Post Classifieds

PSU Divided: Part 1

By Nick Pulliam
On September 20, 2018

This summer, Plymouth State University found itself in the crosshairs of public opinion when it was revealed that three faculty members had allegedly provided statements of support for Kristie Torbick, a former guidance counselor at Exeter High School, who was sentenced to jail for sexually assaulting a 14-year-old student. The public outrage originated from the content of letters that they provided. Lines like, “In my opinion, no benefit to society would be served by incarcerating her,” and, “She has earned my unconditional support.” Then, there was the most infamous line, “Kristie takes full responsibility for her actions with her ‘victim’. I put this in parentheses because I am aware that her ‘victim’ was truly the pursuer in this case.”

Taken at face value, statements like that, when posted in a Union Leader article on July 26, painted a negative picture. It seems like members of the PSU community were supporting a sex offender. But in the eyes of many faculty, this is an issue where most people do not have the full story, and the pieces they do have are largely taken out of context.

Before that specific Union Leader article, the PSU administration had already published two press statements. The first one, which was addressed tothe Union Leader, in regards to a different article, was released on July 23. It reads, “Plymouth State University respects the First Amendment rights ofour students, faculty and staff to expresstheir opinions. The personal opinionsof students, faculty and sta are not official positions of the University.” They released another statement on July 25 that reads, “Plymouth State University was not aware of the private letters written during the sentencing phase of the trial by our faculty members.”

The three faculty in questionare Drs. Gary Goodnough, Dr. Michael Fischler, and Dr. Nancy Strapko. All three have decades of history at PSU, and all three had actions taken against them by the school administration. After the Union Leader article from July 26 was published, the administration released a third statement, on August 1. It listed the actions they planned on taking. The statement said that Drs. Goodnough and Dr. Fischler agreed to take additional Title IX training. Additionally, Dr. Fischler’s name was taken off of the Michael L. Fischler Counseling Center, where he was the director for 40 years. Dr. Strapko faced more severe repercussions, as the administration chose not to rehire her for this coming school year. Drs. Goodnough agreed to take the Title IX training; he wanted to put the issue behind him. The other two haven’t accepted the actions because they take issue with how the administration handled the situation.

Dr. Fischler is a Professor Emeritus, which is a title given to retired faculty. Although he is retired, he still taught as an adjunct professor. In a letter sent to President Birx by his lawyer, Jon Meyer, some of his grievances are listed. They include: removing his name from the Counseling Center, prohibiting him from teaching this semester, and requiring him to retake Title IX Training. The letter argued that Fischler had a First Amendment right to provide written testimony. It’s also worth noting that he wrote the letter before Torbick chose to plead guilty. The letter also argued that Fischler had a, “Long advocacy at PSU against discrimination based upon sex, race and homophobia.” Additionally, the letter claimed that the third statement released by the administration, which said that Fischler agreed to take Title IX training, was false. That point in the administrations statement specifically says, “Before returning to teach at PSU, Professor Emeritus Michael Fischler and Professor Gary Goodnough have agreed to complete additional Title IX Training and to work closely with PSU faculty, students, and sta to address the issues and the concerns created by the letter.”

Meyer wrote that Fischler initially agreed to take the training in order to resolve the issue. However, he only learned through that press release that his return to PSU as an adjunct professor relied on him taking this class. On top of that, he then found out that he wouldn’t be allowed to attend the Counseling Center’s orientation program.

The letter reads, “It is also worth considering the precedental significance of these requirements on academic discourse in general. Controversial speech is the lifeblood of academia. But who is going to be willing to express and unpopular opinion if in response to public disapproval, he or she is forced to take a class, and satisfy the concerns of their critics as a condition of continued teaching. That approach is not consistent with a school that values academic freedom.”

Finally, the letter listed five demands that the administration must meet. They were: Reinstating Dr. Fischler, putting his name back on the Counseling Center and allowing him to participate in its programs, withdraw the Title IX training, apologize publicly, and to ensure that PSU responds differently to issues like this in the future.

In the eyes of the PSU-AAUP and the SEA/SEIU Chapter 30, the three faculty were simply providing character reference testimony. The PSU-AAUP is the PSU chapter of the American Association of University Professors and the SEA/SEIU Chapter 30 is the Plymouth State University Teaching Lecturers Union. They released a joint statement condemning the administrations decision. Their statement said, “Written and oral testimonies of the nature provided by these faculty members are protected as extramural speech under principles of academic freedom, which are articulated in the AAUP’s ‘1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure.’”The 1940 statement says, “College and university teachers are citizens, members of a learned profession, and officers of an educational institution. When they speak or write as citizens, they should be free from institutional censorship or discipline.” On top of that, the rights are legally binding because of collective bargaining agreements the two unions have with the administration.

Jeremiah Duncan, the current president of the PSU-AAUP, has held the position for almost a year. The union is new, having been founded in April 2016. The Union has a responsibility upon being founded to negotiate a contract. And they did that; their contract took into effect on July 1st, 2018.

A main point the statement made was that the administration violated the faculties rights to academic freedom. When asked what exactly academic freedom was, Duncan said “It really is founded in the notion that a university should be a place of a free exchange of ideas, that the best education a student can get is in a place where we can debate things and we can provide opinions that may not be popular openly. That’s the best kind of education you can have, to be able to engage in a civil discourse on both sides, whether your opinion is popular or not.”

The Unions also wanted to make it clear that they do not condone in any way what Kristie Torbick did. That’s a sentiment shared by everyone involved in this. Many of the faculty think that the letters, more specifically the excerpts seen by most of the public, were taken out of context. The faculty were simply trying to speak on Torbick’s character when they knew her and worked closely with her a decade prior.

The main issue is that most people don’t have the full story, and they can’t get past their initial misunderstandings. Strapko’s letter is different for several reasons. For one, it was a letter meant for Torbick’s attorney and no one else, as can be seen in the header, which reads, “Dear Attorney Sisti.” Strapko worked alongside Torbick as her therapist, and wrote a letter to her attorney to provide a Sex Offender Evaluation. The problematic line where the victim is called the pursuer is followed immediately by, “This in no way excuses Kristie’s subsequent response to his aggression as she is the adult in this relationship. In her therapy, she has been able to identify the developmental gaps in her childhood that may have played a part in her inappropriate.” Whether or not the wording in her letter is appropriate is up for debate, but there was a crucial context that was missing, in the opinion of some people on campus.

To some concerned faculty, it’s not just an issue of freedom of speech and academic freedom; it’s about heightened concerns over participating in the justice system. One faculty member, who chose to remain anonymous, said, “The school had an opportunity for a teachable moment for our student body and for the public. I believe we absconded our responsibility on that front. We had an opportunity to talk about the criminal justice system, which is our most basic democratic process, and the requirements of individuals to follow their civic and participate when asked. We haven’t spoken about that on the administrative level. We’ve blamed and punished faculty members for participating in our most basic process.”

At first it seemed like faculty wereunanimous in their disapprov al of how the administration handled this situation, but this isn’t the case. Philip Inwood is a Teaching Lecturer in Art History. He is also a former presidentof SEA/SEIU Chapter 30. He said, “While some faculty appear to feel en-tirely convinced that rights of academic freedom take precedence over all other considerations, I feel that it is important to recognize that for others, this issue is not that simple. This is a delicate issue. As a member of the faculty and as a union member, I feel supportive of the rights of academic freedom and free speech that are part of our contract. I understand that we, as a union, are urged to separate “protecting rights” from “social issues.” However, I believe that there is so much more to consider with the “Torbick issue.””

When asked how he felt about the administration’s decisions, he said, “I understand that the Administration was acting out of a need to protect the good name of PSU, something that is of great importance to all of us.”

He also approves of the Student Senate Letter that was sent out recently, and he’s disappointed with some of the negative responses it has been getting. He said, “A group of student representatives wrote a letter expressing concern about the implications of what had transpired. They were disturbed by what, for them& others (including the Union Leader), appeared to be college professors allegedly giving supportive testimony to a child rapist (admitted & convicted). The Student Council letter coincided roughly with a combined faculty union response that had been in the works for a week or so. I was very concerned about the timing and the probable effects of this stand.”

For those that don’t know, five members of the Student Senate did release a letter of support for the administration's decision. The students who wrote the letter make up the E-Board. Janet Currier, the President of the Student Body, said that over the Summer she followed the case but she didn’t see anything from the school addressing the student body about the issue. She and the other four signers also shared that they received plenty of constituent concerns, which is the primary reason for why they wrote this article.

They say they spent a lot of time researching the case, so that they could be informed as possible. Janet said, “At least on our side we’ve read as much as there is to the public that’s open to the public. We did see the Union Leader article, we saw everything else, we read the letters, we read the letters from the union representatives, President Birx’s statement, we’ve read everything we had to read.”

It was a lengthy process to write the article. Jacob Shairs, the Speaker of the Student Senate, said they spent fifteen hours working on the letter. AdrianaWhitaker, the Vice-Speaker of the Senate added, “We probably rewrote and redrafted this letter four times in total and if you look at the first letter versus the final letter that was sent out, it’s not even nearly the same.”

One of the Senates primary concerns with the faculties involvement in the Torbick case wasn’t that people pro-vided character witnesses. They believe that they had the right to do so. The problem was that they included their PSU credentials. They also had a problem with the victim shaming.

Whitaker said, “I also feel like we had concerns with the victim shaming in the letter by the one. I think that that one was definitely really over the line. think the other two letters that just did the Title IX training, was more about what Jake said, like not necessarily what they said but the fact that they then branded it with PSU. But I think the one with the victim shaming was really a concern for us.”

When asked about why Title IX training was an appropriate course of action, Clayton Harbet, the Vice President of the Student Body, said, “I would say that it’s appropriate because both made statements that weren’t extremely harsh, like Dr. Strapko’s where she accused the victim as “clearly being the pursuer in the situation.” However, with Fischleryou know, all he did – he signed his name and the school’s name with it. So it wasn’t a clear attack on the victim but it was enough to warrant additional Title IX training just to reiterate what Title IX really means. And make sure that he has a clear understanding of what our expectations are and what Title IX means to Plymouth State exactly.”

The Student Senate sided with the administration because of the alleged victim shaming and because in their opinions, the letters failed to clarify that the faculty was not representing PSU as a whole. They were also concerned with supporting their constituencies, the student body, many of whom expressed their anger with the school and the faculty who were involved with the case.

The administration is on the same page as the Student Senate in this situation. President Birx stands by the decisions that the administration madeHe said, “We sat down and tried to figure out what we could do that indicated that we took this seriously and that this is not the way we think and try to put it into context that, okay, people can say that, but honestly as faculty, there is context to where you need to be careful, particularly if it’s in a context where you have a specialty.”

He said it was important to protect the right to free speech, but also noted that in his opinion, faculty and others in positions of authority have more responsibility when speaking out. He said, “Academic freedom and freedom of speech does not mean that there aren’t guidelines or context in which to use it. It’s not a club you wield, it’s the beginning of a thoughtful and open discussion.”

His issue with Strapko’s involvementwhich is different from Fischler and Goodnoughs, is, “He did a very good job about not associating with the University, and I commend her for that. I think where the issue came in was her statement that just popped out in the middle of her sentencing statement which said the victim was the pursuer. And that’s false, there’s no way that statement can be true. What it does is it creates doubt about what she thinks about and is teaching and monitoring interns or teaching class.”

As of right now, different parts ofPSU are divided, but every group said something similar. They all shared their hopes for having an open dialogue where everyone can speak freely. Right now, there is just too much miscommunication. Hopefully, in the near future, everyone will have the opportunity to share their views on the issue. Because if nothing gets done, it can only get worse from here.

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