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Fallout From a Cover-Up

July 17, 2007

The board of Eastern Michigan University has in the last two days fired the president and accepted the resignations of two other administrators implicated in the apparent cover-up of the murder of a student by another student in December.

John Fallon, who was two years into his five-year contract as president, did not return calls. But he told The Ann Arbor News that he had been fired by letter on Sunday night, following a phone meeting of the board. “As a citizen, I am disappointed in this hastily called meeting, without any opportunity to be present or to respond,” Fallon told the paper. “I have a story to tell and I intend to tell it.”

At an emergency meeting Monday, board members said that they took action to fire Fallon on Sunday, before he had the chance to take “action that would harm the university,” the Ann Arbor paper’s blog reported. The regents declined to reveal the details.

Two other administrators involved in the crime’s investigation and cover-up, James Vick, vice president for student life, and Cindy Hall, public safety director, left under “mutual agreement,” the board's chairman, Thomas Sidlik, said at the meeting.

A committee of four administrators, led by Donald Loppnow, provost and vice president for academic affairs, will take charge until an interim president is appointed.

After Laura Dickinson, a 22-year-old undergraduate, was found dead in her dorm room on December 15, the university released a statement that said “there [was] no reason to suspect foul play,” adding that “our campus officials will remain vigilant in ensuring safety for all members of our campus community.”

But the administrators did not reveal the clues that it might have been murder -- that Dickinson had been found with a pillow covering her face, naked from the waist down – until a suspect, Eastern undergraduate Orange Amir Taylor III, was arrested on Feb. 23. His trial is scheduled for Oct. 15.

Independent investigations conducted by the U.S. Department of Education and Butzel Long, a Detroit law firm hired by the Board of Regents, both found that the university had violated the Clery Act, which has since 1989 required all colleges and universities that participate in federal financial aid programs to release information on crimes that occur on or near campus.

The Department of Education’s report, sent to Eastern Michigan on July 2, found several violations of the Clery Act and other rules on campus security. The university had failed to provide “timely warning” to the campus about Dickinson’s death and the investigation that followed, it concluded.

The report also listed “lack of administrative capacity,” “lack of a timely warning policy” and “lack of adequate policy statements” among the university’s security failings. It also noted that the university had not properly maintained its daily crime log and had failed to report required statistics on crimes that occurred on public property or off-campus facilities -- all violations of the Clery Act.

At Monday’s meeting Sidlik, the board chairman, said Eastern “must confront the problems that have lingered” since before Dickinson’s death. “This board is working cohesively together, and we are united. This board will not tolerate anyone who sabotages the educational mission of this university. These problems have overshadowed the university. It's now time to resolve these issues to move past these crises.” He also praised the university's strengths in a written statement.

S. Daniel Carter, senior vice president of Security on Campus, the group that lobbied for the passage of the Clery Act following the 1986 rape and murder of Lehigh University freshman Jeanne Clery, said the removal of all three Eastern administrators was appropriate, though it was the first time three people as senior as Fallon, Vick and Hall were forced out of their jobs for violating the act.

All three administrators did not respond to interview requests Monday.

“We’re pleased the Board of Regents has taken leadership at a time when the campus leadership couldn’t or didn’t,” Carter said, referring to the violations found by the Department of Education’s investigation. “It’s abundantly clear that there was a failure of leadership following this murder that meant three presumably very intelligent people could not perform to the satisfaction of the community or the family.”

Carter added that “it was also a violation of plain common sense” not to notify the Dickinson family of the fact that their daughter’s death was under investigation and to inform the Eastern campus that a murderer might be on the loose. “The consequences of not being open are far and away greater than not disclosing the details of a crime,” he said.

Student and faculty leaders said yesterday that they were hopeful that the university would be able to reform. Greg Jones, president of Eastern’s student government, said he is “optimistic” that the university will reform its safety practices. “Unfortunately, this situation has revealed systemic failures that should mean institutional changes,” he said. “Personnel changes are a quick fix, but they don’t get to the root of the problem, which is following the law and behaving properly.”

Howard Bunsis, president of Eastern’s chapter of the American Association of University Professors, said that he thinks the administration “will deal with the safety issues that need to be dealt with [because of] the Department of Education’s very specific and very clear guidelines” in its report. He said that classroom discussion during the spring semester was not dominated by safety concerns but rather by “the desire to deliver the best education to our students.”

But “having an administration that wasn’t being transparent and that covered up a murder” took a toll on the faculty, he said. “I hope we can all re-energize and refocus on what happens in the classrooms here. We believe Eastern’s a great place.”

 

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