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PSU Divided: Part 2 - A Culture of Fear and Chaos

By Nick Pulliam
On October 4, 2018

PSU Divided is an ongoing series covering the growing tension at Plymouth State University. Part 1, which was released in the last issue of the Clock, focused on the controversial Kristie Torbick case, and how PSU found itself involved in it. The article tried to share every side of the story, including the faculty, student senate, and the administration.


An Open Forum

To meet the growing demand for an open dialogue, Plymouth State University held several public forums. The open discussions aimed to give all constituencies a venue to share their thoughts.

The forums were held on September 25, 26, and 27. In total, a little over 100 people attended the forums, which were moderated by award-winning anchor Mike Nikitas.

(At the time of this articles release, his report should be available to the public.) 

As campus wide discussions have continued, other parties have been expressing their opinions over the past few months. 


Outside Responses 

On September 7, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), sent a letter raising concerns over First Amendment rights that may have been violated. According to their site, FIRE is a nonprofit organization that defends the rights of students and faculty members across the country. When they believe that certain rights have been violated, they will make an effort to raise awareness.

They feel that the three-faculty involved had a first amendment right to provide statements in court. FIRE also argued that: these faculty spoke as private citizens, it was a matter of public concern, public anger isn’t enough to violate their freedom of expression, and just because Strapko didn’t have tenure, her first amendment rights still stand.

At the end of their letter they requested that the required Title IX training for Michael Fischler would be rescinded and that Nancy Strapko would be reinstated.

Back in August, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), argued that supporting citizen’s right to participate in the criminal justice process is important in a society. Similar to FIRE, the ACLU is a nonprofit organization that seeks to protect civil liberties. They work to defend people who may have had their rights violated and educate citizens on their constitutional rights.

When the current strife at PSU came to their attention, they released their own statement, which included opinions from the ACLU of NH Executive Director and the ACLU of NH’s Legal Director. They first chose to emphasize sexual assault of any kind is wrong, especially when it involved a minor, like the Kristie Torbick case did. But at the same time, they stressed that silencing a citizen's right to free speech does nothing of value.

Their statement went on to say that NH law may have been violated, because this state has even more free speech protection than what is given under the first amendment. The ACLU cited RSA 98-E:1, which says public employees are allowed to give opinions as an individual on any government entity. 

They argued that these kinds of laws were created to prevent situations precisely like the one that occurred with the three faculty at PSU. Their statement ended by expressing concern that this situation might scare people away from participating in future criminal court proceedings.

Even major newspapers like the Atlantic are talking about this issue. Their article, which was published September 18, 2018, looked at responses from groups like FIRE, as well as opinions shared by faculty at PSU. They ended by saying that violating the free speech of the three faculty could do more damage to PSU than defending their right to participate in court.

All of these outside sources are in consensus: the school made a dangerous decision. The three faculty had their first amendment rights violated and it sets an alarming precedent for the future.

And to many in the faculty, this decision was the tipping point in a culture of fear and chaos that’s been forming over the past two years.


Culture Shift

Richard Hage is the former Dean of Students and the Vice President of Student Affairs, who had a 41-year career at PSU. On August 22, he wrote a letter to PSU Faculty, where he brought up a negative culture shift that he had been hearing about since his retirement two years ago. In his letter, he described how he heard the same stories repeated. The administration creates chaos, long term members of PSU have been laid off, people were fired with no warning whatsoever, and others have left because the work environment has grown too oppressive.

When asked about what PSU was like during his forty-year career, he said, “It was like a big family. People were serious about their responsibilities to students. And so it’s sort of a shift that in many ways disrespects relationships. There’s been some inhumane treatment.”

At a faculty meeting last month, concerns were raised over how students will be affected during this transitional period in the school. One faculty member even went so far as to to say “It’s not about the kids anymore.” 

A member of the faculty said, “We’re all considered expendable.” Others built off of that sentiment, saying, “Those who do remain want to love the institution, but are deeply frightened,” and, “[We] want to focus on students, but are instead required to focus on presidential initiatives.”

Some believe that the lack of communication is what happens in any large institution, while others are more suspicious. One faculty said, “Work to stifle opinion and productive thought is strong.”

Hage said that he had time over his forty year career to build countless relationships. And so, people came to him to share their grievances. After his email was sent out, he immediately received an influx of responses. 

Just a couple days after his email was sent, he received almost forty responses, all of which he kept anonymous. The need for an open dialogue was stressed by many. Plenty of responses expressed their hopes that the letter would lead to a positive turn, which very well may have happened with the open forums that were held.

Faculty are not the only group concerned with certain choices that have been made recently. 

On October 3, 2018 it came to the attention of members of the student senate that the commencement date for this year had been moved from Saturday, May 11 to Friday, May 10. During two student senate meetings in 2017, the idea was proposed and the senate vote against it was overwhelming. Regardless, the administration chose to change it anyways, much to the frustration of some members on the senate.

The Class of 2019 Facebook Page posted, “[We have] just become aware that our Commencement day has been changed to Friday May 10th at 6 P.M. We want to make it clear that we were not aware of this change and we did not know that our names would be placed on this announcement. We strongly disagree with this decision by the Administration and plan on doing everything we can to convince them to reconsider. We will make sure to keep you updated on this matter as it progresses.”

An effort has been made to improve dialogue on campus. And it’s important to remember that not every member of the faculty feels the same way.

That being said, everyone has agreed that there is some level of miscommunication; it appears that there is one major change responsible for that, the Clusters Initiative. 

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