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News, notes, and observations from the James River Valley in northern South Dakota with special attention to reviewing the performance of the media--old and new. E-Mail to

Tuesday, August 31, 2021

Some mysteries are never solved.

The janitor for Seymour Hall, where my office was located before I retired from Northern State University, came to work during the dark Monday morning hours on Nov. 1, 2004,  (5 years after I retired) and found the body of a young professor of German at the doorway.  There was a gunshot wound in the back of his head.  The weapon was found in a dumpster in the parking lot 40 feet away.  The coroner called the death a homicide.  After a year and a half of haggling among officials, the police declared it a suicide.  This declaration was made after some kind of expert organization was called in to examine the case.  The report of that organization on which the decision was based was withheld from the public.  

I had been introduced to the professor, Morgan Lewis, a few weeks before his death by a former colleague.  Lewis was looking for information from a professional organization in which I was active and wished  to set up an appointment to discuss it.  Lewis not only taught at Northern State University, but at Aberdeen Central High School, where he had my son in class, and at a Hutterite colony.  However, the appointment was never arranged before Prof. Lewis' death.  I had no idea what he wished to talk about, but he indicated that his interest was with the organization which had provided legal assistance to me when I was involved in collective bargaining for the faculty.

Even though the death was eventually and officially declared a suicide, many people in the community had reservations about the declaration.   A partner of Dr. Lewis was the beneficiary of a life insurance policy Lewis had.  Such policies do not pay when the subject of the policy commits suicide.  The partner went to court over the policy, and people thought the trial would reveal facts about the death.  But the partner and the insurance company reached a settlement out of court.  So, there was no information about the settlement and no further information about the death and the investigation of it.

Ten years after Lewis' death, the local newspaper interviewed professors and law enforcement personnel who had worked the case in a review of it.  The story revealed no information that had not been reported before.  But it renewed discussions about the case and reminded me of some talks I had with a newspaper reporter about it and how troubled he was about its handling.  There was never a coherent presentation of the evidence which explained the dismissal of the case as a suicide nor any attempt to reconcile conflicting testimony.  The reporter was particularly agitated that another professor was apparently present in his office in the building at the time of the incident and was not interviewed in a timely manner.  Our discussions were largely about South Dakota's terrible laws that allow government officials to control and withhold information that the public has a right to know in most other states.  We commiserated over the handling of the case in that regard.

The doorway at which Lewis' body was found was one I went through multiple times a day as I went back and forth from my office.  The building became, to me and some others associated with the campus, a kind of memorial to the tragedy which remained unsettled.  Seymour Hall was eventually demolished to provide space for a new dormitory, so the setting and landmark is no longer present to serve as a reminder of the death that took place there.  People on campus and in the community observed that the college and the investigators seemed anxious to eliminate any reminder of such a woeful event.  However, questions remain unanswered and unsettling, as the story on the 10-year anniversary demonstrated.  

The main unanswered question was not about how Prof. Lewis died, but why the authorities did not report the information on which they based their decision.   Some journalists and teachers of journalism and government participated in a study and found that South Dakota law is restrictive about open records and in comparison with other states gives government officials almost total discretion over what records will be made public. They advocated that South Dakota adopt a freedom of information law.

In 2009. the legislature did revise its public records law, but the revision amounted to a shuffling around, not an expansion of public access to information.  Nothing changed that would provide information on how or why Morgan Lewis' death was determined to be a suicide.  Law enforcement agencies were still protected from disclosing information that reflects their competence and feasance.  The law specifically exempts:

(5) Records developed or received by law enforcement agencies and other public bodies charged with duties of investigation or examination of persons, institutions, or businesses, if the records constitute a part of the examination, investigation, intelligence information, citizen complaints or inquiries, informant identification, or strategic or tactical information used in law enforcement training. 

In Illinois, where I worked as a journalist, the law gives law enforcement the power to withhold a record only if a case is pending and has restrictions which are quite different:

An agency may not deny access to records on grounds that they contain confidential or non-disclosable information; the agency must delete the confidential and non-disclosable information and disclose the remainder of the record.

As far as the South Dakota public is concerned in the Morgan Lewis case, they cannot have the information to resolve the case in their minds.  That's the law.  

The Morgan Lewis case sets a precedent for nondisclosure of information at Northern State.  The real mystery is why authorities choose to keep some facts a secret.  What are they hiding?  

A pall lingers over the Northern campus, but not from a death this time.

The most recent unexplained incidents are the departure of the president and some other officials at Northern.   The head of the Northern Foundation had scheduled his retirement for April 16.  That day another announcement was issued that the president of the university resigned and was departing immediately, which signaled unsettling circumstances.  Since then, the director of athletics also left.   The three men were involved in the fundraising which has raised $110 million to build seven new facilities on the campus.  And most people know that when a person suddenly resigns from a job, it's because they were given the choice to resign or be fired.  A newspaper report gave this account of the president's firing:

Lawmakers drafted a letter accusing [NSU President] Downs of fostering a woke community that suppressed other viewpoints. The letter demanded Downs put an end to the program or resign. It was being circulated among lawmakers for signatures on April 16 when the Board of Regents issued a release saying Downs was resigning “to pursue a new opportunity in higher education.”

 Downs had implemented measures for diversity on the campus.  This context for his resignation strongly suggests it was the result of a political intrusion into the college.  If that is the case, the college's claims as an equal opportunity campus and its academic accreditation are jeopardized.  The intrusion is a violation of academic freedom,  " the ability of teachers, students, and educational institutions to pursue knowledge without unreasonable political or government interference."

Institutions which do not meet the standards of academic freedom as unanimously proclaimed in their statements of purpose and integrity are publicly censured by academic organizations.  Northern was on the censure list of the American Association of University Professors for 22 years for firing a professor suddenly without due process.  The University of Iowa, my alma mater, was on the list for two years recently for hiring a president without appropriate consultation with the faculty.  During that time, professors registered their objections in many ways, and quite a number resigned.  Other professional organizations take note of such sanctions and provide their members with summaries of the reputation of the colleges.  Prospective faculty use the evaluations to decide if the colleges are the kinds of places where they want to work, and prospective students, their parents, and their guidance counselors refer to them to decide if it is a place worth getting a degree from.  And companies maintain lists of which colleges are reputable to recruit and hire employees from.  

When I came to Northern, some faculty were sent to represent the college at a student recruiting fair.  They were dismayed to hear some high school students refer to Northern State Junior High School.   College admissions personnel polled high school teachers and counselors about why students held Northern in such low regard.  They found that the censure and  a publication for job hunting professors which described  Northern as an "undesirable place to work" because of the few doctorates on the faculty as sources of the attitude.   The college engaged in a program to change the negative perceptions of Northern.  With those efforts, the censure was removed from the college and placed  on the Board of Regents, who eventually came to an agreement with the AAUP for its removal. College officials and faculty reviewed curriculum and policies to address the perception of Northern as an extension of secondary school and took measures  to establish it as a full-fledged institution of higher education.  Admission counselors said the effort worked, as they they saw the belittling attitudes about Northern's status as a college diminish.  The college stabilized its enrollment:  residential students went down but were more than made up for with off-campus enrollments through extension and online offerings.

The recent incidents of sudden departures by the college's leadership raise questions in the minds of alumni, emeritus professors, and the public.   The pall these questions cast over the campus is a matter of the lack of explanation for what is behind the departures.  A university is a place that searches  for and provides answers.  That's what research means.  When a university practices obfuscation, it is in direct conflict with the principles that define its function--the creation and transmission of knowledge.  

Northern was never able to breach the wall of silence about what proof there was that Morgan Lewis committed suicide.  It now seems unable to explain the abrupt departure of President Downs.  It is either incompetent in providing answers to questions of public concern or it is a willing partner to the mendacity that was exacerbated in the time of Trump.   It fails in its fundamental purpose:

the reason you go to university is to be taught, is to learn how to think more clearly, to call into question the ideas that you came with and think about whether or not they are the ideas you will always want to hold. A university education at its best is a time of confusion and questioning, a time to learn how to think clearly about the values and principles that guide one’s life."

If a university fails in its most basic purpose, it's because the participants in shared governance are not doing their jobs in enforcing the integrity and the competence of the institution.  Ultimately those jobs are the faculty's.

Sunday, August 15, 2021

The distortions of balanced news and a proof of the Critical Race Theory

A big story in South Dakota is what happened to a proposed set of curriculum standards for the teaching of social studies in the public schools.  The standards were generated by a panel of 46 educators and content specialists.  Their draft was drastically revised when it was submitted to the state Department of Education.  Those revisions include a drastic excision of content dealing with the Native American history and presence in the state.  Members of the panel have registered protests against the extent of the excisions.  The news reports, however, do not identify exactly who eliminated the Native American content recommendations.  The 46 panel members are identified in state documents. The Department of Education personnel involved are presumed to be operating under the authority of the Noem administration.

Noem has vociferously objected to the Critical Race Theory and any mention of it educational settings. She issued an executive order stating, “Critical race theory has no place in South Dakota schools.”  The theory posits that racial discrimination and oppression has shaped and been built into American organizations and their operative policies.  The excisions of Native American content from the curriculum standards by Noem's administration shows exactly how that is done.  In eliminating recognition of a group,  their history is denied.  And if a history is denied, the people who lived it are denied.

The news coverage of this act of excision, however, compounds the act of excision.  In the media's obsession with being balanced by quoting various viewpoints on the issue, it loses the central issue in a fog of verbiage.  Cable news now covers everything with panels of people who endlessly discuss what is being reported.  Instead of focusing on the events as they occur, cable news expends most of its efforts in talking about them.  Other journalistic forms have picked up this habit with the claim that they are providing balance.  As a result, news stories are filled with opinions about what has happened and  obfuscate what has happened.

That is what happened with the coverage of the social studies curriculum recommendations.  The stories carried comments by those who resented the deletions and those who justified them.  While some of the coverage did detail the excisions, those details were overshadowed by opinions about whether the Department of Education had the right to so abridge the recommendations.  That obscured the fact that materials dealing with cultural understanding of Native America were eliminated, and that the DOE's action diminished opportunities to contribute to that understanding.

The Noem administration committed the very kind of act that the Critical Race Theory hypothesizes underlies the racial discrimination in our social and government system.  And by forbidding the explanation of what the Critical Race Theory is in classrooms, the people will remain ignorant about what is going on when an example of it occurs.  

Thursday, August 12, 2021

Bad days at Northern State

I live a block away from Northern State where I taught for 20 years. (Before that I taught at Augustana in Rock Island, lll.) On campus, this time in August involves preparations for the upcoming fall term, which will begin in a couple of weeks.  Summer school ended during the first week of August, so there are two weeks or so before the start of the fall semester when no classes are in session.  The campus is a quiet place as the staff prepares for the fall influx of students.  But this year a sense of turmoil pervades the quiet.  

The quiet is actually the stunned silence left by an act of violence.  In this case, the violence is not the physical attack of one person on another.  It is the abrupt and unexplained departure of a college president.  The apparently forced resignation of Dr. Timothy Downs leaves the campus and the community with the unanswered question of just what happened. And why.

The regents moved rather quickly to replace Dr. Downs.  They hired Dr. Neal Schnoor who had been chief of staff for the president at California State at Long Beach.   The college will focus on the new academic year beginning with a new president.   But, the minds of many on and off campus will linger on the sudden departure of Dr. Downs. 

I never met Dr. Downs.  Usually emeritus faculty are invited to social functions involving the faculty and meet the college officials.  Such an occasion never occurred during Dr. Downs' tenure at Northern, so I really know nothing about him other than the fact that he served as president for about five years.  But I do know what the sudden departure of a college official signals about the stability of a college's programs and its administration.  The abrupt firing of Dr. Downs indicates there was something wrong with Dr. Downs or the regents or both.  As  the regents are politically appointed and tend to reflect the people who appoint them, the probability is that the firing of Downs was a political matter, not an academic one.  News reports state that legislators were issuing a letter to Dr. Downs to desist from a program he was working on to deal with diversity or resign.  He apparently chose the latter course of action.  The political intrusion into the administration of a university signals severe problems with academic freedom and quality.  Northern racks up another demerit for the way an academic institution conducts business. It puts the public on notice that Northern State is governed for political purposes and is not a valid academic institution that meets the standards of academic freedom.  The fact that the state passed a law in 2020 banning collective bargaining by state colleges and the firing of Dr. Downs are evidence of the totalitarian politics that govern Northern.

The one saving grace is that faculty who hold legitimate degrees will perform their jobs according to the traditions of integrity and academic freedom of their profession.  But there appears to be no pressure by the faculty to bring the  college administration in line with the generally accepted standards of academic governance.  A faculty which does not assert itself on matters of governance is complicit with administrations that regard a college as just another bureaucracy to be run for political ends.  Northern State for many years was under censure by the American Association of University Professors  for not meeting the governance standards of the profession.  It appears to qualify for censure again. 

The South Dakota regental system has been recognized as the worst in the nation.  If the reputation of Northern is to be saved, it will have to be done by the faculty.  That seems unlikely.

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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States