Saturday, February 21, 2009

How Things Get Misconstrued - Setting the Record Straight

[Sat. Feb. 21, 2009, 8:15pm Thai time]
For the record, Steve Aufrecht is NOT investigating the terms of the BP-ARCO charter agreement with the university. At best, he's been poking around the subject. (For those of you wondering about the use of the 3rd person, while I'm not hiding my identity here, I'm also not trying to advertise it either.)

I got an email today telling me about this opinion piece in the ADN by history professor Steve Haycox. He's discussing Rep. Anna Fairclough's questions to University President Mark Hamilton regarding UA student lobbying and their opposition to development in Alaska. In it he writes:

His [Hamilton's] response is most welcome, for there have been questions raised recently about sanctions against respected university researchers who have produced reports critical of sacred cows. Biologist Rick Steiner criticized a Sea Grant initiative on offshore oil development; emeritus professor Steve Aufrecht is investigating the terms of the BP-ARCO charter agreement with the university.

I just want to set the record straight here. There's an implication: "questions have been raised recently about sanctions against respected university researchers." Then two university faculty are mentioned. First, as I said above, Steve Aufrecht has blogged about and raised some questions, but really has done nothing that he would claim to be 'investigating.' Second, to my knowledge, sanctions have not been discussed about him. I could be wrong on that score, but what sort of sanctions does one impose on faculty emerita? (From the University [of Alaska] Regulations 04.04.070: "the position of professor emeritus is the highest honor that can be bestowed upon a retiring faculty member. ")

So, how did Dr. Haycox come to these conclusions? My guess is that "there have been questions raised" refers to Philip Munger's post on his blog Progressive Alaska where he first discusses how Dr. Rick Steiner's signing of an open letter critical of the "North Aleutian Basin Energy-Fisheries Initiative, being implemented by the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF) and Alaska Sea Grant" resulted in his Dean chastising him in a three year post-tenure review for abusing his academic freedom.

Then, Munger raises another issue of interest to the university. He writes:

2. Dr. Steve Aufrecht's Investigation into the BP-ARCO Merger Charter Agreement and the University of Alaska

University of Alaska Professor Emeritus Steve Aufrecht has been trying to determine whether or not the so-called "Merger Charter Agreement" that enabled the formation of the entity now known as Conoco-Phillips is legally enforceable, or is a mere scrap of paper. If the agreement is enforceable, it appears quite likely that Conoco-Phillips owes the University of Alaska money. A lot of money.
I had considered commenting on this post to say that 'investigation' was probably a bit strong. Two blog posts and some inquiries, the way I see things, do not an investigation make. But since the rest of the post described what little had been actually done in this 'investigation' I decided to let it pass. (As I look at it again now, I'd say that I was reasonably sure it is enforceable and what I'd been asking was who was monitoring it to be sure the conditions were met.)

But now Haycox picks up the word investigation and lumps the two profs together to suggest that both face sanctions for their activities, when really only Steiner did according to Munger.

Many of us played a game as kids, where one person is given a short phrase to pass on to the next person and that person passes it on to the next, then the next, and the next for five or six more people. At the end, the phrase that the last person tells the group is often totally unrecognizable from the one that was given to the first person.

Here, a couple of blog posts and inquiries become an 'investigation.' And by not reading quite carefully enough, two people get lumped into the same category, though they really aren't. And people reading the opinion piece will come away with something else altogether.

And that's why I try to be really, really careful when I write, when I choose my words. And even if I were 100% successful in writing clearly - don't worry, not even close - everyone comes to a story with their own preconceptions and so they see what they want or expect to see. But I don't want to help them by using vague or misleading language.

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