Medill Dean Is Taken to Task Over Quotes

John Lavine heads the journalism school at Northwestern University.
John Lavine heads the journalism school at Northwestern University. (By Diana Bergren -- Medill School Of Journalism)
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By Kari Lydersen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 23, 2008

When David Spett, a Northwestern University journalism student, read an item by his dean, John Lavine, in an alumni magazine last spring, something didn't sit right with him. Some quotes in the article, praising a marketing and branding class, seemed oddly wooden.

"I sure felt good about this class," Lavine quoted one unnamed student. Another said anonymously, "This is the most exciting my education has been."

Spett thought the statements were strange -- "I don't hear people my age running around talking like that."

Following this instinct, Spett, 22, published a column in the Daily Northwestern earlier this month that questioned the veracity of Lavine's quotes and sparked a controversy that has shaken the student body and faculty of the Medill School of Journalism.

For his column, Spett sought out the 29 students in the class Lavine had described and, he said, asked all of them if they had made the statements in Lavine's story. All said no.

In his Feb. 11 column, Spett, now a senior, took Lavine to task for using unnamed sources for no apparent reason and asked Lavine to identify them. But Lavine did not, saying he couldn't find the students quoted to ask permission to use their names. (Lavine's office said he was unavailable to comment for this story.)

Within a few days, the Chicago Tribune and public radio picked up the story that was roiling one of the most prestigious journalism schools in the country. Several professors mentioned it in their classes. Word spread through the student body. Medill students garnered 240 faculty and student signatures on a petition expressing concern. Each new development has been catalogued through blogs, Internet mailing lists and a Facebook group called Save Journalism at Medill.

Lavine has been a divisive figure since becoming dean in 2006, largely because of his Medill 2020 plan to merge the journalism and marketing communications programs. Many students and alumni complained that the plan risks breaching the sacred wall between the two disciplines.

In defending himself from this latest barrage of criticism, Lavine characterized the alumni magazine as a public relations vehicle not subject to the usual journalistic standards, according to Spett's column. In response to the column, Lavine wrote to faculty and alumni. He provided an online link to a video and told them that the quotes in his article represented statements made by students in the video.

But 16 journalism faculty members who signed a Feb. 19 letter argued that the language in the video was different and did not even refer to the same class. They called on Lavine to produce his notes and further explain himself.

Then, on Wednesday, Lavine penned an apologetic letter to faculty and students. He said he tried in vain to find his notes, even enlisting the help of Microsoft to try to recover deleted e-mail.

"Medill faculty teach our students that journalism should be transparent," he wrote. "It is a mistake when I don't set the best example I can. Just as our faculty set high classroom standards for students learning to be journalists, as dean I should exhibit those standards."

David Protess, an investigative journalism professor well known for his involvement in helping innocent people get off death row, said he would "flunk a student who did what the dean did."

"We need to see whether the university investigates and produces a report that has teeth," said Protess, who taught a class in which Spett was a student. "Ultimately we need to determine whether these quotes were fabricated."

A statement by Alan Cubbage, vice president of university relations, said Northwestern is using established procedures to deal with the controversy, and "takes such matters seriously." Students and faculty are calling for an independent investigation.

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