Art attack

Dean Art’s handing of Junwan Kong’s situation is indicative of a destructive mindset

By Matt Barnum

“I was in the Oval Office a few months after we swept into Baghdad,” Joe Biden recalled in March 2004, “and I was telling the President of my many concerns.” Bush, Biden explained, was not moved by any of these concerns. Biden continued, “‘Mr. President,’ I finally said, ‘How can you be so sure when you know you don’t know the facts?’” Bush then placed his hand on Biden’s shoulder and responded, “My instincts, my instincts.” To which the then-senator replied, “Mr. President, your instincts aren’t good enough.”

This is a powerful interchange on many levels. For one, it shows the sheer arrogance of Bush, while demonstrating a healthy skepticism on Biden’s part. It also strikes me as an anecdotal example of a larger truth: Those in power don’t like to have their authority questioned.

And from this I’m going to go ahead and make an analogy that I know is neither completely apt nor completely fair, but that I think is nonetheless illustrative.

Dean of Students Susan Art’s recent decision not to allow Junwan Kong to return from a leave of absence is seriously troubling. And what’s equally troubling is the defense, or lack thereof, of the decision.

In a letter to the editor published in the Maroon, Art writes, “Unfortunately, your reporting was based on only part of the information in this particular student’s case, and was thus out of context. The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) prevents me from sharing private student information in the case of Junwan Kong, so I cannot provide a fuller explanation for our decision.”

It’s a clever argument, because it can’t be refuted: There really was a good reason—I just can’t tell you!

Fine. The law is the law, and Art shouldn’t violate a student’s privacy. But I’ve read the e-mail Art sent Kong explaining her decision. It makes clear why Kong won’t be allowed to return: because Art believes he has “made an academic life for [him]self in Korea” and because of his family’s finances. “You have suggested that your family’s resources are limited, and I really cannot see how investing over $150,000 to complete your undergraduate education can make any sense at all.”

I asked Art if there was an additional reasoning for turning Kong away, other than what she had told Kong himself in that e-mail, but she declined to answer questions for this column.

In an e-mail interview, Kong himself said that Art’s letter made him “wonder if there were something else other than what she wrote behind her decision…. I don’t think she ever did provide full explanation about my return other than what everyone I talked to [thinks] was arbitrary and outrageous,” Kong added.

Meanwhile, in a letter published today, Associate Dean Marianne West writes, “I must say how appalled I was at the mean-spirited characterization of her in Friday’s editorial. With 20 years’ experience working with students, Susan Art has an unparalleled understanding of the constellation of factors which underlie student success in the College.”

I’m on the Maroon Editorial Board, so my opinion is not objective, but our editorial was a lot of things, mean-spirited not being one of them. We were not attacking a person; we were attacking an argument. This is exactly the type of debate that should thrive at the U of C—not one that a University administrator should dub as “mean-spirited.”

What’s also interesting is that if you read West’s letter carefully, it is not a defense of Art’s decision, but rather of Art herself. “In the 10 years since I have worked with her, I have never once experienced a decision she has made to be ‘arbitrary,’” she writes. Holding aside the literal absurdity of this statement, the implicit argument is equally ridiculous. Art knows best, West is saying—we shouldn’t question her.

When Art was interviewed by a member of the Editorial Board last week, she asked rhetorically, “What it comes down to is, do students trust the administration to make sensible decisions?” But even if we do trust our administrators—and I do, by and large—it’s also incumbent upon us as U of C students to question them as a way of checking their authority. While it’s not surprising that this type of questioning is met with stiff resistance and calls to respect those in charge, it is disheartening. Especially at the U of C.