The Sketchy – But Revealing – UW-Whitewater Dormitory Stories 

The big UW-Whitewater story last week wasn’t about a dormitory, but about a lawsuit against former Chancellor Telfer and current Athletic Director Amy Edmonds

The dormitory stories are at best evidence of administrative incompetence, at worst evidence of a manipulated story (albeit ham-handedly).  They also, ironically, offer a dark motivation for the repeated actions of UW-Whitewater officials concerning sexual assault reporting. 

Background.  On Sunday evening, 8.21, the Journal Sentinel published a story about how UW-Whitewater dorm limbo could crimp recruitment. I posted on the story the next day, noting that even by the story’s own terms, the key issue wasn’t a dorm, but the influx of out-of-state students from Illinois. SeeDorm-Construction Isn’t the Big Story.

Five days later, on Friday evening, the Journal posted a follow-up to the dormitory story.  SeeUW-Whitewater dorm back on track.

Turns out, the Journal story was stale even before the first installment on 8.21:

Gov. Scott Walker signed the final contract to hire an architect/engineering firm for the UW-Whitewater residence hall the same day the project was singled out by the regents during their [August 18th] meeting in Madison. The project was working its way through the pipeline in a normal progression, according to Steve Michels, communications director for the state Department of Administration….

UW officials weren’t notified that the governor had signed the contract until Tuesday [8.23], the day after a story about the project delay appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

(In fact, the story appeared online on 8.21, but either way the dorm had been approved before reporter Herzog published a word of her story.)

A few observations:

Convenient, coincidental. How convenient it must have been, on the same day that news broke of a lawsuit against UW-Whitewater, that an unrelated  (and actually resolved) issue was available to divert attention from a more important matter.

The lawsuit was filed in the Eastern District of Wisconsin on 8.18 – university officials surely knew of it before reporter Karen Herzog’s story appeared online or in print.

Incompetent. Honest to goodness, could Herzog not have called to ask the status of the dorm before writing her first story? That first story makes no mention of any attempt to call any state officials. 

The story seems to rely completely and totally on the account of Jeff Arnold, Vice Chancellor for Administrative Affairs at UW-Whitewater

Either Herzog was negligent to omit reference of a call to the state, was negligent not to call the state, or was a dupe in a UW-Whitewater effort to push a non-issue (dorm already approved) over an ongoing, serious one (federal lawsuits and federal Title IX investigations). 

Ineffectual. Since the dorm had already been approved, what does that say about the Vice Chancellor Arnold’s competence or influence that supposedly (1) he didn’t know and (2) nobody bothered to tell him promptly?

Ineffectual, Part 2. All litigation is uncertain. I’ve no idea how either the lawsuit or Title IX administrative claims will develop.

I do know that both stories are now national ones,  and that local efforts to shift the subject are futile (both because the stories have spread too far and because the university’s Media Relations staff are incapable of effectively spinning these accounts against an accurate telling in reply).

Motivation.  Whether Arnold’s fuss over a dorm that had already been approved was from his own incompetence or as a public relations diversion, it’s revealing in a deeper way.

Astonishingly, in the first story, reporter Herzog unintentionally supplies a motivation for the university’s actions to ignore or shove aside those who spoke of sexual assaults on campus: the university was under competitive, financial pressure to recruit out-of-state students.  

Here, from Herzog’s first story:

Since 2009, the school has doubled admissions applications and enrollment of Illinois students. Illinois residents made up 9% of the freshman class in 2009; now they are about 16% of the freshman class, with the largest number coming from McHenry and Lake counties.

Wisconsin resident enrollment is holding steady, according to school officials.

Not having enough housing may work against recruiting efforts in Illinois.

“The lack of housing is constraining our growth,” Arnold said. “It’s our feeling we’re losing students because of our inability to provide housing. Our freshman classes have been capped due to our housing.”

If Arnold thinks that lack of housing will constrain growth, imagine what repeated stories of sexual assualt on campus would do to those same recruitment efforts.

The pressure and push for out-of state-students, from 2009 to 2014, coincides with the clear majority of Richard Telfer’s tenure as chancellor.

Herzog’s first story, one that that Arnold seems to have spoon-fed to her, offers a dark, specific, numerical motivation to suppress assault reporting. 

One could have surmised as much without the story, to be sure, but if the story should be a public-relations inspiration, it’s an especially poor one. 

Expressing public concern over recruiting at the same time students and a former employee are filing complaints about mishandled sexual assault cases, unjust termination, and retaliation is particularly dense. 

More to come. 

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7 years ago

Faculty and some staff on campus follow the story the way you do. We know that it’s not always straightforward. “News” for people in town is the real spoon feeding. All of that has a p.r. quality. It’s a backwards situation. The former staffer writes a “news” site on a non-college level and the unaffiliated blogger writes like a battling academic.
The truth (a sad one) is that a huge number of my colleagues live outside Whitewater. I don’t have statistics but it seems to me that it becomes more true each year. More students from out of state will increase the figurative distance between town and campus, the way there is now a distance between many faculty and the city.

Flapjack 2000
7 years ago

It seems to me that as long as these University folks can keep on doing what they are doing without any consequences, there is no motivation to change. No matter how stupid or self-serving their actions are, to date, there have been no repercussions…no firings, no public reprimands, no nothing. In fact, in spite of their sometimes reprehensible activity, they are still regarded with a sort of reverence by those in awe of academia.

Reply to  Flapjack 2000
7 years ago

I agree. Bad sometimes goes to worse, and that’s the situation here. The former chancellor’s administrative selections are mostly weak or self-protective. The current chancellor shows no evidence of the ability, desire, or will to make a break with Telfer’s inferior, broken organizational culture.

These may be among the weakest leaders in all the UW System, even compared with those at much smaller four-year schools.

Their behavior is typical of many self-praising, but scandal prone, leaders in many kinds of organization. Significant aspects of this look like Steubenville or Missoula: wagon-circling among culpable administrators and their diehard defenders.

Whitewater also has a (thankfully fading) political culture of ceaseless, but buffoonish, praise for anyone in authority. The Banner’s almost parody of a news site, riddled with conflicts and a low understanding of policy (but an unjustified self-confidence that it has a high understanding). It’s a news publication the way Mad magazine is a policy journal.

Some of the local reporting isn’t much better. When the DU sends its stringer, who is as obliging to authority as anyone could be, it’s really selling the town short, and asking residents to settle for sham coverage.

Whitewater’s tolerated mediocrity, and now she’s beset by much worse than mere negligence or incompetence.

We’re not the first town like this, we won’t be the last, but we likely will take the same rock-strewn path of failed organizations and politics elsewhere.