Teachable Moment at Medill

, Malcolm A. Kline, Leave a comment

One of the nation’s premier journalism graduate programs is facing a credibility crisis over one of the programs it showcases on its  website.  “Northwestern spokesman Al Cubbage released a statement Wednesday afternoon accusing professor and former Medill Innocence Project Director David Protess of ‘making false and misleading statements’ to Medill Dean John Lavine and court prosecutors about documents the Cook County Court subpoenaed in 2009,” a staff report in the Daily Northwestern that appeared on April 6, 2011 revealed. “The documents were related to Protess’s work with the Medill Innocence Project on the case of convicted murderer Anthony McKinney from 2003 to 2006.”

The Medill School is based at Northwestern. As of this writing, Protess remains on leave but on the payroll. As its name suggests, those working for the Innocence Project operate on the assumption that convicts may have been wrongfully convicted.

When the county prosecutor in Illinois attempted to obtain information from Protess’s students about the aforementioned case, Northwestern originally sided with Protess. “However, in June 2010 the University discovered that there were many inconsistencies emerging between Protess’ representations and the facts,” the Northwestern statement read. “Mr. McKinney’s lawyers produced in court student memos they said were received from Protess or from the Medill Innocence Project at his direction – documents Protess had said were never shared outside Medill.”

“As a result, it became clear that the position the University had taken in court concerning the students’ memos was not supportable.” Protess’s students describe him as, among other things, “entertaining and interesting,” but even one of his admirers noted that “he’s sometimes too busy w/ other stuff to help out former students down the road.”

“David has charisma that carries over into his teaching,” another fan wrote on ratemyprofessors.com. “Some may see it as arrogance, but what he does is incredible.”

“Dave will watch your back if you hang out with him,” another protégé offered.

The professor’s detractors also offer some illuminating insights. “Full of himself,” one wrote.  “Loves to see his name in the press.”

“But a magnetic personality.”

“I had this jerk as my advisor for one year,” another student remembered. “When I tried to switch schools he didn’t want anything to do with me.”

“More wrapped up in getting a Pulitzer than caring about his students.”

The Innocence Project is actually a national movement that began in 1992 at Cardozo Law School and spawned the Innocence Network. The latter has chapters and branches in law schools and journalism schools around the country.

“The development of DNA testing has allowed the Innocence Project to help exonerate

238 factually innocent Americans – 17 of whom were on death row awaiting execution,” Innocence Project co-founder Peter Neufield claimed in testimony before the House Judiciary Committee Subcommittee on Crime in 2009.

Malcolm A. Kline is the Executive Director of Accuracy in Academia.

If you would like to comment on this article, e-mail mal.kline@academia.org