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Dental Pain at Marquette

December 6, 2005

A sophomore whose blog described classmates and professors in derogatory language and bragged about his drinking exploits was suspended Friday by Marquette University. Growing numbers of faculty members say administrators overstepped their bounds and should immediately reinstate the student.  

One day, the 22-year-old reported being "full and buzzin' a little bit from the booze" -- one of several blog entries involving his experiences with alcohol. 

A few months later, he labeled an anonymous professor a "cockmaster of a teacher" because he didn't like his teaching style. "I don't even gratify him by calling him a professor," said the student. "He is one who teaches, as in should teach infants and children."

And in one entry, the dentistry student wrote about his classmates, "I don't know how I am gonna manage [being with] the same 80 people for the next 3 years, especially when 20 of them have the intellect/maturity of a 3 year old, or are just a plain pain in the ass."

The student, ranked 11th out of 82 students as of last semester, has made the dean's list at the undergraduate dental school at least two times. Until his suspension, he participated in a dual degree program with the University of Rochester. One professor Monday called him "one of our best and brightest students."

Upon learning about the blog from one of the student's classmates, the dental school's associate dean for academic affairs, Denis Lynch, gave the student a letter, dated November 2, indicating that he "may have a problem with binge drinking" and calling the student's writings "crude, demeaning and unprofessional."

Lynch gave the student an opportunity to sign an "admission of guilt" and to waive a hearing of the Student-Faculty Review Committee, which he declined. His punishment would have included academic probation for the rest of his time at Marquette, a public apology to his class, and counseling for "both your alcohol abuse and the underlying basis of your remarks posted on your blog site."

The student deleted his blog but did not consent to the punishments. He and his parents hired a lawyer to help defend him in front of the Student-Faculty Review Committee, which includes five faculty members and the presidents of the dental school's four classes.

On Friday, the committee found the student guilty of professional misconduct in violation of the dental school's Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct. Section IV, Subsection E of the code in the school's handbook states: "Each member of the MUSoD community is obligated to conduct interactions with each other, with patients and with others in a manner that promotes understanding and trust. Actions, which in any way discriminate against or favor any group or are harassing in nature, are condemned. Respect for the diverse members of the MUSoD student body, administrators, faculty, staff and patient base is expected."

The committee's decision states, in part: "You are suspended from the School of Dentistry, effective immediately. You will remain suspended from the School of Dentistry until the 2006 Fall Semester.  At that time, [you] will be allowed to resume your matriculation and will be required to repeat the second year of the predoctoral program in its entirety."

It also requires that the student remain on probation until graduation, get counseling for "behavioral issues," and make a public apology to his class by the end of the fall semester. "That apology must explicitly state your contrition for the crude, demeaning and unprofessional remarks posted by you on your blog site and an admission that you violated the School of Dentistry's Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct," according to the committee's decision. In addition, the punishment indicates that the student must repay the university a scholarship he received of $5,000. 

The student's lawyer, Scott Taylor, a graduate of Marquette's law school, said Monday that his client was "not comfortable" speaking with reporters at this time "because the administration has construed his comments as being critical, and he's being punished for that." Inside Higher Ed decided not to reveal the student's identity.

Taylor said Monday that Lynch seemed intent on embarrassing the student while questioning him at the hearing. Taylor said that Lynch asked whether the student's parents were proud of him, and whether he would teach his younger brother or sister how to create such a blog. The lawyer was not allowed to speak at the hearing, and said "it was a daunting task for a 22-year-old who has never been through this kind of inquiry to have to defend himself."

Said Taylor, "It would be like me trying to perform a root canal," noting that administrators did not allow the student to call six of his seven witnesses to his defense.

"The notion of due process at a private university is extremely limited, which is not to say it's right or moral or fair," he said.

On Monday, Lynch said he would not comment on this matter.

An official statement from the university said, in part: "Marquette respects the confidentiality of all those involved in the student conduct process which is subject to federal laws regarding educational privacy."

Some Marquette professors have labeled the punishment "abusive," "a travesty" and "unethical."  

Kevin Siebenlist, a biomedical professor, testified at the hearing that the student's blog entries were no more egregious than words said to his face by students.  He called the blog "crude," but asked, "Why should I care?"

John McAdams, a professor of political science, wrote on his Web site Sunday that the code the student was charged with violating is "so absurdly vague that is could be stretched to cover about any kind of uncivil behavior, but it must be stretched to the breaking point to apply to comments directed against unnamed individuals on a blog."

"Increasingly, students have blogs, and students in high pressure professional schools often 'blow off steam' by posting about their experiences," he wrote. "Anybody with any 'blog sophistication' won't take statements on student blogs very seriously."

McAdams said that Marquette "encourages students to post public comments about their professors" through an online posting board called "DogEars" that can be accessed via a link from the student government Web page. He said that the link can only be interpreted as Marquette encouraging students to go to the site and review their professors.

Daniel D'Angelo, the Marquette Dental School's ethicist, said Monday, "I did not feel what the student had done had risen to violating the ethical codes.  The punishment was unduly harsh, and I can't support the decision of the committee."

D'Angelo noted that he played no part in the defense of the student. "I've been very surprised by this," he said. "It's a blog. It is what it is."

Marquette's general counsel informed Taylor Monday that the student can attend classes until an appeal to William Lobb, the dental school's dean, is resolved. Initial appeal forms were filed Monday, and will be supplemented on Friday after the student and his lawyer have had an opportunity to review the full transcript of the committee hearing.

 

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