Columbia College proudly stood its ground last spring when the Secret Service came to investigate a campus art exhibit that included an image of George Bush with a gun to his head. “We’re an art school,” media relations director Micki Leventhal told the Sun-Times. “We support freedom of speech, freedom of artistic expression and academic freedom.” Nonetheless, when a cartoon version of the college president, Warrick Carter, started popping up on posters in Columbia buildings in October the school responded with Watergate-style tactics.

The posters, featuring a jaunty, bare-bellied Carter, were advertisements for a new, anonymously created Web site, Mark Phillips, a recent film and video grad who’d stayed on campus as a teaching assistant in the Science Institute, says he and a few other students and alumni, frustrated with the school’s administration, were behind the project. According to Phillips the posters disappeared almost as fast as they went up, but it was hard to tell who was removing them. “It could have been the administration,” he says, “but a lot of students liked them so well, they were taking them for their dorm rooms.”

Wacky Warrick hosts an array of images, messages, and memorabilia depicting the Kewpie-Carter–everything from an audio clip of his giggle to T-shirts embellished with his face. There’s also a link to a MySpace account created for the fictional president. In November the site posted a three-minute animated video–a loose homage to Citizen Kane in which Carter professes his affection for tuition dollars, dithers over whether to send an e-mail account of his financial history to nearly everyone on the school’s staff and faculty (something he actually did by accident early in his tenure), and dons a robe to take an interviewer from the student paper on a tour of his mansion. The cartoon manse is complete with ballroom and elevator–just like Columbia’s actual $3.7 million presidential home. A tuxedoed servant spits in the eye of the interviewer so he won’t have to blink, and a mouse-eared dartboard hung in Carter’s bedroom is a reminder of something revealed in his errant real-life e-mail–that he was laid off from his previous job at Disney.

Not everyone was amused: apparently someone in the upper ranks of the school’s administration ordered a hot and heavy search for the source of the site. The investigation led them to Phillips, who says school officials must have clicked through the more than 100 “friends of Warrick” links on the character’s MySpace page and wound up at his blog, on which he blithely noted last summer that he was working on an animated Carter parody. Then on December 8, sometime after the Science Institute had been locked and secured for the night, its alarm system was disabled and a Columbia IT employee entered and began searching the computers in the visualization lab where Phillips worked. This was akin to violating sovereignty: the Science Institute, funded and equipped by the National Science Foundation, is a virtually independent entity, the province of high-profile science educator Zafra Lerman, who says it contains expensive equipment and sensitive information relating to her work with scientists from all over the world. Lerman says the alarm code is known only to the lab staff and the head of campus security, who’s authorized to use it only in case of emergency and only if the staff can’t be reached. No alarm sounded when the lab was entered, there was no emergency, and no one at the Science Institute was aware security had been breached.

Phillips says he was called to the office of Columbia’s human resources director, Patricia Olalde, on December 19 and shown a printout of his MySpace blog. He says he was asked if he used school equipment to create and run Wacky Warrick and that he said no. Two days later he was brought in again and asked if he’d learned anything that might help the investigation; again he said no. Then on December 22, just before the school shut down for the holiday break, he was summoned to Olalde’s office and told that investigators had found evidence that he’d worked on the site while on the job. “They said they’d found a poster and some other small files from the Web site on my computer and were forced to terminate me,” he says. “I was so stunned it wasn’t until I’d walked away that I thought to myself, ‘I don’t have a computer at the lab.’ All but the director’s computer are used by whoever comes in–administrators, teaching assistants, students. They had fired me for something that could have been downloaded by anyone.” Olalde did not return calls for this story.

When Lerman heard about the firing she was astounded: “He was fired without even consulting me; I am the one that has the authority to hire and fire in the Science Institute.” She says she asked the head of security who gave the order to let the investigator in after hours and was told she’d have to discuss it with the “powers that be.” “Why they would want to go in the middle of the night is beyond me if everything they wanted to do is legal,” she adds. When she confronted the person who searched the computers, she says, he told her he found three images from the Web site among many other things in a file labeled “Mark Phillips.” “The computers are used by hundreds of students,” Lerman says. “Not everything on that file would have been worked on by Mark Phillips. They don’t have any evidence that he did it on the job.” Besides, Lerman maintains, the images purportedly found on that computer were never found there again. “If they ever were there,” she says, “I believe they came and disappeared during the same night.”

While Phillips admits that he and a group of “up to ten” created the site, he maintains they did it at home on their own time. The earliest appearance of the cartoon Carter can be traced to an authorized Science Institute project that had been started at the lab early last year (and which also included a cartoon Lerman) but was dropped last summer. Lerman insists that no further work was done on any Carter cartoon in the lab. Regardless, she says, “anybody that gets any position of importance should be ready to be made fun of. The students make fun of me and my accent continuously. This is the price of fame, so I cannot understand what’s going on. This is more like the Gang of Four than academic freedom.”

Columbia vice president of finance Mike DeSalle, who oversees both the IT and human resources departments at the school, says he learned of the firing after it happened and is “shocked and dismayed. There is more investigation that needs to take place….It’s my understanding that the computer was in sort of an open area and lots of other people had access to it.” All sides are invoking Columbia’s published policy on the use of its computer network: administration spokesman Mark Lloyd quotes its prohibition of use with the intent to harass or “annoy” another person. Lerman notes that it clearly states that except in the case of probable violation of “local, state, or federal law, the college shall not seize or inspect data, files, or communications made by authorized users or impose disciplinary action.” Phillips says the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a

digital-rights advocacy group, is providing him with a list of local attorneys. Meanwhile the newest Wacky Warrick video is set to debut on the Web site January 23. v

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Carlos J. Ortiz.