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Home / Articles / Views / Dodge's Bullets /  Grappling with preserving the past, for the future
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Thursday, November 21,2013

Grappling with preserving the past, for the future

By Jefferson Dodge

I had to write about a subject that is near and dear to my heart again, and I never quite know how to handle it.

It is the now-defunct faculty/ staff newspaper for the University of Colorado, Silver & Gold Record, where I worked for 12 years.

When we heard that CU physics professor Steven Pollock was going to receive the prestigious U.S. Professor of the Year award from the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and the Council for Advancement and Support of Education, I knew it was a big deal. I remembered when none other than Nobel Prize winner and former CU physics professor Carl Wieman won the same award years ago. I also remembered Pollock’s name, for some reason.

So in an effort to find a different angle than the daily newspaper chain would have when the news broke on Nov. 14, I did what I often do when there is CU news that rings a faint bell. I went to the old Silver & Gold Record archive. On the day I looked up his name on the search engine, the top two hits were stories that I had written in 2001 regarding a controversy surrounding him being granted tenure. Here was my angle! Pollock, who would now be the Big Man on Campus due to this national award that had only ever been given to one other faculty member in the state, was nearly denied tenure!

Even though I’d be quoting from my own stories in the process, I thought I was on solid ground, as long as we disclosed in an editor’s note that I was the one who had written the original articles while with the S&GR.

And when I interviewed Pollock that day, he mentioned in passing that his promotion to full professor in 2009 had been initially denied by the dean, until his department explained that his work on how to best teach physics — the very work for which he just received this prestigious award — constituted legitimate published research.

Things got stickier the next day, Nov. 12, when I went to search for those two stories on the S&GR archive again. They were gone. Curious, to say the least. Why would two articles, related to controversy surrounding a CU professor who was about to receive a huge national award, suddenly disappear from search results? Maybe I’m just a cynic, a skeptic, a conspiracy theorist. Could it be that CU officials didn’t want people — especially reporters doing research on the award winner — to see that he had such an uphill battle gaining promotion and tenure, considering the superstar that he turned out to be?

I told my editor that I might have a conflict of interest. Not only were they my stories, but I had taken great pride in building the S&GR online archive over the years, and when the CU administration closed us down, allegedly in the name of budget cuts, we were promised that the online archive would stay intact, serving as a permanent record of the nearly 40 years we had documented.

In the end, I wrote the story of the mysteriously disappearing articles as well, reluctantly, with an editor’s note that I had authored the missing stories, to disclose my relationship to the work and be transparent with our readers about any bias I might have. It was pointed out to me that I had no financial interest in seeing the articles survive the test of time, but I still had an emotional twang when it came to the possibility of having our archive purged, even in the slightest way, in the name of public relations. (I soon found the stories in another manner, by scrolling down the list of editions and finding the right date.)

Naturally, the PR folks denied any knowledge of missing articles, and the web developer who has sole access to the S&GR site insisted that he hadn’t taken down any stories in at least two months. The only time he had removed an article, he said, was when the subject of allegations outlined in an S&GR account had threatened to sue the university. This, of course, piqued my interest — an admission that the archive, which is supposed to serve as a permanent record of the university’s past, had been selectively edited. (Granted, a full collection of printed back issues are available in the university archive and the Boulder Public Library.)

When I asked Ken McConnellogue, spokesperson for the CU president’s office, about the story that was purged under threat of legal action, he replied via email, after press time: “Regarding the story that was removed, it was a piece from Aug. 26, 2004, by Marianne Goodland (UCD faculty member on leave in wake of Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaint). A subject of the story contacted us and said it had false and misleading information. She threatened a claim. Legal counsel determined there was potential exposure and exercised legal discretion to remove it from the site.”

My suspicion, given the track record we had at the S&GR, is that the story was not inaccurate at the time it was published. Maybe the individual was later exonerated, and that was something we never had the chance to report. Either way, the print version can’t be obliterated, thankfully. A small victory for paper. In this Google-driven age, when one’s chances of career advancement can be sabotaged by an Internet search that turns up an untoward allegation, the pressure on news agencies to purge their online records has never been more intense, especially in the face of legal action.

For my part, I’d like to think we would be wise enough to not go back to book-burning. As it says on the west face of Norlin Library, “Who knows only his own generation remains always a child.” In other words, those who forget the mistakes of their history are bound to repeat them. One role of a university, after all, is to serve as an open marketplace of ideas and a place where one can turn to consult the full body of knowledge we have amassed over the centuries.

And as I tell the students in the journalism course that I teach at CU (yes, Virginia, there is still a journalism program), one of the crucial roles of journalists is to document our present, to serve as a history book for the future.

I don’t know if those two measly stories were suppressed somehow. It’s small potatoes, in the scheme of things. But it can become a slippery slope.

I’ll give CU officials the benefit of the doubt, that it was just a technology snafu that removed these particular two articles, out of the thousands on the website, on this particular day.

But I sure hope these glitches don’t become a regular practice. We can’t afford to forget our past. Especially when it comes to teaching the next generation.

Respond: letters@boulderweekly.com

 

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