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Investigative, or Yellow?
What started as an investigative journalism lecture has turned into a debate about when it’s appropriate for a professor to prove a point by discussing a student’s alleged misdeeds.
Mark Tatge handed his DePauw University students a packet of documents last week that included publicly available social media profiles of a female student and athlete at the 2,300-student private college in Indiana, and court records related to her January arrest. Tatge told the campus newspaper he used the student as an example of how to access public information because her arrest was a local breaking news story involving a peer.
The 20-year-old athlete is accused of four misdemeanors: resisting law enforcement, public intoxication, criminal mischief and illegal consumption of an alcoholic beverage. She is awaiting trial in the Putnam County Superior Court. If convicted on all counts, she could face a jail sentence and thousands in fines. The student, whom Inside Higher Ed has elected not to name because her identity is not integral to the issue at hand, was punished by her team, but is again competing. It wasn't immediately clear what that punishment was.
The student in question is not enrolled in Tatge’s course, but apparently some of her friends are and alerted her to the discussion. The student and some class members then approached administrators with concerns about whether the lecture was appropriate. A campus spokesman said that the female athlete's parents also contacted the president’s office.
University officials are “gathering facts” about the case, said Christopher Wells, a DePauw spokesman. He said there was no formal investigation. Multiple attempts by Inside Higher Ed to reach Tatge and the student in question on Wednesday were unsuccessful.
It’s clear Tatge’s use of publicly available documents was legal, Wells said, but it’s less certain whether the lecture violated a university policy against creating a hostile learning environment. Wells said it’s too soon to know whether Tatge, a visiting professor who is a former Wall Street Journal reporter and Pulitzer Prize nominee, will be disciplined. Administrators are interviewing students in the class and asking them about their thoughts on the lesson, Wells said.
Wells rejected arguments of possible academic freedom violations and said the lecture had become an issue on campus because students felt uncomfortable. He said university leaders see a distinction between an illegal and an unethical use of those documents.
“I don’t think that because public records are out there means that anything you do them is necessarily appropriate,” Wells said. “The issue is that a particular student felt uncomfortable with the kind of attention they were getting in class.”
Though Tatge didn’t return phone and e-mail messages left by Inside Higher Ed, he defended his practices in an interview with the campus newspaper. He said he chose to discuss the student's situation in order to find a topic other students were interested in.
“There's obviously decorum, and good taste and respect for one another,” he told The DePauw, “but you're going to have to push the envelope a little bit to get people to think outside the box. I think DePauw has students that want to be pushed that way."
Tatge’s only regret, he told the student reporter, is that he allowed students to keep their packets. "It's nothing to hide," he said. "But why upset someone?"
Frank LoMonte, director of the Student Press Law Center, agreed with Wells that a distinction can be drawn between a legal use of the records and a responsible use of them.
LoMonte suggested the lesson might have been equally effective -- and less emotionally charged -- had the professor selected an off-campus public figure to analyze. Still, he doesn’t think Tatge should be penalized.
“It certainly doesn’t strike me as something that should be in any way punishable,” LoMonte said.
But that doesn’t mean it was a great idea. “I completely see what the instructor was after, but I don’t want to condemn anyone who felt uncomfortable,” LoMonte said. “It certainly is legitimate for a student to question whether this crossed the line of kicking a student while she’s down.”
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