Wednesday, April 14, 2004

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Are campus crimes exaggerated?

Anne Hendershott has a provocative Chicago Tribune op-ed arguing that a University of Wisconsin-Madison student's bogus claims being abducted at knifepoint and enduring a five-day "imprisonment" are more common on campuses than many would think:

Duke University, Eastern New Mexico University, Northwestern University, San Francisco State, Guilford College, Miami University of Ohio, Iowa State and the University of Georgia are just the most recent campuses dealing with serious crime fabrications.

And, while most campus hoaxes involve "student-victims," the elite Claremont McKenna College recently found itself a victim of a faculty-perpetrated fraud when Kerri Dunn, a visiting psychology professor at the school, claimed to have been the victim of a hate crime. According to Dunn's initial crime report, someone had spray painted "shut up" on the hood of her car as it was parked in a college lot. She claimed that she was being silenced for speaking out against racism on the campus and that racist and anti-Semitic slurs on the roof and sides of her vehicle were proof of the racism that pervaded the Claremont campus.

Dunn received all the accolades that victims receive on college campuses. Campus administrators shut down the Claremont consortium of colleges for a day of anti-hate rallies and called in the FBI to investigate. By the time two eyewitnesses said that Dunn had damaged her own car, she had become a campus heroine.

Read the whole article -- Hendershott addresses rape cases as well.

posted by Dan on 04.14.04 at 09:09 AM


Aaah.... my beloved Guilford College. Why do you keep showing up on these lists? Students fabricating crimes? Check. Students sneaking fake bombs onto Southwestern Airline planes? Check. Maybe it's your Quaker heritage that forces you to fake violence.... or maybe it's the Greensboro water.

posted by: Arthegall on 04.14.04 at 09:09 AM [permalink]

I think its got more to do with stupidity than any external factor. Idiotic pranks always seem to be the hallmark of university life.

posted by: sam on 04.14.04 at 09:09 AM [permalink]

Well i have to wonder about the evidence at Miami University. The events took place while I went to school there in 1999. If this is one of the most recent issues that have come up in the past 4 plus years, then the problem is overstated by the writer. I continue to see the large majority of reports to be legitimate. This problem is small in comparison.

posted by: Patrick on 04.14.04 at 09:09 AM [permalink]

Actually, there is plenty of exaggeration in the opposite direction.

I was News Editor at my university's student paper and discovered that the school was very selective about which incidents were included in their statistics (e.g. many muggings that happened to students mere blocks off-campus were excluded).

There's quite a conflict of interest in schools compiling their own crime reports.

posted by: Joe Grossberg on 04.14.04 at 09:09 AM [permalink]

I have to point out that this story, like many others, is assuming facts not in evidence. While Ms. Dunn has been fingered by the FBI and Claremont Police, she has vehemently denied the allegation, and no charges have been brought against her. The local district attorney's office determined that the evidence provided by the police (and, presumably, the FBI) was insufficient for any criminal charge. As such, I don't think it is at all fair to say a hoax has been perpetrated. An accurate description would be that a hoax has been alleged.
Needless to say, it is clear that investigative authorities have been known to be wrong when alleging wrongdoing (see Lee, Wen Ho, and Jewell, Richard).
I make no claim here that she is innocent (in fact, I think she is likely to be guilty), but I do think that we have a responsibility to adhere to something resembling accuracy and critical thinking in these sorts of discussions. Unless some new information is being presented, this story boils down to hearsay on all sides.

(as a side note, I am, broadly speaking, a member of the Claremont Colleges community, both as an alumnus of Harvey Mudd College, a spouse of a faculty member, and a former adjunct professor there now teaching somewhere else)

posted by: Paul Orwin on 04.14.04 at 09:09 AM [permalink]

"I make no claim here that she is innocent (in fact, I think she is likely to be guilty), but I do think that we have a responsibility to adhere to something resembling accuracy and critical thinking in these sorts of discussions."

I would be far more likely to agree with you had Claremont McKenna College used some critical thinking and insistence on evidence before depriving its students of two days of classes. Have you sent a similar message to, say, the president of Claremont McKenna College informing him that his decision was premature because he wasn't sufficiently skeptical of Professor Dunn's claims?

posted by: Jim on 04.14.04 at 09:09 AM [permalink]

First off, the president of CMC is a woman, Pamela Gann. Secondly, at the time, the decision made jointly by the presidents of all five colleges (Scripps, Pomona, CMC, HMC, Pitzer) was to cancel classes for ONE day in light of the apparent egregiousness of the crime, coming on the tail of a number of apparent racial incidents (the cross-burning in December, followed by racial slurs on posters of George Washington Carver in Feb, and racial slurs directed at an African-American administrator).
Finally, regardless my statements above, how do the actions of any administrator at the Colleges wrt canceling classes effect your ability to weigh evidence? Do you commonly judge people guilty or innocent of crimes based on how a separate person acted under different circumstances? This, on its face, makes no sense. Whether Ms. Dunn did something wrong is indeterminate at this point, so it is completely inappropriate to use it as the basis for a discussion of campus overreporting of crime.

posted by: Paul Orwin on 04.14.04 at 09:09 AM [permalink]


I remember a while back here at Iowa State when that girl claimed she'd been kidnapped or held at gun point by several "black young men" dressed in sweat suits. It was made all the more credible by an actual mugging of an older man in the area, by some minority youths earlier.

Everyone believed her at first, but the police worked her over and the inconsistencies in her story - she got off without a scratch. Then she admitted she'd made the whole thing up.

When I asked some girls on campus about that, they all just shook their heads and said "attention," in that the girl wanted attention. Some girls will do just about anything for it, I guess. The Witches of Salem is just a story about some young girls and gullible bigots taking it to an extreme too far.

posted by: Oldman on 04.14.04 at 09:09 AM [permalink]

Just a theory: I suspect that most of these incidents are cries for attention. The focus on the "victim" (e.g., obsession with racism, feminism, and a lot of other -ism's) leads inevitably to a culture of extreme narcisism.

posted by: Ben on 04.14.04 at 09:09 AM [permalink]

Mr. Orwin writes, "As such, I don't think it is at all fair to say a hoax has been perpetrated. An accurate description would be that a hoax has been alleged."

But we the public are not a court of law, required to strictly adhere to standards of evidence. Our duty, to the extent that we pay attention to any given controversy and seek to contribute to it, is to exercise reasoned judgment, which in this case seems to favor a conclusion tha Professor Dunn did indeed perpetrate a malicious hoax.

The response of the administration, as Jim suggests, was also less-than-impressive, and we ought to subject it to reasoned judgment as well.

In my judgment, the episode was not merely scandalous and embarrassing, but dangerous in its implications.

posted by: Paul Cella on 04.14.04 at 09:09 AM [permalink]

Racism is a worldwide problem, affecting people of all races, and should never be excused. It should also not be fabricated.
There are reports of witnesses who observed Dunn defacing her own automobile.
Similar incidents have occurred at Gonzaga University and other schools.
Claiming to be the victim of a hate crime is a quick way to get major attention from an administration. It will work virtually every time, except in the cases where the person is caught as the perpetrator of their own crime.

posted by: RB on 04.14.04 at 09:09 AM [permalink]

Look, I am going to keep my final comment short and sweet. I don't mean that in public discourse we necessarily need to hold to the legal standard of guilt (obviously). However, it is, I think, unreasonable to decide that someone is guilty of an act (a crime? not sure)just because the FBI and police dept say that they are. Do you always believe them, or only when it fits your preconceptions?

posted by: Paul Orwin on 04.14.04 at 09:09 AM [permalink]

One more thing, just to note that I am not discounting the eyewitness testimony, but if I understand it correctly, they did not actually see her perform the act, but claimed to have seen her driving her defaced car back to the school after presumably defacing it herself. I don't know how to evaluate it per se, except to say that as far as I know it is uncorroborated.

posted by: Paul Orwin on 04.14.04 at 09:09 AM [permalink]

Didn't Claremont also recently have a case of an Asian student faking her own kidnapping? Does anyone have any comment?

posted by: L, McAllister on 04.14.04 at 09:09 AM [permalink]

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