Fallout from the Boston Marathon bombings

Richard Larschan explains how events at his university arising from the bombings led to his long-resisted retirement

November 7, 2013

My characteristically flippant reply - that this cat was already so far out of the bag it was doing somersaults in the air - was not well received

I suppose I should be grateful not to be facing jail time like Chelsea (formerly Bradley)Manning. My only “punishment” was finally yielding to retirement, when I had imagined I would be wheeled out on a gurney.

After 41 years in the English faculty at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, it had become evident that my retrograde approach to teaching did not fit today’s technology-driven paradigm: referring to the tip of a dry-erase marker as my “power point” was meeting with ever-increasing student scepticism.

The near-daily administrative memos announcing the appointment of yet another assistant or associate chancellor had further weakened my attachment to the place, as did the cheerleading from the university’s newly appointed head. Add to that my thwarted efforts to promote higher admissions standards and tighten procedures for expelling underperforming students, and my alienation was near-complete.

Nevertheless, even at the age of 70 I would have felt bad about abandoning dedicated colleagues and those students whose commitment equalled my own. That is, until the bombs went off.

On the morning of Friday 19 April 2013, a message was broadcast on the university’s emergency information system stating that classes had been cancelled because of the Boston Marathon bombing four days earlier. Since UMass Dartmouth is more than 60 miles from where the house-to-house search for the surviving alleged perpetrator had been taking place, the shutdown initially seemed incomprehensible. But then I read that day’s New York Times, in which there was an article reporting that a Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was enrolled at UMass Dartmouth and the FBI was conducting a campus-wide search for explosives.

Naturally, the university had to be evacuated (for three days, in the end) and many of the 5,000 residential students were moved into motels at the university’s expense.

The New York Times also revealed that, according to Tsarnaev’s academic transcript (record of progress), he was failing many of his classes. “The transcript shows him receiving seven failing grades over three semesters, including Fs in Principles of Modern Chemistry, Intro to American Politics and Chemistry and the Environment. According to the transcript, Dzhokhar received a B in Critical Writing and a D and D-plus in two other courses,” the paper reported.

The 3 August 2013 issue of Rolling Stone magazine, notorious for its use of a cover photo of Tsarnaev looking like a young rock star, subsequently quoted a tweet the supposed bomber sent in November 2011: “Using my high-school essays for my English class #itsthateasy.” Rolling Stone, which was removed from the campus bookshop, also referred to UMass Dartmouth as “a middling school an hour and a half south of Boston” and quoted a student who said: “It’s, like, the most depressing campus I’ve ever seen.”

I did not expect to be able to access Tsarnaev’s academic record after reading the New York Times article, but when I tried, lo and behold, there it was – once again confirming my career-long failure to get administrators to apply the “academic dismissal” criteria as they are specified in the academic regulations and procedures.

These procedures were stated in the university’s 2012-13 undergraduate catalogue as follows: “Students whose cumulative GPA [grade point average] is below 2.0 [on a scale of 0-4] for a second consecutive semester without meeting criteria for extended probation are dismissed from the university.” If ever there were just cause for expulsion, surely Tsarnaev’s academic record had satisfied those criteria – even discounting the reputation that Rolling Stone claims he had for dealing marijuana.

It was with this thought in mind that I set about informing my closest colleagues and family about what I saw as an egregious instance of expediency before integrity.

It seemed to me that either the university’s authorities had been asleep at the wheel or that Tsarnaev’s tuition payments had been considered more important than his academic prowess – although it subsequently emerged that his tuition payments were in arrears by more than $20,000 (£12,500).

Although I would indeed have been tempted to contact the press, someone (still unidentified today) had obviously beaten me to it. However, instead of simply forwarding the newspaper article to colleagues and family, I copied the transcript. This was to prove a costly mistake. Unwittingly, I had violated the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (known as Ferpa), of which I knew nothing until a memorandum from the interim dean of arts and sciences was circulated among faculty the day after the newspaper report appeared (20 April).

University campus and Rolling Stone cover

In that memo, we were informed that UMass Dartmouth was “bound by Ferpa guidelines” and that “faculty and staff may access student personal and academic information only for university business”. The memo also warned that “viewing or disseminating student information for purposes other than valid university business is a violation of state law and of university policy and may have consequences”.

The Ferpa law prohibits even fee-paying parents from accessing their offspring’s academic records without their written permission except in certain specific circumstances, such as a “health and safety emergency”. The idea that Tsarnaev, by then lying in hospital with a bullet wound to his neck, would sue for violation of his Ferpa rights seemed improbable at best, but the administration made a great show of protecting his academic transcript even after the New York Times had already published it.

My characteristically flippant reply to the dean’s warning – that this cat was already so far out of the bag it was doing somersaults in the air – was not well received. I was well practised at goading the administration: most recently in an article for the student newspaper, in which I had suggested one obvious way to begin addressing the university’s latest fiscal crisis would be to reduce the number of administrators – a serious point, but one that went unheeded.

I was also on record as strongly opposing the university’s acquisition of what an article in The Boston Globe euphemistically termed “a struggling law school”. The Southern New England School of Law was not fully accredited by the American Bar Association, and the US is, in any case, already awash with lawyers. I can’t presume to know the politics behind its acquisition, but it seemed to me obvious that there would be a deleterious effect on funding for undergraduate programmes – and I was not afraid to say so in public. I was equally outspoken about funding for outreach programmes.

In a letter to me dated 21 April 2013, the then interim provost, UMass Dartmouth’s chief academic official, wrote: “You are being placed on paid administrative leave for violation of the Ferpa law, state privacy law, and university policy. We have clear evidence that you disseminated confidential student information to multiple off-campus entities.” I was furthermore directed to “not return to campus until instructed to do so by either your dean or the office of human resources” and told that “you are not to be in contact with students in any way”. The same instructions were left in a recorded message on my home answering machine.

My initial reaction was concern that my students would be left in the lurch a week before the end of the semester. I also knew that when a man of my age suddenly fails to show up for work, the immediate assumption is that something even more terminal than paid administrative leave has befallen him. But supportive colleagues took over as best they could and delivered Mark Twain’s assurance that rumours of my death had been greatly exaggerated.

I was curious to see who else would be censured – particularly the source of the leak to The New York Times. But absolutely nothing happened. Moreover, it occurred to me that while prohibiting someone from marking scripts is not a violation of the 8th Amendment of the US Constitution (which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment), leaving a legal statement on answering machines was potentially a violation of my privacy rights.

More problems followed. On 22 April, the acting dean circulated a memorandum to my department colleagues informing them that I had been placed on paid administrative leave for violation of the Ferpa law, thereby feeding a rumour that I was the New York Times’ informant. One colleague told me she that had assumed I’d sold Tsarnaev’s transcript and, hence, was surprised to see me still driving my 2006 Honda rather than a brand new Lexus.

More positively, I also began to receive dozens of heartfelt emails from students. The most touching of all read: “I’m not sure what is going on and why you are not in class at the moment, but I can assume it has something to do with the bomber. If you did something that screwed the bomber over in any way, I’m sorry you got into trouble, but I do not blame you. That son of a bitch killed a friend of mine, and if I had a way of making his life miserable, I would have done it.” Besides being unaccustomed to such adulation from students (I was far from universally loved), it was embarrassing to be considered a hero when I’d done nothing to deserve it.

An article in The Boston Globe a short time after these events reported that UMass Dartmouth’s administrators had identified unspecified procedures that “need improvement” and had appointed an “independent task force to examine policies”. The university has since obliged all staff to take a “test” on Ferpa. I consider these moves to be at least something of a vindication of my position, however small.

A generous retirement package had been on the table for some time, and a number of my friends urged me to consider it in order to get my suspension voided. I knew I would miss what I’d been doing, one way or another, since 1949, when a primary school teacher told my parents: “Richard lacks self-control” (not referring to incontinence, either then or now). And I was always grateful to be paid for doing what I loved – challenging and being challenged by thoughtful students. But, in the midst of discussing with an attorney my intention to challenge my suspension, I experienced an epiphany. If history’s most renowned teacher-gadfly, Socrates, was willing to drink bitter hemlock rather than recant, who was I to refuse the sweet ambrosia I was being offered?

And so, reader, I accepted.

‘Thorough and reasonable’: the administration’s view

John Hoey explains the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth’s policy on releasing information on students

Federal law prevents me from commenting on a student’s academic or financial record, although I can say that we have no record of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev being engaged in any criminal activity before April 2013.

I would also note that an independent task force set up to examine policies, chaired by the president of Montana State University, concluded that “for the 2013-14 academic year, UMass Dartmouth implemented changes to its academic sanctions procedures to ensure that students with poor academic performance are dismissed after two semesters rather than three or four semesters under the previous procedures”.

While it is true that the 2012-13 regulations also stipulated two semesters, there was provision for “extended” probation. Our new policy tightens up that language considerably and more clearly communicates the standards, as the task force recommended.

The task force also indicated that our policies relating to academic and financial standing are “thorough and reasonable”. We do dismiss students for poor performance, and both the grade point averages and standardised test scores of our students have been on the increase over the past decade. The vast majority of faculty members will attest to the hard work our students put in to achieve their goals – even while paying to put themselves through college, raising families and collectively delivering 200,000 hours of service to the community annually.

The university will not comment on any individual personnel action. I am unaware of any significant concerns raised by faculty members or their union representatives related to any university actions taken in relation to the Boston Marathon tragedy. In fact, I believe there is a strong consensus among administration, faculty, staff and students that the entire management of all events related to the marathon were handled very well by all.

We would be concerned, and take very seriously, any unauthorised release of student information, especially to individuals who have no professional relationship with the university, and we will take the steps necessary to discourage such release of information.

I do not recall Professor Larschan playing any significant role in the vigorous public debate around our efforts to establish the first public, affordable law school in Massachusetts. Since its inception in 2010, the school has been meeting expectations and is on track to become nationally accredited.

John Hoey is chief of staff and assistant chancellor for public affairs, University of Massachusetts Dartmouth.

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