In April, Columbia College Chicago became something of a hero to those who care about artistic and academic freedom when officials there defended a campus museum exhibit that included work highly critical of President Bush -- and one work that attracted the attention of the U.S. Secret Service.
The defense was very much in keeping with the college's reputation as a cutting-edge arts institution where dissent is valued. But perhaps not all forms of dissent are equally valued.
Many faculty members and students are angry over the firing last month of one of the creators of Wacky Warrick, a Web site devoted to animated cartoons that mock Warrick L. Carter, the college's president. The president's character in some of the features on the Web site can be seen shirtless or in a bathrobe, enjoying the presidential home, and generally making light of student concerns about tuition costs or spending priorities at the college. The Web site also pokes fun at missteps by the president, such as the time in 2001 when he accidentally sent an e-mail with details about his personal finances -- intended for a bank -- to all students and faculty members.
The Web site -- extremely popular with Columbia students -- was produced anonymously. But college officials fired one of the creators, Mark Phillips, shortly after identifying him, apparently as a result of a midnight raid on the laboratory where he works for Zafra M. Lerman, an award-winning scientist and human-rights activist. Security is high in her laboratory because it contains not only chemicals but records related to her work on behalf of scientists facing government repression abroad. She said that the college never should have turned off security to try to hunt down the site's creator.
Lerman actually isn't a fan of the Wacky Warrick Web site. She said that she tells everyone who works for her that if they want to criticize anything or anyone to do so openly -- and she'll back them up. But she said that she also tells people that if they want to do things anonymously, they should do so on their own time and with their own computers. And since she said that Phillips and his colleagues, who still have not been identified, didn't use the college's facilities, it was not the college's business to seek them out to fire them.
"This was a violation of rights -- both civil rights and human rights -- of my rights, my students' rights and my fellow faculty's rights," she said. Lerman said that for a true security threat, she would not object to campus officials coming to her lab at any hour -- with or without her advance knowledge. But to investigate a Web site mocking the president? She said it was "really appalling that the college ignored me completely and disrespected my lab."
Many faculty members agree and a committee is being created to study the issue. The firing took place shortly before Christmas vacation and the issue is now getting renewed attention because of articles this week in the student newspaper and in the Chicago Reader.
Mark Lloyd, a spokesman for the college, said that Columbia is in a difficult position because state law bars the institution -- as an employer -- from discussing why someone was dismissed, even if "factual errors" are being quoted about the event. However, he added that "generally speaking, it's our position that this is not an issue of free speech, but really a personnel issue and the institution not only has an obligation to act to insure that its equipment and facilities are used appropriately with the mission of the institution, but it has an obligation to act when there is an abuse of the college's resources that may involve harassment or the demeaning of individuals."
Asked if all Columbia employees who use their college computers for non-college work face investigations, Lloyd said, "We do not routinely inspect people's e-mails or computers or anything else if there is not reasonable grounds for misuse."
And Lloyd rejected the allegation that the college's actions in any way violated freedom of expression. He noted that the college has taken no action to try to shut the Web site down. As for the general impression given by the controversial Web site -- that the president is out of touch with students -- Lloyd said that Carter has emphasized the need for the institution to be "student centered," leading an effort to greatly expand the number of scholarships that are available for students and to plan for a student center.
The presidential home that is the focus of much of the satire was purchased by the college prior to Carter's arrival, Lloyd said.
Phillips, who graduated from the college last spring with a degree in film and video and was then hired by Lerman, said that his colleagues on the Web site include current and former students and alumni. He said that the Web site grew out of their frustrations at the college (frustrations that he said are with administrators, not faculty members). And he said that the criticisms made on the Web site "are all things that have been talked about on campus."
As for the idea that college resources were used, Phillips said, "we're very proud that we used our own computers." Currently, Phillips is looking for work. He also asked why the college considers criticism of President Bush to be protected, but not criticism of the college's own president.
Some students at Columbia are looking for middle ground -- by criticizing the Web site and the college administration. In a column called "Wackygate" in the Columbia Chronicle, the student paper, Jeff Danna criticized the creators of the site for "anonymously taking jabs" at the president -- rather than offering ideas on how to improve the college. But Danna also said that many students related to the criticisms on the Web site and that Phillips and his colleagues deserved to be listened to, not fired.
"The college community should be applauding Phillips and his still-anonymous colleagues. This is what students at Columbia are trained to do -- take the skills they acquired in their courses and use them to do work that they believe is meaningful," he wrote. "Phillips also tried to demonstrate with Wacky Warrick that he is a risk-taker willing to question authority and not sit idle while his superiors act in a manner that he sees as unscrupulous. Yes, his method might have been misguided ... but the fact that he used his talents to attempt to bring about a large scale change is noble."