Yesterday, The Boston Globe reported (hat tip: Inside Higher Ed) that Cambridge College in Massachusetts has hired an ex-FBI agent to find out who wrote the "Cambridge College Chronicle," a document the Globe describes as "an anonymous, widely circulated mock newspaper that condemned the chancellor and suggested the college is on the verge of closing." Chancellor Eileen Brown and Board of Trustees Chairman Jonathan Z. Larsen are arguing that that the author of the tract must be found because he or she supposedly believes that his or her "petty grievances, revenge fantasies and character assassinations take precedence over the mission and well-being of the college."
The background is that apparently, back in January, the college’s old president was fired for alleged financial misdeeds. And a close associate of that president who helped oversee the finances was let go just last week. So the college is understandably sensitive right now to statements that it is at risk of closing.
However, hiring private investigators to determine the identity of an anonymous author seems to me to be the wrong course of action for a college—from which you would have a right to expect some openness to differing views—to take in this situation. First of all, it sends the message that anonymous critics of the administration simply will not be tolerated. The chilling effect on expression of hiring an ex-FBI agent to pierce the cloak of anonymity is hard to overstate. It’s obvious that part of the intention of publicizing this investigation is to send the message that no anonymous whistle blowing will be tolerated at Cambridge College. This might be understandable on the most basic level—who wants to have people looking over his or her shoulder?—but at a college, and particularly a college where until recently there were substantial financial improprieties, it would seem that encouraging people to come forward if they had any evidence of similar problems would be the logical thing to do. Problems can’t be resolved if they aren’t discovered. Of course, if you see the existence of pesky critics as the real problem, hiring a professional to snoop them out makes a lot more sense.
Second, from a more practical standpoint, spending time and money trying to determine the identity of an anonymous critic rather than simply addressing the criticisms (or ignoring them if they are not credible) simply looks bad. Board Chairman Larsen is quoted in the Globe as saying, "Their aim seems to be nothing less than shutting down the institution they profess to love. There have been anonymous letters in the past; they have always been wildly inaccurate, ad hominem and cowardly, but this letter has gone too far, and the board must respond." It’s hard to conceive of a situation in which a document completely full of lies could by itself bring down an entire institution. I haven’t read the "Cambridge College Chronicle" and I don’t know if it’s truth, or lies, or a mixture of both. But a main function of a college or university is to allow ideas and assertions to compete in the marketplace of ideas so that through that competition, we may arrive at the truth of the matter. It’s hard to see how Cambridge College’s hiring of a professional gumshoe to ferret out an anonymous speaker will contribute to this process.