A Medill senior has gently but firmly suggested that his school’s controversial dean made up a quote. David Spett, a columnist for the Daily Northwestern (and a Reader intern last summer) took a close look Monday at the “Letter From the Dean” (pdf) by John Lavine in the 2007 spring issue of the school’s alumni magazine. Lavine touted an undergraduate class in “Advertising: Building Brand Image” that had created what Lavine described as a “fully integrated marketing program to uniquely impact teen driving.” 

Since shifting from Medill’s money-making Media Management Center to take over the entire school in 2005, Lavine has alienated a lot of NU faculty (and alums) by acting with little regard for faculty governance to rewrite the curriculum and more closely integrate Medill’s two wings — its journalism and marketing programs. So it’s not so surprising that he would tout a marketing course. He wrote that a Medill junior had told him: “I came to Medill because I want to inform people and make things better. Journalism is the best way for me to do that, but I sure felt good about this class. It is one of the best I’ve taken, and I learned many things in it that apply as much to truth telling in journalism as to this campaign to save teenage drivers.” It was a message that couldn’t possibly have suited Lavine’s purposes any better.

But “the phrasing “struck me as odd,” Spett commented in his Daily Northwestern column, and he wondered why Lavine hadn’t identified the student. What’s more, a Medill instructor told him “sure felt good” sounded like a favorite construction of the dean’s. Spett also noted that Lavine had used two other anonymous students as sources (one of them earlier in the same piece). So he did a little digging. There were 29 students in the advertising class (five of them juniors), Spett reported in the Daily Northwestern, and he contacted every one. “All the students denied saying the quote, even when I promised not to print their names.”

Spett then recorded an interview with Lavine saying he’d taken the quote from an e-mail from a student whose identity he now couldn’t remember.

“We cannot be certain these quotes were fabricated,” Spett concluded. “But at the very least, I find reason to be suspicious.” 

He’s not alone. Faculty sources who prefer not to be named for obvious reasons tell me that some of them suspected the quotes were bogus, but beyond grousing among themselves they did nothing to act on their suspicions. As far as they know, Spett was the first person to confront the dean. “There are people on the faculty who are very nervous,” one source said. They weren’t ready to challenge Lavine’s integrity over something like this — a dubious quote he could shrug off by allowing that he probably should have named the kid. 

Spett said no one put him up to this. He says since he read Lavine’s piece last year “it had been in the  back of my mind that it might be something worth looking into.” In January the Daily Northwestern made him a columnist and he went to work. 

Lavine hasn’t returned my calls. Neither, for that matter, have several other professors.