Phony Papers vs. Joking Posters

By April 15, 2005

While this is certainly not a FIRE case, it is, undeniably, a pretty funny story from today’s Chronicle of Higher Education (registration required):

Fill a paper with gobbledygook, add some fake charts, slap on a title dense with highfalutin scientific jargon, and—voilà!—a highfalutin conference may actually accept it.

That’s what happened when three students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology submitted a nonsensical research paper to the ninth World Multi-Conference on Systemics, Cybernetics, and Informatics, scheduled to be held in Orlando, Fla. in July.

The paper, called “Rooter: A Methodology for the Typical Unification of Access Points and Redundancy,” was accepted by the conference organizers late last month. A computer program the students had created in about three weeks to churn out phony computer-science language randomly generated their four-page paper.

Sometimes people seem to think that while it may be reasonable to oppose government officials’ usurping powers over speech, association, religion, etc., we should be more willing to give these powers over to college administrators or faculty because, presumably, they are more enlightened and will use their power more justly. As I have often had to argue, the people who run colleges and universities are just people, flawed and capable of mistakes and abuses of power just like anyone else. The above story is just a funny example of this fallibility, but it should remind readers that our civil liberties need to be strongly protected under all circumstances because errors of judgment and abuses of power can take decidedly un-funny forms. Let’s not forget last fall’s case of University of New Hampshire student Tim Garneau:

DURHAM, N.H., October 28, 2004—The University of New Hampshire has evicted a student from housing for posting fliers in his residential hall joking that freshman women could lose the “Freshman 15” by walking up the dormitory stairs. The public university found him guilty of violating policies on affirmative action, harassment, and disorderly conduct, and has sentenced him to mandatory counseling and probation along with his eviction.

In appealing his sentence, student Timothy Garneau explained that the flier was intended to make light of the common frustration with people who delay the elevator by taking it for just one or two floors instead of taking the stairs. UNH rejected his appeal, and Garneau was ordered to move out of his dormitory. Garneau reports that he is currently living out of his car.

One of the things that makes UNH different, however, is that I am still not sure that, despite our eventual victory in this case, those involved understand that they did something wrong by evicting the student in the first place. Those of you who are interested might want to contact UNH to see if Brad Williams, the resident director who was responsible for this whole ordeal, was ever punished for his cruel and flagrant disregard of his students’ rights or if he, like so many administrators who abuse their power, was simply allowed to keep going about his job believing that he had done his job correctly and that it was rather that pesky Constitution that was
wrong.

Schools: University of New Hampshire