen four presidents come and go in ten years, two of whom departed in the midst of a scandal. In the shadow of Fallon’s errors, the Board has largely escaped media scrutiny, a situation which, in light of John Fallon’s suit, is likely to change.
The seven-member Board has itself also endured unusually high turnover. In December, 2006, one member left the Board when his term expired; three other members, including the then Chairman, resigned; and a member appointed in January, 2007 departed in August, 2007, upon receiving a distinguished gubernatorial appointment. The Board of Regents that fired Fallon in July, 2007 thus bore little resemblance to that which had hired him in July, 2005.
While it is an honor to serve on a Board of Regents, it’s also a volunteer position that pays nothing, and can prove costly in terms of time, money, and spirit. Board members are typically expected to make significant financial contributions to university projects, and to secure generous donations from others. They must explain to the public controversial positions the university feels duty-bound to adopt, and make sometimes difficult personnel and budgetary decisions. They are responsible for oversight of the president, and thus, by extension, of the entire university.
Such duties, those who accept the honor agree to assume. No one, however, agrees to membership on a university’s governing board with the expectation of being faced with the nightmarish series of revelations that were dropped on them week after week, staring in their second month of service: the revelation that a horrific crime had occurred on campus; that upper-level administrators, including the head of campus police, had concealed the truth about the crime, even from the murder victim’s parents; that they had spread lies about campus safety, and that a significant number of other EMU employees passively or actively assisted in the sustaining the deception. They would also learn that the terrible crime was committed not by an intruder on the campus, but by an EMU student, a student who, despite a singularly troubled campus history, had been given permission to re-enroll, which might compound already significant liability issues. The Board would also learn that the university would be the subject of a federal investigation for Clery Act violations, which could result in substantial fines, and which certainly would result in a world of bad publicity.
The university president appears not to have been a great deal of help to the Board, in managing the crisis his incuriosity helped precipitate. Back on December 19th, when the Ann Arbor News reported that the Washentaw County Medical Examiner had found “some suggestion” of violence to Laura’s body, Fallon had responded he wasn’t aware of this, but would make sure the truth was brought to light. He did not do so. Instead of conducting himself like a leader, taking responsibility for having not been more fully engaged and taking charge, the president seemed to focus on rationalizing his failure and making excuses for his inaction, telling anyone who’d listen that he knew nothing about the murder of an EMU student on EMU property by, allegedly, another EMU student, a murder scene discovered by EMU employees, investigated by EMU’s police chief, and over whose investigated EMU police had jurisdiction.
All this was dumped in their laps, before they had served on the Board three months. While they might perhaps have been more forthcoming about Orange Taylor, and while they should have fired Fallon the day after they received the Butzel-Long Report, these folks deserve to be cut a little slack. When the Eastern Michigan University Board of Regents convened in January 2007, three of the seven members were new to the Board. A fourth had served on the EMU Board of Regents previously, but had rotated off for several years. The Board also had new leadership, with Tom Sidlik assuming the Chair’s position. Though appointed only in 2004, Board turnover had propelled Sidlik into the position of a senior member.
It is a commonplace of group dynamics that it takes a few meetings for the members of a committee to get a sense of each other and work together smoothly. This Board, however, never had that luxury. They were pretty much a group of strangers when, in February, the truth started coming out. Given the seemingly endless and awful problems with which they were faced and the public scrutiny that would come with every decision, no one would have blamed any of them for jumping ship. Instead, to their credit, they stayed the course. They were neither passive nor precipitous in their response. It would have been immensely unwise to undergo a federal investigation without having your own investigation done, by an external body you could trust to undertake an warts-and-all assessment of the university’s handling of the death of Laura Dickinson. What is especially impressive, is that when that report turned out to be 568 pages of warts-and-more-warts, they didn’t post a summary or a few excerpts, which most Boards would have done, but the entire, unflattering document, apparently on the very day they received it. This decision was the right thing to do, and the smart thing to do, as the report would otherwise almost certainly have leaked out in bits and pieces, merely prolonging the pain and embarrassment. This was a courageous move, given the institution’s history of problems concerning transparency.
The grace and genuineness of Tom Sidlik’s accompanying statement of apology, contrast sharply, with Fallon’s flip and self-serving “buck stops here” pseudo-apology:
June 8, 2007
From the EMU Board of Regents regarding the Butzel Long report
A message from Board Chair, Thomas Sidlik
This morning, the law firm of Butzel Long provided the Board of Regents with an oral and written report of its investigation in the University's actions following the death of EMU student Laura Dickinson. . . .
The Board committed to a thorough, forthright and open process regarding this investigation. This afternoon, we are sharing the final report with our campus community and the general public. . . .
The report reveals a systemic failure to comply with the federal Clery Act, including the failure to warn the campus of potential danger. The findings are clear: This University got it wrong. What happened was unacceptable.
We know that many members in our community felt a breach of trust and deep anxiety because of the University's failures. On behalf of the Board, I apologize and pledge that the safety of our students, and the well-being of the entire campus community, is of paramount importance.
The report also shows us that the University has already taken steps to correct what went wrong. Several initiatives are now underway to respond more effectively in emergencies and report crimes more accurately. But there will be much more work to do in the days ahead.
This detailed report will guide us as we decide what actions we must take to improve campus safety and security. We will make the changes necessary to better inform and protect our community. . . .
Thomas Sidlik,?Chairman of the Board of Regents
The Board of Regents now faces almost an even greater challenge: finding a new president who reflects their commitment to transparency and to accountability. They need to give that president the means to fire, suspend, demote, or buy out every employee at every level, who betrayed the public trust.
Finding such a candidate in academe is nearly impossible, given the peculiar nature of university hiring. From the level of department chair up, hiring rests in the hands of those whom the person will supervise. This incentivizes the elimination of talent and the promotion of the mediocrity—especially mediocrities not apt to be scrupulous about accountability. It is the rare search committee that seeks candidates who will make their job more demanding. Governing Boards, too, tend to select compliant administrators, the sort who’ve never rocked any boat, who’ll keep the apples, however rotten, tidily arranged atop the apple cart.
It has been observed that Fallon never was involved in any controversies on the campuses where he had served; while this may seem like a positive sign, it is, I think much the contrary. A university needs a leader of sufficient principle that he has a hill or two he’s willing to die on. It is the leader who is too opportunistic or too timid to take a controversial stand that puts an institution in real jeopardy.
Could one imagine Fallon taking a bold, principled stand, as Colorado State University System President Hank Brown did, in not only firing Ward Churchill but also posting an announcement he’d done so in the Wall Street Journal? Is Fallon capable of the clarity and decisiveness reflected in Brown’s use of language?:
If you are a responsible faculty member, you don’t falsify research, you don’t plagiarize the work of others, you don’t fabricate historical events and you don’t thumb your nose at the standards of the profession. More than 20 of Mr. Churchill’s faculty peers from Colorado and other universities found that he committed those acts. That’s what got him fired.
--Hank Brown, “Why I Fired Professor Churchill,” Wall Street Journal, July 26, 2007, p. A13
Let us allow Fallon’s own words to reveal the man. Fallon has unusually few publications, for an academic. Other than university memoranda and speeches, the only piece of his prose I found is the following excerpt is from the “Presidents’ Public Diaries” section of the Journal of College and Character, sponsored by the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators: http://collegevalues.org/diaries.cfm?id=1207&a=1 Although the entry still appears, Fallon’s name has been removed from the index.
Fallon’s prose is painful to read, a pastiche of Eduspeak and Management jargon. It’s the kind of prose that makes you understand why William Faulkner kept a bottle of Jack Daniels in his desk when he taught English at Ole Miss.
The topic to which contributors were to respond was “how colleges and universities influence, both intentionally and unintentionally, the moral and civic learning and behaviors of college students.” Fallon’s response does not address the question, but presents a sort of credo.
My thinking and behavior are grounded, fully and consistently, in 10 general perspectives and values. These can be discerned in my style and substance, in how I act and how I can be expected to act. When people ask, ‘What makes John Fallon tick?’ I tell them that:
1. I abhor arrogance, pretense and all other vestiges of human superiority
4. I believe that interpersonal trust is simultaneously the most important and most elusive element of human relations.
7. I believe that active listening is the most important element in interpersonal communication.
9. I believe that people are gifts from above and their precious basic nature both requires and deserves unrelenting respect.
[ from his “perspectives on the academy’]
12. I believe that there is no truly effective leadership without engaged, active, informed, responsible, and accountable followership.
6. I believe that, in street-level, day-to-day practice, successful leadership is rooted in laser focus, strong determination and, perhaps most importantly, personal humility.
7. I believe that, in the same way that necessity is the mother of invention, clear and abiding accountability is the precondition for strong performance.
8. I believe that things work best, both in the academy and generally, when everything is on top of the table.
9. I believe that the effectiveness of a university president, increasingly, is related directly to his/her ability to establish and manage effectively a complex array of institutional, professional, and personal relationships.
10. I personally am neither effective at nor interested in work that is intended to preserve the status quo. I am, by basic nature, impatient, competitive, focused, determined, and inclined to be biased toward action.
[I]it is clear to me, crystal clear, that taking time to think and to benchmark decisions against my ethical and value compass, is every bit as critical to my presidency as is any other skill in my leadership portfolio. Indeed, it’s who I am.
It is, indeed. And therein lies the problem.
For a man who instituted a policy of secrecy, obfuscation, and evasion of responsibility, these are remarkably amusing observations. He should be embarrassed to read these quotations today—but one suspects Mr. Fallon is incapable of embarrassment, under any conditions.