Northwestern dean accused of fabricating quote for magazine

  • Columnist from The Daily Northwestern accused journalism dean at Northwestern University of fabricating a quotation
  • The columnist called all 29 students in the advertising class, and all denied saying it
  • The dean denies the accusations, saying that the anonymous quotes were from student videos
  • 12 members of the journalism faculty released a letter condemning the dean's actions

When Northwestern University senior David Spett was reading the dean of the Medill journalism school's letter in the spring 2007 alumni magazine, a few things seemed suspicious.

"The quotes seemed to suit the dean's purposes too perfectly," Spett said. "It was too positive, and I thought, 'what's going on here?' "

Spett, a columnist at The Daily Northwestern, noticed the dean, John Lavine, used anonymous quotes and language students wouldn't typically use in his letter.

"I sure felt good about this class. It is one of the best I've taken," a student from an advertising class was reported to say in the dean's story.

A Medill instructor told Spett that "sure felt good" is a phrase the dean uses colloquially.

Spett contacted the 29 students in the class, all of whom denied saying the quote.

When Spett asked the dean and showed him a class list, the dean told him the quote was from an e-mail he no longer had.

Spett wrote about his suspicions in his <a href="Feb. 11 column, igniting controversy within the school and nationwide. Chicago newspapers, National Public Radio and U.S. News & World Report have all covered the story.

Wednesday night, the dean officially responded to Spett's column for the second time in a letter, denying he made up the quotes and apologizing for using anonymous sources.

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

He said he had hoped to send this letter earlier with the e-mail containing the student's name, but the e-mail had been deleted.

The dean said he met with a group of 14 faculty and staff members yesterday to review the standards of work published at Medill.

The dean first responded to the accusations with a letter addressed to the Medill faculty. He "commended" David Spett "for raising the issue of unnamed sources," and claimed the quotes were from a student video.

Sixteen members of Medill's faculty released a letter on Monday denouncing the dean's use of anonymous sources. Calling the matter a "crisis for the school," the faculty called on the dean to uphold the same standards of accuracy in public relations writing.

"It is wrong to argue that the forum in which the questionable quote was used, the school's alumni magazine, is not subject to the same standards as other publication venues," the letter said.

Charles Whitaker, one of the signers of the letter and an assistant professor of journalism, said Medill teaches students to use anonymous sources sparingly, he said.

The magazine was a promotional piece, but was presented in a journalistic manner, he said.

"As a school of journalism we should adhere to traditional journalistic rules and conventions and ethical practices, even in a piece of that nature," Whitaker said.

The dean has already encountered controversy when he was moved from the director of Northwestern's Media Management Center to the dean of journalism, said Andre Francisco, a junior at Northwestern and a journalism major.

Some people were afraid he would bring his marketing background with him.

"I think he's a generally honest guy, he's pretty good at spinning things," Francisco said.

Steve Silver, a senior and journalism major, said the incident is letting people unleash their frustrations with some of the dean's new policies. He said his new plans of adding more advertising electives have been "kind of a pain."

Before he read the dean's letter from yesterday, Silver said the dean's silence and comment that the alumni magazine should not be held to the same standard are creating more problems.

He said if he named anonymous sources in any of his journalism classes, he would fail the assignment.

Students began circulating a petition Tuesday night to ask the dean to speak with them. As of Wenesday, the petition had 150 signatures, he said.