Faculty challenge Shelton to stop “chalking” discipline

A college student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison doing what college students do with chalk.
A college student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison doing what college students do with chalk.

A handful of University of Arizona faculty have taken up the cause of Jacob Miller and Evan Lisull, posting on open letter to UA President Robert N. Shelton asking him to drop “administrative action” against the two UA students who were charged with criminal damage for writing with sidewalk chalk on the UA campus last week.

The letter is posted at Chalk is Speech and is signed by eleven faculty hailing from the new School of Government and Public Policy and the departments of Gender and Women’s Studies, Geography and Development, Spanish and Portuguese and UA’s world-renowned Creative Writing Program, which, just an aside, rejected yours truly when she applied for the MFA program a couple years ago. (Not that I’m bitter or anything.)

The open letter compliments Shelton for dropping the criminal charges against the UA students, but says he’s making a further mistake by referring their cases to the Dean of Students office. The letter claims that transferring the case to DOS actually increases “the jeopardy faced by the students” for what the faculty argue is a  rightful expression of free speech.

Under the criminal system, the University would be required to present evidence and witnesses for rebuttal and would be required to meet the threshold of proving the guilt of these students “beyond a reasonable doubt.” To date, UAPD has demonstrated no evidence that even approaches this threshold. (As of yet, no evidence beyond “unnamed sources” as been presented to actually tie these students to said infractions.) We note that the standard of guilt “beyond a reasonable doubt” does not exist for those charged in a Academic Code of Conduct hearing. Instead, the Dean of Students must merely determine that “it is more likely than not that a violation of a Student Code of Conduct has occurred” (5-403 (C) 6), and the students have no right during this procedure to challenge the purported witness(es) who are said to have contacted UAPD.

The whole problem with this chalking case is that the consequence has been meted out inconsistently. Prior chalking events, i.e., social and religious clubs announcing their events in chalk, have never resulted in disciplinary action. Ergo, this appears – maybe ’tisn’t, maybe ’tis – to be a case of retribution for specific chalking. To wit: Miller and Lisull were complaining that not only the Legislature, but Shelton, is destroying the university with budget cuts and layoffs.

“It was selective,” said Roger Hartley, an associate professor in the School of Government and Public Policy and one of the eleven who signed the online open letter. “Other students have written messages in chalk on campus, be it to advertise an event in a dorm or whatever, but these students are the only ones who have been charged for what is, essentially, political speech. If they wrote on the walls, fine, give them a warning, make them clean it up, maybe even send them to the student judiciary if it was clear they violated the rules with impunity. But that isn’t clear at all.”

Lisull is a double major in poli sci and economics and kick-butt blogger who analysis data on everything from crime statistics to the uses of the Student Fee. I’m not sure if Hartley knows Lisull is a great blogger, but he did find out that Lisull was “one of ours” in the School of Government and Political Science and that was part of the reason he signed on to the open letter.

“If I can teach about free speech and law and then have one of my students arrested for political speech, I should be willing to stand up for him the way he is standing up for us at the university regarding the Legislature and the budget cuts,” he said.

This chalking issue continues to gain steam because of (wait for it …) a lack of effective communication by the administration. That ineffective communication was one of the big complaints that was raised in last week’s faculty poll. There’s a pattern here, folks.

So maybe what needs to happen is Shelton et. al, should find out exactly what happened on the days of the chalking and find out how it got so blown out of proportion. Then, hat in hand, he should admit the obvious – that mistakes were made – and stop the referral of Lisull and Miller to the Dean of Students. No other students have ever been slapped on the wrist so harshly for chalking … only the two who criticized the administration in chalk. It’s bad, bad PR for a university in desperate need of some good PR. How could Shelton turn this around? Let me offer a humble suggestion:

“Hey,” he could say, “I support free speech on a university campus as much as the next guy. I was gone when these incidents happened or it never would have gotten this far. We made some mistakes because, frankly, we’re all a little freaked out about the continual slice-and-dice procedure being demanded of us by the Legislature and, well, there’s that pesky faculty confidence issue as well. So, we’re going to start fresh and Mr. Lisull and Mr. Miller have agreed to offer free art lessons to kids on the south side for three hours this Saturday in lieu of going to see the Dean of Students. And from henceforth and forevermore, here are the rules about chalking. You can do this, this and this, but never this. If you do the latter, you will get sent to the Dean of Students. End of story. Now go back to class, you little ankle biters.”

Part of the reason Shelton needs to do this is for good will – there’s just not enough of it on campus right now. But the other reason he should do this is because Shelton needs Lisull. Stick with me.

I don’t know Miller outside of the one interview I did with him, so I can’t comment on his brainiac creds, but I’ve spent some concentrated time with Lisull. When I first met him to talk about blogging/reporting projects, I had three thoughts: 1. He must never sleep; 2. He is the poster child for why the “soft sciences” should get funding at UA because he’s evidence majors outside the College of Science also produce deep, critical thinkers, and; 3. I wonder if he’d be interested in meeting my daughter. (You know us mothers and our matchmaking.)

The guy is thoughtful, witty, energetic, polite and really, really, really intelligent. He is definitely not cut out of the typical college cloth. (For one thing, I’m pretty sure he’s a Libertarian. For another, he’s already won $10,000 in a national college blogging contest for his in-depth reporting.) He’s an out-of-the-box thinker that could be used to help save the university.

Instead of sending him to be spanked at the Dean of Students’ office; Shelton should pick his brain about possible solutions to UA’s budget problems and/or send him up to lobby the Legislature. Just an idea, but I think its one Shelton should consider.

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2 thoughts on “Faculty challenge Shelton to stop “chalking” discipline

  1. Given that criminal prosecution is off the table, Red Star favors whatever internal process will shine the most light for the public on how UA actually works. Isn’t more info better than less, especially in an educational institution, especially one that is state-owned and state-operated? (putting the Vatican to the side, of course)

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