Monday, January 14, 2013

J. Scott Douthat: The Specter of SSU's Anemic Academic Reputation

What Professor Douthat and his students did at the Celebration of Scholarship, 
as the photo of him speaking at the Celebration suggests to me,  was to revive
 the Bela Lagosi-like  specter of SSU’s anemic academic reputation. 


In 2012, a sociology professor at Shawnee State University, J. Scott Douthat, conducted a class whose ambitious aim was to address the many social and economic problems of Portsmouth. Such a daunting task would seem to require a multidisciplinary approach. Anyone addressing Portsmouth’s many problems—the poverty, unemployment, drug addiction, prostitution, political corruption, etc.—would need to understand not just sociology but also economics, political science, history, and other disciplines. Is Douthat multidisciplinary? What was the upshot of his class’s work? What conclusions did they reach? As the story on the front page of the SSU student newspaper The Chronicle put it in April 2012, the conclusion Professor J. Scott Douthat and his student researchers presented at the annual Celebration of Scholarship was that Portsmouth needs to be revitalized to become “the ‘All American [sic] City’ it once was 33 years ago . . .” As a former faculty member I’m embarrassed by such nonsense. The ignorance implied in the statement reflects poorly on us all. That Douthat conducts a real estate business in Portsmouth, rents to students, and has a private consulting practice, in addition to his full-time faculty position at SSU, may help explain why his students are not better prepared.

      One of the disciplines Professor Douthat and his students showed a poor grasp of at SSU’s 2012 Celebration of Scholarship is history, and in particular Portsmouth’s history. Contrary to what Douthat and his students mistakenly assumed, “33 years ago” was not the Golden Age of Portsmouth. On the contrary, In 1979-1980 Portsmouth was at perhaps its lowest point, at least politically, in the twentieth century, which was not surprising since the city had begun going downhill economically, socially, and politically after the Second World War. By 1979, when Barry Feldman (click here) was Portsmouth’s controversial city manager, the city was in desperate need of public relations. But Douthat and his students naively assumed, because Portsmouth had been designated an All-America City by the National Civic Association in 1979, that that period was Portsmouth’s finest hour. The promoter of All America City is the National Civic League (NCL), which was, and still is, primarily in the public relations business, which it is very good at. Cities looking to improve their image and reputation enter NCL’s annual All America City contest. One of the aims of public relations is to spin the news so that the public is too confused to know which side, or which city, is up. The essence of public relations is to use words and images to make anything, no matter how bad, look good or at least better. The historian Daniel Boorstin wrote wryly, “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some hire public relations officers.” What some cities wanting to improve their reputations do is enter the National Civic League’s All-America City contest, as Portsmouth did in 1979. As an employee of NCL candidly admitted, the All-America City award is often used by the winners “for signs, for civic pride [and] to sell their city to corporations.” 

    Unfortunately, Portsmouth found no takers. Corporations continued their exit from our river city after 1979. What the city is left with now is little civic pride, no large corporations, and a big peeling icon of the All-America City on the river side of the flood wall. Peeling or not, it apparently still can fool some people, including Douthat and his students, into thinking Portsmouth’s past was so much better than its awful present. This is the stuff that myths, the ultimate in public relations, are made of.

      Mistakes or inaccuracies of any kind at SSU’s Celebration of Scholarship are unfortunate because the university from its founding in 1986 had gained a reputation as a  fourth-rate academic institution. U.S. News annually ranked SSU near the bottom of the lowest (fourth) tier of American colleges and universities. I wrote about those anemic rankings in April 2005:

Shawnee State is one of the 217 small liberal arts colleges that US News ranked for 2005. The 217 colleges are divided, by quality, into four tiers, the best in the top tier, the worst at the bottom. Shawnee State is one of 53 colleges in Tier 4, the bottom group. Not only that, it is near the bottom of the bottom group, and it has been ranked near the bottom of the bottom for at least a decade. By reputation (on a scale of 1 to 5) SSU is currently ranked at 1.6. There are only 4 colleges among the 217 that have a worse ranking.

What Professor Douthat and his students did at the Celebration of Scholarship, as the photo of him speaking on that occasion suggests to me, was to revive the Bela Lagosi-like  specter of SSU’s anemic academic reputation. Lagosi became famous playing  Dracula in the movies.

Bela Lagosi as the specter of SSU's anemic academic reputation
     Aside from looking the part, how did Douthat manage to raise the specter of academic anemia? Let me count the ways. Although he is a professor of sociology at SSU, Douthat’s B.A. and  Ph.D. degrees are both in psychology, not sociology, with the doctorate being specifically in forensic psychology. Yet he is, an associate professor of sociology at SSU and the coordinator of the department’s sociology major. The ideal venue for a forensic psychologist is the courtroom, not the classroom. Be that as it may, Union Institute and University, a primarily online institution where Douthat received his Ph.D. in 2005, is not, or at least was not, the best place to have a Ph.D. from in any field. In a useful consumer protection website, Ripoff Report, a frustrated Ph.D. candidate in religious studies wrote a long, detailed complaint in 2004 of his unhappy experiences with Union. “Now, as usual,” the candidate wrote, “further attempts to get the administration to update and correct my records and my program, have met with silence and inaction. This is only one string in this very long and complicated series of problems in which all attempts to get things cleaned up have met with, at most, a momentary flutter of activity that has resulted in no significant change except for often creating more problems.” One dissatisfied student, or perhaps he should be called customer, is one thing, but a complaint from an agency of the state of Ohio and another from the federal government is something else. In 2002, the Ohio Board of Regents (OBR) issued a report critical of Union’s Ph.D. program, finding that “expectations for student scholarship at the doctoral level were not as rigorous as is common for doctoral work . . .” As was reported in the Cincinnati Inquirer, the OBR called for a major overhaul of Union’s Ph.D. programs. Not long afterward the U.S. Department of Education (USDE) became concerned that the millions of federal dollars that were going to subsidize Union graduate students were not being distributed according to federal guidelines. The USDE  insisted on more accountability before it would release more funds. Shouldn’t somebody at SSU insist on more accountability from students and especially from professors participating in the Celebration of Scholarship?

Portsmouth's unelected mayor, David Malone, trying to balance city budget
      Who if  anybody benefited from Professor Douthat’s  class? A chief public relations beneficiary of the 2012 Celebration of Scholarship was Portsmouth’s unelected mayor David Malone, who embodies to an egregious degree the incompetency, dishonesty, and financial and moral  bankruptcy of  Portsmouth’s politicians.  “Several of the solutions proposed by students  to mayor Malone have been implemented,” The Chronicle reported. “Mayor Malone recently implemented the students’ suggestion that inmates could perform public services and clean up the city.” Oh?  My recollection is that inmates have been doing clean up for a long time. I checked with former mayor Murray, who, unlike the out-to-lunch, philandering Malone, was elected mayor and did not come in through a trap door. She informed me that utilizing inmates did not start with Malone. They were already being utilized when she became mayor, but she, along with the probation director and Health Dept. staff expanded it to include “litter control, mowing, cleaning the city buildings, etc.” Another proposal that one of  Douthat’s students came up with was increasing the city’s property taxes. This proposal is so misguided as to be insulting to the property owners of the city. No one who knew anything about the recent history of property taxes and other taxes in Portsmouth would seriously propose it.

    An earlier generation of students, twenty years ago,  on their own initiative, made a big impact on SSU and later on the city. Because The Chronicle lacked true editorial independence, these crusading students started their own newspaper The Shawnee Sentinel. SSU did everything it could to suppress these students and prevent their newspaper from being distributed on campus. This is part of the hidden history of SSU that Douthat’s students and perhaps Douthat himself are oblivious to. One of those former students, Austin Leedom, has an archive that includes copies of The Shawnee Sentinel and thousands of other documents that bring to light SSU’s hidden history. If only his collection could be made part of the archives at the Clark Library, SSU students would not have to rely on unqualified professors and back copies of  the politically correct  Chronicle for their research. It is time that a stake be driven though the heart of the anemic corpse that is SSU’s reputation as a fourth-class institution.

The peeling All-America icon on the Portsmouth flood wall