Quotegate, and the Eric Ferkenhoff mystery | Bleader

Quotegate, and the Eric Ferkenhoff mystery

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Eric Ferkenhoff
  • Eric Ferkenhoff
  • Medill photo
My Reader column this week comments on the recent Chicago magazine article by Bryan Smith on David Protess and Medill. There were a couple of areas I didn’t have space to get into in print, so I’ll do that here.

First of all, Smith offhandedly uncorks a fascinating piece of information. He’s sketching in the contentious backstory of Protess and his dean, John Lavine, at Medill, and he recalls the notorious Quotegate episode of 2008. That’s when Lavine published a column in the alumni magazine touting the curriculum changes he’d rammed through, and he quoted an unnamed junior saying about a particular class, “I sure felt good about this class. It’s one of the best I’ve taken.” David Spett, a Medill senior, then published a story in the Daily Northwestern that accused Lavine of making up the quote; Spett had asked all the juniors in the class if they’d said such a thing, and they all said no.

Next, Protess sponsored a faculty motion calling on Lavine to reveal his source. Which Lavine said he couldn't do because he hadn't kept his notes and email — but he apologized for using an unnamed source.

What Smith adds to this story is the tantalizing detail unknown to me — and, I believe, unknown to Lavine — “that the original source for Spett’s column was Protess himself.” It’s said it passing, yet it's such a delicious tidbit that I'd have advised Smith to linger over it for a paragraph or two to give the reader time to take it in. What does it say about Protess? That might be in the eye of the reader.

And then there’s Eric Ferkenhoff, from the supporting cast in the Medill drama. Smith reports what is known, which is that in 2008 Lavine asked Ferkenhoff, an assistant professor, “to shadow Protess and write a report about his teaching methods.” Whether this report would wind up in a book, a magazine, or a professional journal wasn’t clear, but Protess’s Medill Innocence Project was famous and unique, and it deserved to be documented. Protess agreed to cooperate and Ferkenhoff went to work.

But two years later, “in the midst of the subpoena contretemps with [state's attorney] Anita Alvarez — Ferkenhoff began to express concern over the purpose of the project.” Smith writes that he was told by “Protess and other sources [that Ferkenhoff] was worried that he was being ‘used’ to hurt Protess, something he did not want to do.” Protess told Smith that he began getting reports “from students and colleagues that Ferkenhoff was asking them about allegedly questionable reporting practices in Protess’s class.”

Ferkenhoff turned in a draft of his report. “Sources” told Smith that it described two incidents involving misrepresentation by Innocence Project students, incidents that later showed up in articles on Protess in the Daily Northwestern and the Chicago Tribune.

So has Ferkenhoof been the tool of sinister forces out to get Protess? Has he been an active part of a conspiracy? Or do Ferkenhoff and his project have nothing to do with anything?

In the view of associate dean Mary Nesbitt, Smith’s treatment of Ferkenhoff was outrageous. “The section about Eric Ferkenhoff’s project is full of despicable innuendo,” she wrote me. “If you follow the sequence of construction, selected facts — and errors — are plunked down, one after the other, to lead the reader toward these conclusions: that Ferkenhoff was suborned by the Dean to investigate Protess and that his ‘report’ resulted in Protess not being assigned to teach in Spring 2011. That’s rubbish.”

Ferkenhoff was simply asked “to study and write about Protess’s pedagogy,” she insists, and that’s all he did. “I was Ferkenhoff’s editor throughout: the project never wavered from the goal of explaining the pedagogy. . . . That it was Protess’s email record that caused the Dean’s action is not even mentioned in the Chicago story; but 400 words are devoted by Chicago to innuendo against a blameless and honest person, Eric Ferkenhoff.”

The most persuasive way to make the case that someone is blameless and honest is not to shout “He’s blameless and honest and only knaves say otherwise.” And Nesbitt seriously overstates Smith's inattention to Protess's email. I'd have made more of it than Smith did, but she's ignoring the unambiguous passage in which Smith wote that Dean Lavine "would accuse Protess of knowingly and intentionally lying about what he had turned over, [basing] the accusations on hundreds of pages of e-mails that were recovered when the university . . . conducted a forensic analysis of Protess's home and work computers."

And I don't buy the idea that Smith slyly constructed his article to insinuate Ferkenhoff into the role of the agent of Protess’s downfall. In my reading of Smith’s story, the author had no idea if Ferkenhoff was an important or trivial part of the drama but figured he’d better mention him because he’s a tantalizing loose end.

But I don't believe Nesbitt is blowing smoke to hide fire. Her reading of Smith's yarn as a drama in which Ferkenhoff is cast in some sort of Rosencranz/Guildenstern role — the scheming nebbish at the edges — is plausible because Ferkenhoff says nothing to Smith to defend himself. That's on Ferkenhoff, not Smith. Ferkenhoff made two dubious decisions: (1) he hired a lawyer, Sheldon Zenner, and (2) he took Zenner’s advice to keep his mouth shut.

Ferkenhoff is no nebbish: even as a professor he contributes frequently to Time and the New York Times. But I told him that for his own sake he had to speak for himself. He talked to Zenner and he emailed me a statement:

I shadowed David Protess and his class at Northwestern University in late 2008 - something that David, Dean John Lavine and I agreed on at a meeting in which all of us were present. Protess agreed to allow me to study him and his efforts.

That was the plan, and I never wavered. There was never a greater agenda at play. And to my knowledge, in no way was my reporting responsible for David leaving the school.

I was asked, and David agreed that I would capture his work in a piece of writing so others - people in academia, the law or investigative journalists - could learn from his method of teaching.

In the process of any reporting - including this one - journalists learn certain facts about their subject, with some facts being more flattering and some being less than flattering. I studied the issue, circled the story, learned from people who knew Protess, worked with and under his supervision and I also learned from David himself. Based upon what I learned, I prepared a draft that touched upon much about the process and methods that David used to teach about investigations, manage them and carry them out.

My draft, and it remains only a draft, has never been made public; I quit reporting on this story long ago and I have no inclination or reason to revisit it.

So why did he hire Sheldon Zenner? In a second email he said why.

I hired a lawyer because of the position I was in; I didn't want to be seen as being used by the university, or by David. So I hired an independent attorney, well respected by all sides in this, to take care of my interests in protecting sources - most of them students, whose names I still do not believe should have been made public. My attorney made sure of that and I have never, to this day, had to reveal a single source.

Simple as that.

I took no pay for this project, and, in fact, took an unpaid leave for a quarter last summer, and hired my own attorney at a price. How I profited from this is a great guess.

As for being used, the answer, to me, is simple: No. Was I ever worried? Of course. People were saying off things about Protess and I wondered whose agenda was at play. That's part of our job as journalists - to figure that out and still come straight.

In the end, I did my job. Straight. I did not believe - nor do I now - that the dean or any of his deputies set off on some campaign to bring an end to David Protess' career. I don't believe I had anything to do with him leaving the school. That was a decision between him and the school, and I know no details about it. I don't want to.

To believe I took part in this alleged campaign to end Protess' career after nearly 30 years is to believe I was duped and too stupid to realize it; or a flat tool who engaged in it knowingly.

I do not subscribe to either.

One last note about Quotegate. Smith reported that a committee of three from the Medill board of advisers made an investigation and “Lavine was cleared.” That’s what the papers reported in 2008, but they were being polite. All that actually happened is that the university found an elegant way to sweep the matter under the rug. Here’s what I had to say at the time.

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