Texas A&M Threatens Professors Who Suggest Students File Open Records Requests

from the the-future-of-journalism dept

A large group of journalists are publicly protesting a policy at Texas A&M University, which effectively threatens professors who suggest students file open records requests to do investigative reporting on the University itself. The specific policy, which has been in place for a while, officially bars university employees from filing open records requests as a part of their jobs. But it appears that Texas A&M is now interpreting this to mean that journalism professors cannot suggest that journalism students use open records laws in investigating the university itself. In other words, the university wants its staff to teach journalism, but not if that journalism involves uncovering wrongdoing by the university itself. Not surprisingly, the "clarification" of the rules came after some students filed open records requests showing that an A&M campus (Tarleton State University) "failed to fully comply with a federal law requiring schools to disclose crimes on and adjacent to campus."


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  1.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Dec 28th, 2010 @ 6:52am

    I love it.

    Texas A&M Threatens Professors Who Suggest Students File Open Records Requests

    a policy at Texas A&M University, which effectively threatens professors who suggest students file open records requests

    The specific policy, which has been in place for a while, officially bars university employees from filing open records requests as a part of their jobs. But it appears that Texas A&M is now interpreting this to mean that journalism professors cannot suggest that journalism students use open records laws in investigating the university itself.

    From a title that says professors have been directly threatened, to lightening it up with "effectively threatened" (in other words, they did not), down to "appears" in a very short amount of time.

    Why not just tell the real story. The University has a policy, and as part of the policy, they have asked staff not to instruct the students on how to specifically do an open records request against the school (but doesn't limit any other teaching of how to do so against other institutions).

    It is still an interesting story, and doesn't need the over hyped headline to make it work out.

     

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  2.  
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    Shawn (profile), Dec 28th, 2010 @ 6:55am

    "But in response to an inquiry from Tarleton State University in Stephenville, an A&M campus about 155 miles north of Austin, the system's general counsel warned that a faculty member could be disciplined and even fired for directing students to file requests with any of the system's 12 universities and seven agencies."


    Sounds like a threat to me.

     

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  3.  
    identicon
    Jason, Dec 28th, 2010 @ 7:00am

    Re:

    "the system's general counsel warned that a faculty member could be disciplined and even fired for directing students to file requests with any of the system's 12 universities and seven agencies"

    That would be a threat.

     

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  4.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Dec 28th, 2010 @ 7:02am

    Re: Re:

    Nope, it is a reminder of the work rules that they are under. Directing the students would be a violation of the rules. No threat, just a statement of fact.

     

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  5.  
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    abc gum, Dec 28th, 2010 @ 7:03am

    Re:

    But you cheated - you read the link

     

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  6.  
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    abc gum, Dec 28th, 2010 @ 7:08am

    Re: Re: Re:

    Yeah a "declaration of an intention or determination to inflict punishment" is not even close to "could be disciplined and even fired".

    http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/threat

    No one is ever threatened with losing their job.

     

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  7.  
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    Hulser (profile), Dec 28th, 2010 @ 7:10am

    Re:

    The University has a policy, and as part of the policy, they have asked staff not to instruct the students on how to specifically do an open records request against the school

    Besides the whole semantic issue around "threaten" -- see Shawn's post below -- you appear to be minimizing the university's abuse of their own policy. Forbidding its student from filing open records requests was not "part of the policy" applicable to employees. By all indications, Texas A&M pulled a completely new policy out of its ass and just called it a "clarification" of an existing policy. That's the real story.

     

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  8.  
    identicon
    Jason, Dec 28th, 2010 @ 7:13am

    Re: Re: Re:

    Ah, no it's an unreasonable expansion of the rules after the fact accompanied by a threat, and oh yeah, it violates free speech at a public university.

     

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  9.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Dec 28th, 2010 @ 7:15am

    Re: Re:

    They do not forbid the students from making such requests, they only require that staff to avoid "directing students to file requests". In other words, the classes cannot include instruction on or require the students to make such requests of the school.

    As an example, they cannot be required to make such as request as part of a paper or project.

    Texas A&M pulled a completely new policy out of its ass and just called it a "clarification" of an existing policy. That's the real story.

    You and I both know that is the real story. But TD decided that the real story is the "threat", because it makes for a much more sensational headline. It's National Enquirer journalism at it's finest.

     

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  10.  
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    Hulser (profile), Dec 28th, 2010 @ 7:28am

    Re: Re: Re:

    They do not forbid the students from making such requests

    No one is suggesting that they did, so I fail to see the relevance of your statement. The story is about the university's actions against its employees, not against (at least directly) its students.

    But TD decided that the real story is the "threat"

    You must not have read the posts where others have clearly showed that there was a threat or are in denial that the univiersity's actions constitute a threat. I would agree that it would have been much more clear if Mike would have included the text from the linked article quoted by Shawn, but the headline is still accurate.

     

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  11.  
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    Jason, Dec 28th, 2010 @ 7:29am

    Re: Re: Re:

    Texas A&M pulled a completely new policy out of its ass and just called it a "clarification" of an existing policy [when it was REALLY a bald faced threat]. That's the real story.

    Oh did I edit that unfavorably. You should fire me.

     

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  12.  
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    Jason, Dec 28th, 2010 @ 7:31am

    Re: Re: Re: Re:

    ...for the missing comma and question mark, that is.

     

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  13.  
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    MD2000, Dec 28th, 2010 @ 7:55am

    Bureaucratic Stupidity at its finest

    Yes, the university made up a new rule, called it a "clarification", and threatened its employees to reinforce the need to adhere to this rule.

    Logically, it is an employee's duty not to bring discredit on the employer's business. A journalism school seems the perfect place to debate this - what level of (mis?) behaviour by the employer constitutes such egregious conduct (love that phrase!) that it is the employee or student's duty to air that dirty laundry? At what point does airing dirty laundry step over the line from "free speech" to "causing damage"?

    Stupidity comes when a bureaucracy, under the guise of protecting their hindmost parts, manages to draw attention to both the process and the liklihood that the action is because they have something to hide. "Don't look behind the curtain or else!" They said that so a bunch of investigative journalist wannabees could hear loud and clear ... Duh!! I hope they added extra staff to deal with the flood of requests for information.

     

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  14.  
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    Hulser (profile), Dec 28th, 2010 @ 8:13am

    Re: Re: Re: Re:

    Looking over my post above, I see that I actually did say "forbidding its students" rather than "forbidding its employees..." I stand corrected.

     

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  15.  
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    Howard the Duck, Dec 28th, 2010 @ 8:17am

    Enforcing policy has always been a threat to those who break the contract.

     

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  16.  
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    NullOp, Dec 28th, 2010 @ 8:22am

    Kollege

    More and more I see universities acting like corporations. Scummy, that is! Schools claiming copyright on students work, trying to outlaw study groups, where does it end? Potential students need to do a lot of homework on a university before they apply to be sure the school is not likely to end up causing them legal grief. The more interviewers here questions concerning IP and such, the more they'll begin to understand students do not want to attend a university that basically steals their work and discourages openness.

     

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  17.  
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    The Groove Tiger (profile), Dec 28th, 2010 @ 8:28am

    Re:

    I see that you have embellished your story, saying that the post states it "directly threatened", when the post title only says "threatens". Why don't you just tell the real story, instead of a hyped up comment?

     

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  18.  
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    Hulser (profile), Dec 28th, 2010 @ 8:29am

    Logically, it is an employee's duty not to bring discredit on the employer's business.

    No it isn't. An employee may feel an obligation to hide wrongdoing of their employer out of a sense of loyalty or sheer self-preservation, but if you're talking about "duty", that word would be more appropriate to the higher obligation to be a whistleblower for wrongdoing.


    At what point does airing dirty laundry step over the line from "free speech" to "causing damage"?

    "Free speech" and "causing damage" are independent. Short of things like yelling "fire!" in a movie theatre, one's right to say something in public, especially when it's true, is not dependent on an analysis of whether it will damage anyone else, especially when the anyone else was doing wrong.

     

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  19.  
    identicon
    Jason, Dec 28th, 2010 @ 8:33am

    Re:

    Sorry, did you accidentally comment on the wrong post? Who broke a contract here? This instructor was upholding his contract by teaching his students proper journalism and appears to have done so within the rules.

    If the student was writing an article about the school and submitted a draft without having done an open records search, what the hell is the guy supposed to do? Overlook it? Mark down the grade with no explanation?

    "Sorry, Smith, but this is going to be an F unless you fix it before deadline."

    "Oh, what'd I miss?"

    "---"

     

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  20.  
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    Jason, Dec 28th, 2010 @ 8:49am

    Re: Bureaucratic Stupidity at its finest

    "At what point does airing dirty laundry step over the line from "free speech" to "causing damage"?"

    When it's a public, federally funded institution, then IF there is any such line (how that could be fails me), it falls well short of public scrutiny regarding adherence to federal law.

     

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  21.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Dec 28th, 2010 @ 9:00am

    Re:

    An employee may feel an obligation to hide wrongdoing

    You are way off the road here. There is no indication of any hiding of wrongdoing, or any claims of some conspiracy to hide any specific wrongdoing. There is no obligation for the staff to hide what they know is wrong. They are told only not to make freedom of information requests of the school (ie, digging for wrongdoing), and not to instruct their students to do it either.

    The question of the original rule being legal or not is another discussion. Contract terms vary from state to state, so who knows really?

     

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  22.  
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    Howard the Duck, Dec 28th, 2010 @ 9:11am

    Re: Re:

    This contract:

    "A&M System spokesman Rod Davis said the policy has nothing to do with Malone and is based on a system rule that has been in place since 1997. Andrew Strong, the system's general counsel, told Tarleton officials in October that the rule bars system employees from submitting open records requests to units of the system while acting in their official capacity."

    One that the professor should have read before working there. Here's what the professors/students are allowed:

    "Although the policy limits what faculty members can assign students to do, the students themselves are still free to file information requests with units of the system, Davis said. In addition, he said, faculty members acting as private citizens, as opposed to in their official capacity, may file requests as well with the system."

    So as long as the professor did it on his own time, it was fine. What a threat! The workplace is not a democracy, regardless of what you want to believe.

     

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  23.  
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    Hulser (profile), Dec 28th, 2010 @ 9:37am

    Re: Re:

    There is no indication of any hiding of wrongdoing

    I addressing your statement, speaking generically about an hypothetical employee, not the employees in question. You said it's "an employee's duty not to bring discredit on the employer's business". This specific statement is not true.

    The question of the original rule being legal or not is another discussion.

    Agreed. What they did may be perfectly legal. But the reason that this situation is a story is that the university is clearly being hypocritical, on one hand promoting investigative journalism and attempting to stymie it on another hand when it relates to itself.

     

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  24.  
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    Hulser (profile), Dec 28th, 2010 @ 9:51am

    Re: Re: Re:

    Statement 1:
    "the rule bars system employees from submitting open records requests"

    Statement 2:
    "the policy limits what faculty members can assign students to do"

    Do you not see the difference between Statements 1 and 2? A major point of the TD post is that the original rule was Statement 1 and then, when the university realized that something was going on it didn't like, it "clarified" i.e. redefined Statement 1 to include Statement 2.

    The difference between the two statements is not some technicality. It's a key distinction.

     

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  25.  
    identicon
    Howard the Duck, Dec 28th, 2010 @ 9:58am

    Re:

    Reading before posting is not your strong point.

     

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  26.  
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    Howard the Duck, Dec 28th, 2010 @ 10:06am

    Re: Re: Re: Re:

    Statement number 2 is not "redefined". A student can submit open orders requests all day against Texas A&M. You have changed the subject from contracts to yes, technicalities. The professors cannot file or help anyone else file within their professional capacity would seem to anyone to be a derivation of the policy, not redefining.

     

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  27.  
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    vivaelamor (profile), Dec 28th, 2010 @ 11:07am

    Re: Re: Re:

    "Nope, it is a reminder of the work rules that they are under. Directing the students would be a violation of the rules. No threat, just a statement of fact."

    That tautology looks painful.

     

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  28.  
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    vivaelamor (profile), Dec 28th, 2010 @ 11:14am

    Re: Re:

    "There is no indication of any hiding of wrongdoing, or any claims of some conspiracy to hide any specific wrongdoing."

    Wasn't that argument tried against the First Amendment and labeled as prior restraint?

     

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  29.  
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    Jason, Dec 28th, 2010 @ 11:30am

    Re: Re:

    "Reading before posting is not your strong point."

    You stole the words right from my mouth. No? Let's review in short form the conversation above:

    Me: WHO broke a contract?

    You: THIS contract!

    Me: (blink, WTF? - blink, blink)

    No shit, that contract! I noticed the first time 'round that there's a policy in play. My point is that no matter how you want to twist it, this guy didn't break it. Furthermore, he was doing exactly what he's supposed to do. If a Journalism professor is not allowed to teach students how to dig up facts for their stories, then he's really just an 8th grade English teacher toting around a Pulizter.

    Obviously a student publication is going to be about issues at the university campus. It's a fundamental part of his job to teach students the process to get the facts right for those stories. The way the policy is worded, it's clear that he can't do any of that for them. He wouldn't want to do that anyway, it's their job to do it as part of the work of journalism.

    To suggest that he shouldn't teach them how or direct them to do so is patently stupid. Their pretending that by properly instructing them in the practical basics of their field of study he is somehow harming the university is why this is so ridiculous. If he doesn't do that, he's not teaching journalism. The reason the UT prof said it "looks like something that would be in the Onion," is because requiring a journalism teacher to skip over the practical basics of how to do journalism, OR else suggesting that the students should only be shown how to report stories on other schools is too stupid to be real.

     

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  30.  
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    Hulser (profile), Dec 28th, 2010 @ 11:36am

    Re: Re: Re: Re: Re:

    The professors cannot file or help anyone else file within their professional capacity

    I'm sorry, but you can't just arbitrarilly add in "or anyone else" to an existing rule/law/policy and call it a "clarification". It materially changes the meaning of the policy by broadening its impact exponentially. This is no more a clarification than when a politician makes a verbal flub in public and their PR team issues a statement the next day saying that they meant the exact opposite of what they said.

    It could very well be legal for the university to have changed its policy to include the "or anyone else" clause, but the fact that they just issued a "clarification" indicates to me that they simply didn't want to go through the hassle. "We're in charge, so just do what we say" was probably the thought. But even if they did change the policy officially, it wouldn't change one of the main points of the post, that Texas A&M is being hypocritical.

     

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  31.  
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    abc gum, Dec 28th, 2010 @ 12:04pm

    Another reason to not attend TexAM

     

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  32.  
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    John Duncan Yoyo, Dec 28th, 2010 @ 12:32pm

    Re: Re: Re: Re:

    Now everyone should request a few random and utterly bizarre documents from the university every day until they relent.

     

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  33.  
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    Howard the Duck, Dec 28th, 2010 @ 12:43pm

    Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re:

    If they are helping someone else file, are they involved in the filing? If so, the policy stands. Otherwise they could just get anyone else to do the work of filing for them, perhaps their secretary? This is how it works in the real world.

     

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  34.  
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    Howard the Duck, Dec 28th, 2010 @ 12:58pm

    Re: Re: Re:

    "Sorry, did you accidentally comment on the wrong post?"

    If he was doing exactly what he's supposed to do we wouldn't be having this comment pissing match. By the way I thought you said "short form"? Where in the policy does it say to file orders requests for the students? I'm sure there are many other ways the professor could have pointed out resources to help the student file, but he did not. Every job worth having has policies that go with it. Those policies are part of the contract. You rant about the way you think it should be, and ignore what's there. I haven't "twisted" anything, and your BS won't change that.

     

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  35.  
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    Hulser (profile), Dec 28th, 2010 @ 1:48pm

    Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re:

    If they are helping someone else file, are they involved in the filing?

    Yes, but how is that relevant at all? So, you not only think that arbitrarilly adding "or anyone else" to an existing policy is OK because it's just a "clarification", but you think that you can do the same thing with "or involved with"? Please.

    Otherwise they could just get anyone else to do the work of filing for them, perhaps their secretary? This is how it works in the real world.

    Excuse me, but in the real world, rules, policies, and laws have to be enforced as written, not as some bureaucrat chooses to interpret them for them own self-protecting reason.

    As for your example, it's meaningless because a professor's secretary is still an employee of the university. You'll note that the policy applied to all employees, not just professors.

    Besides, we're not talking about a policy like making a new pot of coffee if you take the last cup. Filing requests for information like those discussed in the article are a key skill of a journalist. It couldn't be any more obvious that Texas A&M doesn't want its own students poking around into its internal affairs.

     

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  36.  
    identicon
    Jason, Dec 28th, 2010 @ 2:52pm

    Re: Re: Re: Re:

    "If he was doing exactly what he's supposed to do we wouldn't be having this comment pissing match."

    Google translation: "If you weren't wrong, I wouldn't disagree with you." Wow! Put that in a bottle and give it to the world! You just solved for world peace in our lifetime!

    "By the way I thought you said "short form"?" Exactly, I summarized the conversation in three lines (an' you sed AH don' reed good).

    "Where in the policy does it say to file orders requests for the students?" Where in any of the reports does it say that he did anything of the sort? Again, it feels as though we're reading separate stories.

    "Every job worth having has policies that go with it. Those policies are part of the contract." Agreed, but you don't just get to play willy-nilly with those rules to expand them however you like just because you're-the-employer-and-y-golly-the-way-you-say-it-is-the-way-it-is.

    "You rant about the way you think it should be, and ignore what's there." What's there is a violation of the public trust from a public institution making threats with the intent of chilling free speech, in a manner that is probably illegal, citing a policy that is also probably illegal.

    "I haven't "twisted" anything, and your BS won't change that." Hulser already nailed you on this. As your response failed to rebut the argument, I'm happy to let his comment stand, pending something more sound than a nanny-nanny-boo-boo.

     

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  37.  
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    SLK8ne, Dec 28th, 2010 @ 9:27pm

    Interesting....

    Interesting thread and story. What is bugging me on this is why was this policy instituted in the first place? I agree with the commenters that point out that filing information requests is a key journalism skill. But, why are they banning the requests at all?

    Sounds very very much like there's some corruption going on the administration doesn't want exposed. This being so, where are the employed journalists, and why aren't they filling requests to find out who's dirty here?

     

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  38.  
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    Howard the Duck, Dec 29th, 2010 @ 6:20am

    Re: Re: Re: Re: Re:

    You started with an insult and ended the same way. You ignored all my points and went through the quote by quote breakdown of my comments. You're a vet of the stupid wars. My responses refuted all your BS, but you're too busy trying to pull eloquent out of a horse's ass.

     

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  39.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Dec 29th, 2010 @ 9:03am

    Re: Kollege

    In what mythical world do you live in where a University isn't run like a corporation? A University is a service, it's customers are its students. It's becoming woefully outdated at the mid-range, so threats like this are the beginning of the eventual collapse.

    In 2011 we'll start to see the signs of the education bubble pop.

     

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  40.  
    identicon
    Jason, Dec 29th, 2010 @ 10:38am

    Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re:

    "You started with an insult and ended the same way."

    Take offense if you must. My initial reaction was to venture the hope that you weren't siding with the university administration against the very foundations of democracy, that you weren't supporting the baseless expansionist interpretation put forward by their attorney, and that surely you weren't, without any supporting facts, accusing this professor of something that not even the school administration has been willing to assert that he has done. Clearly I was wrong to hope. As for the ending, I was simply pointing out that your closing remark, "I haven't "twisted" anything, and your BS won't change that," isn't really an argument but rather the rhetorical equivalent of, "So there!"

    Shall we overlook your hypocrisy in starting and ending with far more harsh insults yourself? Hey, why not? It's the holidays and I'm feeling generous.

    "You ignored all my points and went through the quote by quote breakdown of my comments." You do know that you've just described the very process by which one would address your points? If you've made a salient point that I did not address, by all means highlight it in your reply. I'll do my bestest.

    "You're a vet of the stupid wars."

    Well, I am now! (I know I wanted to overlook that, but then you did it again.)

    "My responses refuted all your BS,"
    Now we see why you side with the Condemneat Argumentum, We-said-it-so-it-must-be-so club. You're not just the president; you're also a member!

    "...but you're too busy trying to pull eloquent out of a horse's ass."

    Feel free to be as ineloquent as you would like.

    Have a nice day.

     

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