The Blog That Ate a Presidency
Daniel W. Barwick tells how a discussion board helped bring down a college chief -- and contemplates the implications for other campuses.
June 14, 2006 didn't seem like a particularly noteworthy day in higher education. With many students and faculty off enjoying the early summer, the campuses were quiet and relatively deserted. But something important happened on that day, even if higher education doesn't know it yet. For the first time in history, a public college presidency ended not simply because of the president’s failure to meet expectations, but also as a direct result of her administration’s inability to adequately respond to a private blog. Although the situation unfolded on one campus, it has implications for administrators and professors at public colleges everywhere.
Uma G. Gupta’s presidency of the State University of New York College of Technology at Alfred, which ended in June, has been the subject of coverage in local and national publications, including this one. Much of the discussion on the campus and elsewhere has been about her performance on the job, a subject that is open to debate. Clearer, though, is the devastating effect of “the blog” on Gupta's presidency.
“The blog,” as it has come to be called at Alfred State, was http://asctruth.blogspot.com. (The blog later moved to a new location, asctruth.free-forums.org, which is more of an open discussion forum and no longer technically a blog.) The author of the blog is unknown, and there is no consensus on the campus about who started it. What is known is that the blog first appeared on May 13, 2005. The blogmaster, using the pseudonym "Brewster Pennybaker," attacked the president on a number of fronts, including leadership style ("Gupta tried to justify the cruel and callous way in which she has treated so many people at Alfred State"), skills ("When it comes to fund raising, the level of incompetence of Alfred State President Uma Gupta is almost beyond belief"), and even mental health. The posts were numerous, detailed, up-to-date, and generated many responses from an ever-growing readership.
The president and her cabinet appeared completely befuddled by the new technology. Ignoring the blog seemed out of the question; once the blogmaster installed a counter on the main page, it was evident that the blog had a substantial readership. Although Alfred State has only a few hundred employees, the original blog recorded over 12,000 hits in just a couple of months, and the newer version recorded almost 100,000 page views in less than a year. Using legal means to shut down the blog were considered; Alfred State administrators consulted with the central SUNY administration in Albany and got the bad news that it would be legally difficult if not impossible to shut down the blog.
The administration then turned to threats: Vice presidents told their staff members that any non-tenured employee who was caught posting to the blog would be fired. These efforts produced only howls of derision on the blog itself. The president also pressured the Faculty Senate to officially condemn the blog, but the senate refused. The cabinet then tried to squelch the blog by blaming it for low enrollment and poor fund raising, and hinted at job cuts. But use of the blog only grew.
With the blogmaster's and the bloggers' identities unknown, the president and her cabinet decided that the best policy was to trust no one, and their new isolation alienated veteran faculty leaders. Finally, numerous posts appeared on the blog that appeared to be from the president herself, even though the president claimed that she neither read nor posted to the blog. These posts grew in frequency, irrationality, and malice, and further undercut support for the president on campus.
The blog hurt the administration in two key ways: First, administrators were unable to focus on correcting the problems that led to the creation of the blog, and second, the administration’s clumsy and futile efforts to combat the blog simply compounded the anger and contempt on campus.
In June, following an investigation by the statewide University Senate, a damning report in The New York Times, shrinking enrollment, stagnant fund raising, and four months of an on-site investigation from officials at SUNY, Gupta was offered another position in the statewide system, leading an initiative to increase the number of women and minority group members in science, technology, engineering and mathematics disciplines across the university.
The blog was far from solely responsible for Gupta’s downfall; her job performance and defensiveness were enormous factors. But few people on campus dispute that the the presence of the blog helped to undermine her and provoked a set of administrative responses that contributed to her demise.
David Broad, who was fired from his position of dean of arts and sciences during Gupta's administration, says that the blog’s publication of the transcript of a “self-revelatory” speech by the president “alerted many for the first time to her egotistical presentation of self." He adds: “Consistent growth of participation and analysis of the problems created by the administration put the onus on the president to justify her autocratic behavior, which she was never able to do."
Jim Grillo, the current Faculty Senate Chair who was also fired from a top administrative position by Gupta, says that the blog gave voice to the college’s increasing ranks of untenured and part-time faculty and staff, who where “fearful to speak up,” he says. “Faculty and staff were able to watch the debate, listen to the facts, and yes, even hear some ridiculous statements,” Grillo says. “Slowly, as the truth came out, the vast majority of the campus knew we had significant problems that we had to address. I don't believe it would have happened as fast were it not for the blog."
This event has changed the political landscape for presidents and other upper-level administrators, whether they know it or not. No longer must faculty and staff make their criticisms on the open, public floor of the Faculty Senate. No longer does the summer "buy time" for administrators while the faculty scatter -- the blog kept the employees of Alfred State connected no matter where they went. No longer can administrators "control" the dissemination of information about themselves or the college -- I daresay that at several points the blog was by far the single most-used public source of information about the college, and the college had no control over the information presented on the blog or the way in which it was presented.
It is difficult to discern what Alfred State’s former administrators learned from the blog. They should have learned that the combination of electronic dissemination and motivated faculty make blogs a force to be reckoned with. They should have learned that attempts to suppress the free speech of the blog achieved nothing but instead simply made them look heavy-handed. They should have learned that the blog could have been used to their advantage because it allowed them to read faculty opinions that ordinarily would have been driven underground. The only real problem the blog presented was that it was entirely public; anyone could go to the blog site and read the half-truths, falsehoods, and occasionally even libelous comments about many people connected with the college.
Clearly what Alfred State needed (and other colleges probably need as well) is a blog that is confidential, accessible, not regulated for content, and yet not completely public. Most colleges could simply contract with a third-party provider to host such a forum, so that confidentiality is assured. The results of such a contract would be a new extension of the market place of ideas that is academe; an extension that includes the vulnerable and the fearful -- perspectives that too often go unheard.
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