| October 17, 2005
Dear Ms. Bishop,
This is the letter you requested regarding the concerns I have about several incidents on both campuses this last year. As we discussed, these incidents involve a cocaine use investigation and the results of it as well as the treatment of several students and a long time member of the St. John’s community. I shall summarize the facts of the incident involving Jane Murray as well as the other incidents on the campuses. I am drawing upon numerous eyewitness accounts as well as my own observations. I believe these accounts deserve the board’s and your attention as they may be indicative of disturbing trends at our school that may have long reaching implications for its success.
1. The Attack on Jane Murray
Following is an account of an attack on a student by security and her subsequent expulsion. Jane Murray was a junior in Santa Fe last year and decided to go to Annapolis to see the croquet match. Jane performed a cartwheel on the lawn after the end of the croquet match. Naval Academy Major Waddell for an unknown reason took exception to this. Some have suggested that she accidentally kicked him while doing the cartwheel. Mark Ingham, then a senior in Santa Fe, witnessed the event and says that this is not true. It is possible that she accidentally kicked Major Waddell’s hat off or it fell off while she was doing the cartwheel. In any event, all the students who witnessed the event say that Jane clearly had no malicious intent. The major contacted St. John’s College security. Security yelled out if anyone was responsible for her. Mark Ingham answered that he wasn’t responsible for her, but he knew her. As he did not provide the answer they were looking for, security ignored him and rushed up to Jane Murray. They aggressively ordered her to leave campus without making an effort to determine what was going on or who she was. She protested that she was not doing anything wrong and that she needed to get her purse and other items. Security refused, repeatedly yelling at her to leave immediately. Spooked, Jane Murray ran from security and quickly fell. Security pounced on her, attacked her, and handcuffed her.
I saw her in the security office afterward. She was sitting in a chair, crying, complaining that she was hurt. Security ordered her to leave campus by the shortest possible route. She was neither permitted to say good-bye to her friends, nor was she allowed to get her possessions on the lawn; I had to get them for her. A woman in the security office yelled at me; she wanted to verify that we had someplace to go and that we were not coming back. She continued to yell at me even after I answered that we were flying back to Santa Fe the next morning. For a girl to be attacked by three grown men is in itself an outrageous act. Judging from her bruises and the extent of her crying, it would be unfair to call security’s act anything less than a beating. Furthermore, to demand a current tuition-paying student to leave campus without taking the time to investigate the matter further is questionable at best.
When Jane Murray returned to Santa Fe, the dean of St. John’s College in Santa Fe, David Levine, initially suspended her funding for a summer internship that she had applied and been accepted for. Witnesses to the event protested this, claiming that she did not deserve to be punished for her encounter with security. David Levine claimed that no decision had been made yet as the school was in the midst of an investigation. Later during the summer Dean Levine admitted to me that the only witnesses from Annapolis that he relied upon were St. John’s security. Judging from this statement and my conversations with Annapolis students, I conclude that no investigation took place.
I received information before the end of the school year that the school intended to come down hard on Jane Murray. It now seems clear that David Levine had always intended to expel Jane but waited for the summer when students would be out of town and it would be less difficult for him to do so. He avoided his basic responsibility as dean to tell her the school’s decision in person. In his letter to her, he does not give a reason for her expulsion apart from saying that she acted badly. Administration officials had at different times claimed, however, that she acted aggressively all afternoon. I have heard claims that she was drunk, threw a dance partner into a row of chairs, stole a hat from a midshipman, and stole the Annapolis Cup. I have spoken to numerous witnesses, and all these claims appear to be fabrications. Many students were with her during the course of the afternoon, and they did not witness any such aggressive behavior. She had been drinking that afternoon, but she was over the age of twenty-one, and she was not drunk. Several people including me danced with her, and no one whom I spoke to noticed any such violent acts. Those who know Jane, which would be most of the Santa Fe campus, know that physically aggressive acts would be most out of character for her. She is very lively and outgoing but has never been known to attack anyone.
Later, Mark Ingham traced the theft of a midshipman’s hat to a male student. In their report, security deliberately falsely implies that Jane is responsible for this by using the word “suspect” to refer to her immediately after describing the theft of the hat. I have discovered that there were at least two students who stole hats from midshipmen that afternoon. This seems to be a common prank played on midshipmen at croquet weekend. It seems unlikely that she did anything wrong prior to her confrontation with security and certainly nothing warranting her expulsion from campus or her eventual expulsion from the college. It is fair to criticize her for running from security, although I can understand this based on security’s reported hostility. It is perhaps also fair to criticize her for struggling with security, although this is also understandable as security pounced on her when she was already on the ground and most people would be unlikely to passively lie down while they are being beaten up. She has never been in any disciplinary trouble with the school before this, and she is an exemplary student. She was in my lab class last year, and in my opinion she was one of the best students in the class. Unlike many students, she is willing to admit when she does not understand something.
Jane Murray made numerous attempts to challenge her expulsion. Michael Peters, the president of St. John’s College in Santa Fe, refused to see her. She requested an explanation of the charges against her as well as an appeal, as is her right in the St. John’s College student handbook, and her request was ignored.
My parents, both lawyers, wrote to the school requesting a meeting, and this request was also ignored. I spoke to Michael Dink a couple of days after he began his term as dean of the Annapolis campus. He told me that as the new dean he knew hardly anything about previous administrative matters. When I pointed out to him that this was an ongoing matter of importance, he interrupted me repeatedly to reiterate the questionable allegations concerning her behavior. Christopher Nelson, the president of the Annapolis campus, also maintained that he knew very little about Jane’s situation, but when I started to talk about the situation, he stated that the college had its own witnesses. When I asked who the witnesses were, he answered, “Security guards and employees of the college.”
Whatever investigation the college might or might not have performed, students in Annapolis were left out of the process entirely. Rather than admit that they might have a problem with security, the school has sought to brush these problems under the table by expelling Jane Murray. After talking with students in Annapolis, I understand that such behavior on the part of St. John’s is commonplace. Rather than expulsion being reserved as a punishment only imposed as a last resort for repeated infractions, it seems to be meted out frequently. I am told that students often have lighter penalties replaced with suspension or expulsion during the summer. I asked one girl in Annapolis why she didn’t protest this; she responded that it would be too easy for the college to falsely charge her with cocaine use and expel her.
Sadly, St. John’s has become a place where an accusation is often sufficient proof of guilt, and accused students are threatened with punishment unless they accuse others. Jane Murray, feeling that she had no other choice, agreed to take a year off but asked the dean for an assurance that she would be allowed back in the future. My parents received a brief letter from the school’s lawyers telling them that the matter had been resolved, and after speaking with David Levine, I received a letter telling me that all future conversations had to be conducted through the school’s lawyers. Jane Murray received a letter from David Levine telling her that she would have to show contrition if she ever wanted to return to St. John’s in the future. She then received a letter from David Levine three days before the end of the summer telling her that she could return to the college. She interpreted this letter to mean that she could return to the college in the fall, but at this point, she decided that it would be impossible for her on such short notice to give up her apartment in Portland and pack all her things to drive down to Santa Fe, where she did not even have guaranteed housing.
What surprised me most about the college’s behavior during this affair was the lack of the assumption of responsibility. I have spoken to numerous administration officials about this, but none acknowledged making the decision to expel Jane Murray. Matt Davis, then the assistant dean in Santa Fe, told Mark Ingham that he was receiving pressure from Annapolis to severely punish Jane Murray and that in any event the decision rested with David Levine. David Levine also denied responsibility, saying that Matt Davis had the responsibility for disciplinary matters. The Annapolis administration repeatedly denied that they put any pressure on the Santa Fe campus, even going so far as to say that Judy Seeger, the assistant dean on the Annapolis campus responsible for security, did not remember if she had initially reported the incident to Santa Fe on her own volition or if the Santa Fe campus had requested information from Annapolis after hearing about it independently. This passing the buck is of course completely unacceptable.
I told Chris Utter, the editor of the Gadfly, that I wanted to write an article about this for the Gadfly. He informed me that Ms. Seeger and Mr. Aamot, the Annapolis assistant deans, have the right to veto the publication of such articles. He further told me that the Gadfly is read by members of the Board of Visitors and Governors and therefore there are some things that cannot be published. He said that Ms. Seeger and Mr. Aamot have exercised this right before and that there would be no coverage of the college’s activities against students accused of using cocaine. This cocaine operation will be discussed later in this letter. He told me that there would only be a possibility of publishing an article if I consented to having it edited. I asked him if he meant to edit it for length or for style, but he answered that he wanted to edit it for content. He said that articles critical of the St. John’s administration had been printed in the Gadfly in the past and that I could criticize the school administration but only if I did not print details about this specific event or mention Jane Murray. I felt that I could not publish an article under those circumstances and told him that I might try to publish and distribute an article myself. Chris Utter told me to be careful and warned me that, “Whoever helps you might get in trouble.” I find the extent of the college’s censorship very disturbing. A college newspaper’s primary function must be to tell the news about what is happening on campus. Sometimes this news is disturbing; sometimes this news is highly critical of the school administration. St. John’s College should emphasize conversation and communication. An administration that shields itself from public criticism cuts itself off from the student body. Ultimately, students are the reason for a college’s existence, and student tuition contributes to administrative salaries.
2. The Attack on Sara Barker
At homecoming weekend in Annapolis in 2004, security attacked an alumna of the school, Sara Barker, in an incident involving a lost purse. Sara Barker had left her purse, containing her money and car keys, at the waltz party that weekend. She contacted security, who insulted her for being so stupid as to abandon her purse. After an argument with security, she became upset and threw a chair but not at the security guards. According to Dominic Crapuchettes, another alumnus of the college, security grabbed her and slammed her face into a wall. Alumni intervened to calm down the situation, and it was ultimately revealed that the purse had been turned into the lost and found in the security office. While it is clear that Sara Barker should have remained calm and she should not have thrown a chair, this incident sheds light on security’s behavior. Had security offered to check in lost and found instead of insulting her, the situation would have been resolved quickly and peacefully. Instead security provoked an argument and then reacted excessively violently. Students at the Annapolis campus claim that such incidents are common. Some have told me that they are afraid of security. When students commit some violation of the college rules, security reacts harshly and violently. They often fear to come forward, for the administration is more likely to make an issue of students’ conduct than security’s. It is obvious that at an institution such as ours the security must never act violently toward the students and especially toward visiting alumni.
3. The Cocaine Operation
Late last spring, college officials in Annapolis called students into the assistant dean’s office and accused them of using cocaine. The students who denied this were treated rudely; they were told that there were eyewitnesses, and that they would be treated harshly unless they confessed and named other guilty students. Under such pressure, many named other students who were rumored to be involved in cocaine use. I am told that many of the accused were reputedly connected with cocaine only vaguely; people who regularly socialized with or dated suspected cocaine users were named. Then the students named were subjected to the same treatment. It is difficult to get precise information, but I have heard that the college collected forty to fifty confessions, that they expelled a few, and they suspended ten or eleven students for a year. The college claims that the expelled students were dealing cocaine and that the suspended students were disruptive. Students whom I have spoken to dispute the administration’s claim.
I have been told me that one of the expelled students was not involved in cocaine and was expelled because he had refused on principle to say whether he had ever used cocaine and had refused to name other students who did. The administration acknowledges that many of the suspended students were doing well in school; the choice of whom to expel, suspend, or let off appears mostly arbitrary. It has been suggested that cocaine was merely a pretext to get rid of people who were good students but whom the administration considered strange. I have heard that three seniors had their degrees delayed for a year as a result of this ‘investigation’, creating a problem for one who had been planning to go to graduate school in Germany. To deny a degree to someone who has spent four years working very hard and who has paid the college a great deal of money is ungrateful and disrespectful. It seems spiteful to harm someone’s opportunity for graduate school and to ruin the moment that one has spent years working for, one’s graduation ceremony. By taking this action, the school creates alumni who look back on St. John’s College not with fondness but with bitterness. These people and their friends are the same people that St. John’s will be asking for donations for the rest of their lives.
4. The Firing of Mark St. John
Mark St. John, the long time director of student activities in Santa Fe, was fired from his job last spring. Many alumni have very fond memories of Mark’s dedication to the school and the trips he put together for students. In addition, he was active in other aspects of the school, including at times leading seminars. He is himself an alumnus of the school. After the announcement of his dismissal, over a hundred students showed up at the next college “town hall” meeting, many of them to protest the firing. Before the students could be heard, David Levine and Michael Peters denied them the opportunity by announcing that no personnel matters would be discussed. After researching this matter, I have come to what I believe is the likely chain of events that led to the firing. Ned Walpin, a member of the campus planning committee, and Matt Davis had determined to oust Mark St. John. David Levine transferred supervisory authority over Mark St. John to Matt Davis. I have been told that the college rules require either the notification or consent of the board for such authority to be transferred; I do not know if such notification or consent has been given. Matt Davis wrote a scathing report about Mark St. John; then Ned Walpin and Matt Davis told C.J. McCue, who worked for the student activities office, to observe Mark St. John and report on his failings to them. It is illegal for an employer to hire one employee to spy on another without the latter employee’s knowledge. This illegal activity was revealed in the course of Mark St. John’s lawsuit against the college, and Mark St. John settled with the college for a year’s severance pay. There is currently no student activities director, and Mrs. McCue runs the gym.
Ordinarily I would say that it is the board’s discretion to decide how to deal with administrative failures, but since you asked me what action the board should take, I have several recommendations. First, instead of having an unwritten policy of summer suspensions and expulsions, the circumstances in which such suspensions and expulsions are allowed should be narrowly defined. Second, the policy of withholding students’ degrees a year should also be explicitly banned. Third, there should be a board committee set up to hear student complaints about the administration. Fourth, the student handbook should be amended to prohibit administrative censorship of the college newspapers. Fifth, the student review board’s right to be responsible for college discipline should be reaffirmed, and a corresponding review board should be established on the Annapolis campus. I recently spoke with Meri Hamilton, the principal founder of the student review board in Santa Fe. The student review board was established because students had complained about the unfairness of disciplinary power being concentrated in the hands of the assistant dean. These principles still exist in the student handbook, but the administration has subverted the intended power of the student review board. Sixth, the current security in Annapolis should be studied, with replacement as a seriously considered option. Seventh, the board should closely examine the conduct of administrative officials. Judy Seeger is responsible for security’s conduct on campus, and she has tolerated the existence of an overly aggressive security force. Many students view her conduct in the cocaine operation as heavy-handed and dishonest. In another example, David Levine seemed more interested in punishing Jane Murray than discovering the truth or finding a fair solution. He waited for the summer to expel her in order to bypass the student review board, to save himself the task of notifying her of his decision in person, and to avoid controversy. Apart from the inherent cruelty of this method, he caused great inconvenience to Jane Murray. Her possessions are still in storage as she thought that she would be returning the following year. He saw her the day after the incident; he saw her injuries for himself, and he traveled the following weekend to Annapolis for a board meeting, yet he made the decision to expel her rather than speak to student witnesses in Annapolis although he had the opportunity to do so. He acknowledged later that there was a possibility that security was not telling the truth, but he told me that he had to make the best possible judgment on an incident that occurred two thousand miles away. The casualness with which he disregards her obvious injuries and relies on an unchallenged security report should give the board pause as to whether his actions benefit the college. Mr. Peters, the new president of St. John’s College in Santa Fe, is conspicuous because of his absence. Jane Murray had a right to speak to him, yet he refused to meet her. I e-mailed him to request a meeting, and he did not even send a reply telling me that he could not meet. The president’s duties are not restricted to fundraising, and it is reasonable for students to have an opportunity to get to know their president.
6. Contact Information
I care about St. John’s and believe it plays an important role as an excellent educational example. The situations described above lead me to believe that this example may be at risk. I am concerned that these incidents may go unaddressed, and there may be more similar incidents in the future. If there are, the school may alienate the very students it wants to attract as well as put itself in a position of increased financial and legal liability. The alumni association has referred this matter to the visiting committee of the board. I would like to speak before this committee when the board meets in Santa Fe at the end of the month. I have more information on these issues, and I believe that talking to me will help the board make decisions on what actions to take to solve the problems at the college. I do not rely on rumor for my information; I have researched every claim that I have made as well as I was reasonably able to.
The easiest way to contact me is by e-mail at email@example.com. My cell phone number is ***-***-****. You can also write to
4573 Indian Rock Terrace N.W.
Washington D.C. 20007
I look forward to hearing from you.