By Michael Miner

School for Scandal

I. Columbia’s Close Call

Amber Holst was taking a course on journalism ethics a couple of years ago at Columbia College, and her teacher told the astonishing story of Wade Roberts. “All of us were appalled,” Holst remembers, “about how he just made it up.”

Or did he? Roberts seems to have persuaded a lot of important people he didn’t. Perhaps a dilapidated bar full of oil riggers and owned by one Jefferson Davis Bonner did emerge from the dust of west Texas on a Sunday afternoon in 1985 to honor a Chicago wordsmith with the truth that’s truer than true, only to vanish when his work was done.

Roberts’s assignment was to write a color story that would enrich the Sun-Times’s coverage of the day’s big game in Dallas between the Super Bowl-bound Bears and the Cowboys. Expected to file from Dallas, Roberts instead sent back a yarn datelined Eden, Texas, “about 240 miles from Dallas in the scrubland of west Texas,” where “the men are hardworking and God-fearing.”

So Roberts began his account. “Five of them congregated a little ways out of town, in a gravel parking lot off a dusty farm road, nosing under a live oak’s sparse shade in a battered, rattling assortment of pickup trucks. Bonner’s is what folks around here variously call an icehouse, or a fightin’ and drinkin’ joint.”

The next morning a colleague at the Sun-Times suggested to managing editor Ken Towers that the story was too perfect. Towers began an inquiry, and he and Roberts wound up spending the following weekend driving back and forth across Concho County, trying to find the gin joint. In a Reader cover story on the Roberts affair, Toni Schlesinger told what happened next: “At the Abilene airport Towers suggested that Roberts resign. Roberts chose not to, saying resignation would be an admission of wrongdoing.” So editor Frank Devine wrote a letter notifying Roberts that “this newspaper has gone to extraordinary lengths to make clear its reason for accusing you of fabricating the story and to give you the opportunity of clearing yourself. Your response has been totally unacceptable.” And Roberts was gone.

Schlesinger presented Roberts to us as a footloose 34-year-old product of the University of Houston who quoted Hemingway and wrote fiction and screenplays in his free time. He was a man of mystery. A few weeks before his Eden story, he’d been sent to Joliet on assignment and had disappeared for two days. He showed up with sketchy details of an abduction. “A real spooky thing,” he told Schlesinger. After Schlesinger’s story appeared in January 1986, Roberts wrote in to say he hadn’t read it but friends called it “fair and balanced” and he was thankful. He complained that his Eden story suffered from a “slice-and-dice editing job,” but asserted that had he actually made it up “it would’ve made for much better reading.”

Gil Jimenez, a Sun-Times reporter in 1985 and 1999, taught Amber Holst’s Media Law and Ethics class (he has since left both the college and the paper). Roberts “was definitely an example of what not to do,” Jimenez recalls. “You’re under pressure to produce a story–and certainly these days, as staffs get smaller and managements become more money hungry, the pressure is greater on editors and reporters to produce something. It’s easier to make something up than actually go do it, easier to produce something than tell the editor, ‘I don’t have it. I can’t get it.'”

Aside from the fact that he was at the paper when it happened, Jimenez had another reason for telling Holst’s class the cautionary tale of Wade Roberts. Roberts, who’d gone on with his life, had joined the faculty of Columbia College in 1988, as a part-time instructor teaching TV production, essay writing, and research techniques.

Columbia is an audacious urban school with a romantic view of itself, and it’s dedicated to second chances. By every account, over the past 13 years Roberts has made a distinguished contribution to the college. “He gets outstanding teaching evaluations, and he’s wildly popular with students,” executive vice president Bert Gall told the Chronicle of Higher Education just last week. Last year Roberts was put in charge of Columbia’s interactive-multimedia program, doing so well that this May the administration decided to promote him–to dean, with authority over the journalism department.

In this variant of the Peter Principle, Roberts was being promoted to a job he could but shouldn’t do, not with a name that stood for making stuff up. No one at Columbia College outside the journalism department seemed to recognize the blunder. But so serious was it that Columbia’s administrators found themselves reading about the crisis two weeks running in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

During the 1999 reaccreditation process, the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools had told Columbia its front office needed more bodies. A plan to add an administrative layer was approved by the board on May 24, and the next afternoon, at a meeting with department heads, President Warrick Carter announced a new division of media arts. Journalism would be folded into it, and Roberts would run it. Dumbfounded, Carolyn Hulse, head of the journalism department, resigned her post on the spot. Within minutes of the meeting the press was calling, and by May 30 the Tribune was editorializing that “if the school doesn’t quickly get a handle on this situation, [Hulse’s] resignation won’t be the end of its embarrassments.” The next day Roberts generously announced that he’d decided not to take the job.

Still insisting on his innocence in the matter of the Texas bar, he hoped his decision would “enable the College to heal.” He pledged to demonstrate to everyone at the college “that I warrant your trust.”

Along with Roberts’s statement, the college issued testimonials from the chairs of several departments with whom he’d worked. “Scrupulously fair and respectful….Quiet but successful administrator….One of the most honest, straightforward people I know….One of the most ethical people I know.” The chair emeritus of the television department called Roberts’s interactive-multimedia program “a paragon of interdisciplinary cooperation.”

The journalism department took no part in this praising and hailing. But then, the journalism department had always kept its distance from the interactive-multimedia program. A year ago, about the time Roberts was named to head it, Leonard Stazewski, a journalism teacher, was overheard calling him a fabricator and was summoned by Caroline Latta, the academic dean. “It was not a pleasant meeting,” Stazewski recalls. “She started asking me for details I could not provide, and I suggested she get hold of the article in the Reader. I said, ‘If you feel Wade was insulted I’ll apologize to him for talking about old news. But it is history, and it’s something that as a reporter in Chicago for a long time I’m very aware of.'”

Last Sunday Amber Holst graduated and put Columbia College behind her. Awaiting her was a job with the Wall Street Journal. Earlier in the week I’d asked her what she made of the turmoil. “It’s like a weird Shakespearean drama,” she replied. “It just gets creepier and creepier.” Holst, it must be said, wasn’t speaking merely of the Wade Roberts controversy, nor merely as a witness. The upheaval in the journalism department was vaster than that, and Holst had played a role in the drama.

II. More Dirty Laundry

If one source of the troubles in the Columbia College journalism department was a distant accusation of the cardinal sin of fabrication, another was a more recent accusation of the equal sin of plagiarism. Which brings us to someone whose gifts for creating a tempest dwarf Wade Roberts’s–Zafra Lerman.

Columbia College not being Harvard or Princeton, few of its faculty are given to boasting of their national prominence or their prowess at raising money from foundations. Lerman freely boasts of both. Lavishly honored, given a President Award for Excellence at the White House two years ago, she came to Columbia in 1977 and created a science curriculum that would appeal to students who’d enrolled to study film and dance and art and television. Today she heads the college’s Institute for Science Education and Science Communication.

The institute is not to be confused with the Science and Mathematics Department, with which it coexists in a state of open hostility. The institute was spun off from Science and Mathematics in 1991 by the late president, Mike Alexandroff; he wanted to hang on to Lerman yet quell mutiny in the ranks, so he gave her a new department.

Physics professor Pangratios Papacosta–once Lerman’s friend and admirer–had gone so far by then as to file a grievance accusing her of harassment.

Recalling those days, Lerman volunteers the name and phone number of an educator in Florida she says might give me an earful if I ask why Papacosta hadn’t won tenure down there back in 1987.

“Ask her who won the first teacher of the year award at Columbia,” responds Papacosta.

“Everyone’s terrified of her,” says Amber Holst.

During the 1997-’98 school year, the various departments of Columbia College were told to examine and report on themselves in preparation for the next year’s reaccreditation visit. In its report, Lerman’s science institute lamented the friction with Science and Mathematics and put its finger on the problem: “One of the greatest differences between the two departments is that the Science Institute has been funded approximately $4.5 million in the past five years, while the Science and Mathematics Department has received no external funding. While the expressed jealousy of the Science and Mathematics Department is understandable, the unethical and unprofessional behavior of its members do not belong in an institution of higher learning.”

Unethical? Unprofessional? The institute got down to specifics. “The Science and Mathematics Department has committed blatant plagiarism,” the report asserted. “Twenty years ago we developed and established the integration of science instruction with students’ majors….Members of the Science Department (none of whom were at Columbia College at the time of these developments) have submitted papers for publication in which they misrepresent these ideas as their own….In any other university, this unprofessional behavior would be met with severe and immediate repercussions–at Columbia College, this behavior is allowed to continue, apparently for political reasons.”

The report invited readers to compare an article that Papacosta and his colleague Ann Hanson had published in the Journal of College Science Teaching in February 1998 with Lerman’s professional papers. Lerman wanted me to see for myself, so she faxed me their 1998 article and a paper of her own written 11 years earlier. What I read were two discussions of the same subject: techniques practiced at Columbia College to teach science to liberal arts students. They were no more similar than they were bound to be.

Lerman has always let the chips fall where they may. Interviewed for an oral-history project posted on the college Web site, she lamented a drift toward mediocrity after Alexandroff retired. The science faculty was full of deadwood. “If you really want to be a scientist and you’re very good at it, first you go to the Ivy Leagues, then you go to the Big Ten, then you go to the third level, which is the next big state school, then you go to the liberal arts colleges that are extremely good, then you go to community colleges that are still very good and have very good science. If all of them don’t hire you, then you go to a place that is a dead-end.”

Lerman persevered in this stifling atmosphere, but she told her interviewer that every day was a struggle. “I have a tremendous debate, because with all the fame that I have I could just say, ‘To hell.'”

In October 1999, after waiting in vain for Columbia College to defend their integrity publicly, Papacosta and Hanson sued Lerman, her colleague Keith Kostecka, and the college itself for defamation. The college settled out of court two months ago, with Papacosta and Hanson receiving $250,000 but Lerman and Kostecka conceding nothing. Lerman told the Columbia Chronicle, the school’s weekly newspaper, “If it were up to me, I would have pushed to have it go to trial. The insurance company insisted on settling. I’m extremely disappointed that the college would rather settle than defend the principled position.” She also said, “My colleagues at Harvard, Yale and Princeton cannot believe that it has actually come to this.”

Chronicle reporter Ryan Adair says Lerman warned him that if he misquoted her she’d sue. “I’m not positive if she was joking.”

Lerman’s lament that the college had shrunk from battle struck some readers as hilarious. “I just had to LAUGH ALOUD!!!” chortled the author of a derisive screed E-mailed to the Chronicle. “She’ll do everything AND anything she can to protect her EXTREMELY EASY, HIGHLY PAID job, and her inflated ‘self-perception’ of her academic importance. Lerman said, ‘…my colleagues at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton…’ PAH-LEEEEZ!!! If she truly does have ANY colleagues at those schools you can surely bet that they work in the Janitorial Depts.”

This letter arrived anonymously, and the Chronicle broke its own rules by publishing it. Lerman read it, then talked to her lawyer and to Warrick Carter, Columbia’s new president. Carter spoke to the academic dean, Caroline Latta, who kicked Jim Sulski, the Chronicle’s faculty adviser, off the paper.

Amber Holst was then editor of the Chronicle. She thought what happened to Sulski was outrageous, and she went looking for Carter. “This is the man who, when he was touring the school, said everything he was going to do was for the benefit of the students, blah blah blah,” she says. “So I go over there. Carter’s been kind of strange to me since the E-mail story.”

The Chronicle did itself proud last January with its aggressive coverage of Carter’s E-mail to a mortgage banker in Georgia. It had gone astray and been read by just about everyone in the college, who learned (1) that their new boss’s last job hadn’t been as fancy as everyone thought, and (2) that he struggled with grammar and spelling.

Holst continues. “So I go in and say, ‘Hi, Wanda. I know Dr. Carter has an open-door policy. I’d like to see him right now.’ She says, ‘No, he can’t see you until June 20.’ I said, ‘I’ll wait.'” Knowing Carter had somewhere to get to that afternoon, Holst hunkered down by the elevators. Presently Carter came out. “He looks at me. ‘Amber, how are you?’ I said, ‘May I escort you?’ He says, ‘I have an appointment far away.’ I say, ‘Great. I have a lot to say.'”

She followed him into the elevator. “I was angry. I probably said things I shouldn’t. I said, ‘A lot of people are viewing this as your way of finally getting back at us for running the E-mail story.’ He said, ‘That’s ridiculous.’ So we chatted for half an hour about quite a few things. I was very upset at the message this [firing Sulski] was sending to the journalism department. I asked if Zafra’s [Lerman’s] lawyers had called him. He said yes. I said, ‘Are they threatening a lawsuit?’ He told me, basically, you need to talk to Caroline Latta. I said, ‘She said to talk to you.’ I asked Carter what to tell people at the paper who were upset and ready to walk out. He said I should tell them nothing’s officially happened. Jim’s just temporarily suspended.”

But even before the unsigned rip job made it into the Chronicle the school was on Sulski’s case. Back in March there’d been a mass exodus of staffers from the Chronicle after Holst fired sports editor Graham Couch. Getting no satisfaction from Carolyn Hulse, head of the journalism department, the staffers wrote Dean Latta accusing Sulski of blatant and demoralizing favoritism toward Holst and asking for a new adviser “better suited to handle this position.”

As the college was starting to look into that, the anonymous attack on Lerman ran. The next issue of the Chronicle published a statement–which nobody on the paper signed–that said publishing the letter was a violation of Chronicle policy and “We deeply regret the error.” The May 29 Chronicle, the last of the school year, carried a raft of letters. Hulse and Carter wrote regretting the letter. Students of Lerman’s said it “appalled” them. Geology professor Gerald Adams of Science and Mathematics congratulated Papacosta and Hanson on their settlement, and noting that Lerman had never kept an appointment to give a deposition, called her “much more adept at empty posturing from the security of her office than in telling the truth, under oath, on the witness stand.”

Insults seem to roll off Lerman’s back. “In Israel [her homeland], boys and girls are drafted equally at 18. We mature very fast. We don’t have 50-year-old boys.” Meaning Adams? “This is what he is, yes,” says Lerman, who insists, “I was dying to give a deposition. Dying. I was ready to go.” She says, “I think I’m recognized nationally and internationally enough by everybody that a slander by a few peons I can handle.”

III. Epilogue

Here’s a thought–and Columbia’s feuding scientists just prompted it: If Wade Roberts is truly “a paragon of interdisciplinary cooperation,” he probably should be running the entire college. And if he’s as competent as he’s now said to be, he’d never be caught flat-footed–not the way Columbia’s bosses were when they tried to put him in charge of the journalism department.

Executive vice president Bert Gall told me Columbia had looked into the allegations against Roberts and concluded “that there was insufficient evidence that it did or didn’t happen.” The college’s research had turned up “a negotiated settlement, which seemed to suggest that there was a lack of clarity and finality to it.” In fact, said Gall, who’s read the terms of the Sun-Times’s settlement with Roberts, there was reason to believe that when Roberts came to the college he gave the Sun-Times as a reference.

In other words, Roberts’s removal from the Sun-Times had been greased with lawyerly ambiguities. And since he still maintains that the Texas bar existed, and no one has ever proved conclusively that it didn’t, Columbia decided to cut him some slack. “I had heard about some problems he had had,” Warrick Carter told me this week, “but was led to believe they were minor. And since nothing had been proven in the true sense of guilty, I’d been assured by an adviser that would not be a problem.” He didn’t understand how deeply his journalism faculty objected to Roberts until he read the coverage in the papers. “If I had had all the information to make an informed decision,” he says, “maybe the decision would have been different.”

Ryan Adair is Holst’s heir apparent at the Chronicle. “I have very mixed feelings about taking over as editor in the fall. Columbia seems to be just a mess now,” he E-mailed me. “The whole situation of removing Jim as our advisor was a horrible snap decision made by the administration. They honestly have no clue how our newspaper works and operates.”

When Carolyn Hulse resigned, she said she’d step down as head of the journalism department on September 1, the beginning of the next school year. After the storm broke, President Carter unilaterally moved up the date of her resignation to last Friday. It was as if the college needed a culprit for its troubles, and she was it. Until the college names a new provost–who will appoint a new dean of media arts, who will appoint a new journalism chair–the journalism faculty will nominate and rank five candidates for the post of acting department head. Hulse, who remains on the faculty, is certain to be on that list and may lead it.

The school year thankfully came to an end last Sunday with graduation at the Pavilion. Holst, who wasn’t sure she wanted to shake Carter’s hand when she accepted her degree, wound up hugging him. “A brilliant young woman,” says Carter. The president, a jazz musician, scored points he dearly needed when he joined the band onstage at the Green Dolphin celebration and took over the drums.

“I can’t tell you how much suffering has been going on here,” said a journalism teacher delighted by Carter’s show of pizzazz. “Columbia has never aired its laundry like that before. This business was truly–it touched something. It touched us to the core of our beliefs. It was like we [the journalism department] were speaking a different language from the rest of the institution, and they finally realized we were touching into their core values.”

News Bites

When a newspaper wants something really badly, it sometimes pushes what it knows to help make it happen. Nothing would make the Tribune happier than new runways at O’Hare. So it took a poll and on May 15 headlined the results as good news–“O’Hare neighbors say they can handle noise.” In fact, half of the residents in the suburbs closest to O’Hare called the noise there a “major or serious problem,” and three-quarters said that if the city promised to build extra runways solely to relieve congestion but not to add more flights, they wouldn’t believe the promise.

Two days later there was another hopeful headline: “Ryan cracks door on runway / Peotone a priority, but he wants to see O’Hare plan.”

In the story, Ryan took pains to describe his curiosity as idle. “I’d be glad to look at it. I doubt if it’ll change my mind,” he said. “If I’m going to be accused of being against runways, somebody ought to give me a plan to be against.”

Editorial pages rarely meddle in union races. On May 17 the Sun-Times made an unusual endorsement in the Chicago Teachers Union election, backing president Tom Reece for another term. The Sun-Times was so taken with Reece that it referred to the other candidate simply as “his foe.” Her name was Deborah Lynch-Walsh, and she won.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Mike Tappin.