A Straw Man, Pilloried, is Still Only a Scarecrow


Last Monday, my alma mater announced it was closing its doors because it couldn’t afford to keep the lights on anymore.  It had struggled for decades with financial instability, going so far as trying (in the early 1990s) to sell the entire campus and move 200 miles to Sacramento.

Well, the school’s closed. The alums are frustrated, hurt, many are crying. For several days, I felt no emotions one way or the other because I resigned myself to the fact the place would close quite some time ago. The posts on Facebook’s Bethany Alumni site mostly reminiscent; some sad, some angry, but largely 1600 members of an online family who are all hurting.

So, this was posted by a few days ago by Margaret Shelton, the wife of the current president:

“Good evening Facebook friends.
Many of you have had conversations on Facebook in regards to the money problems at BU. I quote from a reliable source;
“BU students past and present owe Bethany $3,203,981.68.”
Sleep well BU Alumni.”

The post roused a firestorm of anger, speculation, and finger pointing. within an hour there were more than 30 comments trying to figure out what exactly that number meant, where it came from, how it could be so large, and who was responsible for it. Ultimately, people wondered who Shelton was pointing her finger toward. There were several people who said “Hey! I paid my school bill in full, x number of years ago!”

To her credit, she deleted the post in the early hours of the morning, along with all the comments that followed the thread, and she replaced it with an apology.

For a time, I thought no more of it. I thought it was notably good of her to apologize for the inflammatory message. People had been questioning her husband’s decisions as President. She was clearly looking for somewhere to deflect the blame from him. I thought it was both a childish and angry tactic, but I’ll be darned if it didn’t work really well. The larger part of the alumni group wanted to hunt down, capture, and shake the former students by the ankles until $3.2M dropped from their pockets.

But I let the comment go, and chalked it peoples’ upset. I’d be upset too, if there were a roiling undercurrent of anger or toward my spouse’s work at their job.

That was until the post that arrived June 18 (2 days later), also from Margaret:

Alumni has 3,203,981 ways they can help BU

It currently has 51 comments and a dozen or so “likes”. It’s the same tired words.  We bad, evil naughty alumni owe $3.2M and the tone insinuates, well, “what were naughty children thinking to ruin your alma mater this way?”

A few people spoke up immediately. They saw the tactic as diversionary. A few noted that $3.2M hardly covers 1/5 the total university debt. Nobody’s mentioned that Bethany operated without a trained Financial Aid staff for much of the last fiscal year, and were, for several months, advertising for a Student Accounts manager. If Bethany were operating in these conditions, it’s not surprising students have outstanding debt totaling into the millions. I’m betting, without knowing the specifics, that a number of students were given  a “line of credit”, not for the benefit of the students, but for the staff themselves, who were trying to cope with a heap of insurmountable paperwork, account billings, etc. My guess is an *administrative* decision was made, to do this. If students were given a line of credit by the school on good faith, and then defaulted to the tune of 3.2M, that was a business practice, and a bad one at that. If the college lagged in collecting, they are equally as culpable as the students to whom they loaned the cash. A few Alums made the excellent point that students are not allowed to walk the line unless their accounts were cleared. Hell, I’m pretty sure that in the 1980s/1990s we weren’t allowed to enroll unless our accounts had all payment options arranged. All that to say, Alums aren’t the problem.  The banks come after us if we don’t pay our loans, but Bethany already got their money, whenever we signed that promissory note to have our souls sucked out by Corporate America.

I understand the need to keep warm bodies in a chair. Really I do. It’s probably tough to run an educational institution with nobody to educate.  But deflective rhetoric, and blaming the one of the groups who cares more than any other about the continued success of the University.

I was quite angry when these two posts were added to the facebook Alum Group. In fact, when I started this post (about an hour after Margaret’s first statement), I was furious, and ready to let her have it with 2 barrels of rock salt. I’ve since settled down. Yet, even a few days away from the post, it strikes me as sad and petty to employ this type of straw-man rhetoric. The alums aren’t the problem. We’ve paid our debt. The faculty and staff aren’t the problem. They gave, in blood, for decades, to keep the place open. I’m also glad to point out that the current president isn’t to blame–he inherited a sinking ship. I’m sorry, Margaret, but the burden of blame lies elsewhere. There’s been a lot of time for finger pointing (although it seems many have a lot more time on their hands than others), and plenty of threads have produced sound, not-so-sound, and “interesting” reasoning as to why any particular group is to blame. But it doesn’t really solve any problems, does it? It doesn’t make the debt go away. I guess, if it makes you feel better, go ahead and blame the Alums. Still, what’s the words in Matthew? “Ye shall know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles?” or, I might ask, $3.2M of the Alumni?

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7 thoughts on “A Straw Man, Pilloried, is Still Only a Scarecrow”

  1. I’ve debated commenting on this thread. On the one hand, I don’t want to sound hyper-defensive of my spouse, like Mrs. Shelton has done. On the other hand, I feel I have something to contribute, and rarely being one to keep my opinions to myself… well, here we are… take this cum grano salis.
    I didn’t see the original post, nor any of the comments in response. I did see the apology and was somewhat impressed; it takes some degree of character and humility to make a public apology like that. However to follow that retraction and apology so shortly afterwards with a comment saying essentially the same thing, but couched in nicer words was disappointing. It didn’t infuriate me, as it did Brian, but I’ve had to learn to guard my anger with respect to Bethany, or I’d be angry quite a bit, and I choose not to live angry any more. What I felt was mainly disappointment, with a mixing of disgust and a bit of wonderment at the number of logical fallacies that led to such a statement.
    • Disappointment because I thought the apology meant something. To err, then apologize, then repeat the action a few days later shows a lack of remorse in my book. I’m not saying that I haven’t done the same on other, albeit less public, occasions. But to see this leader of the Bethany community do so was disappointing. And no, not because I feel that a ‘Bethany leader’ should be perfect; I realize that we’re all human, yadda, yadda. But let’s face it, leaders in any community – and this is especially true in Christian communities – are held to a higher standard. We expect a degree of professionalism at all times from our leaders, regardless of the fact that our Facebook method of communication is an informal social medium. While I estimate that I’ve only read about a third of the posts on the site, I’ve been very impressed with posts from some of the trustees, especially Jim Braddy, Jay Herndon and Lynda Heiden. Their posts show the appropriate degree of sensitivity to the community, and convey that they are giving as much information as they can, without spotlighting their personal pain at having to be involved in this mess, and not being able to achieve the outcome we all desire. In my opinion this is a quality of a good leader, showing an awareness of how you are perceived by others. In the words of FDR (paraphrased later by Spiderman) “great power involves great responsibility.” Of course that is also a paraphrase from one of Jesus’ parables. As the wife of the still-sitting president, Mrs. Shelton falls into that category of community leader for me, and I would expect her to be more conscientious in her posts. To me, the subsequent post came out sounding a bit snarky, especially knowing what had preceded it.
    • Disgust because I know some of the background regarding the $3.2M figure. For example, I believe that in the early to mid 2000s, Student Accounts would turn debts over a certain age to a collection agency, and after a specified period of time, they would write it off, a common business practice with bad debts. I know students who were turned away and not allowed to enroll in subsequent semesters because of funds owed from previous terms. So, every time I see this $3.2M figure bandied about as money owed to the college by “students past and present”, I want to know what proportion is “past” and what proportion is “present”. $3.2M seems a huge figure to most of us, but it represents about two-thirds of the annual tuition revenue (http://nces.ed.gov/ipeds/datacenter).
    I know, too, that in the last academic year, both the Financial Aid Office and the Student Accounts Office were grossly under-staffed. Since these two offices are the ones primarily responsible for obtaining the financial aid to help students pay their bills, and for the assessing and collecting of student debt to the institution, I want to know how much that has impacted that $3.2M figure.
    I know, too, that Bethany has a long history of giving substantial unfunded tuition discounts as entitlements to students. For most universities, when a student receives a scholarship from the university, there are actual funds to back that up. Somebody has given some money, and the school put it into an endowment fund somewhere that it’s accruing interest, making even more money (even in this poor economy!), and they pull from this fund to pay for these scholarships. In essence, the student doesn’t have to pay that portion of his bill, but *somebody* is giving the school money for him. Not so at Bethany. The majority of Bethany scholarships are unfunded, meaning there is no dollar value; nobody pays Bethany for that portion of the student’s tuition. According to IPEDS (see link above), approximately ¾ of Bethany students received institutional aid, and that aid averaged about $6700 per student in FY2009. With tuition being $18,300 per year, that’s more than 30% off tuition. That’s 30% of potential funds per year that were essentially not charged. Now, I’m the first to admit that I absolutely *loved* being able to tell students that they had “free” money coming to them. I loved the feeling that I was helping them achieve their educational goals. But I also realized that this was an unsustainable model and spoke to administrators about the fact that we weren’t funding this, and that we needed to try to raise funds for an endowment; I was summarily ignored. From a business perspective, it would be like having a big 30% off sale that lasts for 9 months. You have a lot of happy customers, but you either have to inflate your core price, or you go out of business.
    • And finally, the logical fallacies. Which was, I think, the main thing that angered Brian, according to the title of this blog post. Other friends and I have noted (privately) that some of the conclusions being drawn on the alumni page from the few facts that are known by most of us seem specious, at best. We’ve noted how it’s like that game Telephone, where if enough people say something, it becomes an assumed fact. A quick look at the posts by folks that are being purported as “facts” reads like a primer in rhetoric and the study of debate/argumentative reasoning. I could find examples of nearly every kind of logical fallacy being used to explain away why the college is closing. Straw men a plenty. Arguing to get pity for one’s point of view, yup. Appeal to the majority, check. Appeal to popular sentiment, you betcha. and on and on, etc. This is why I’ve largely stopped reading the posts: they’re not informative, they’re speculative and some of the folks have no real knowledge of what is really happening, so they presume, and then others take that up as – pardon the expression – gospel. The issue of the $3.2M is, in my opinion, a red herring – a diversion thrown out to find a concrete ‘fact’ upon which we can lay the blame. The sequence of events made it look like she was saying that everything would be all better if only this $3.2M were paid, and then the school wouldn’t have to close, so it’s the fault of the alumni who haven’t paid that the school is closing. And by addressing to the group, it made it appear that there were many of us at fault. I’d venture to say that the majority of students past and present who still owe the college were not satisfied with the experience they had at Bethany, and likely have not joined, nor do they monitor that alumni page. Collecting the $3.2M would be a start, but it’s a long way from the end goal; not even the first leg of the relay completed.
    My one-and-a-half cents. Let the de-friending commence.

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  2. A couple of quick thoughts… First, posting mean-spirited comments on a Facebook page is not a legitimate means of debt collection. Second, it’s always better to have the class to find a reasonable forum to vent one’s anger than to release it on the masses. There’s a lot I don’t know here, but it stands to reason that someone should have taken steps to collect on student loans long before now. As has been said, the alumni aren’t the problem here. It’s sad that she’s missing the outpouring of love that’s going on right now…

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  3. I know that if my family was in a financial crisis and facing the inability to feed my children, and someone owed me a significant or even small amount of money, I would try to collect it. Wouldn’t you? In spite of all the situations that went into the debt and failure to collect previously, I would still try to collect what someone owed me. Simple as that. If we owe, we should pay. Margaret’s intentions whether good or bad, should not change that fact. Pay up.

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  4. If that’s true that there are $3.2M in unpaid bills, that’s an example of the failure of administration that has led the school to this point in the first place. I know a student this year who called 6 times to try to pay his bill and never call a call back. However, people shouldn’t be offended that someone pointed out that other people still owe money to the school.

    If you paid your bill, she’s not talking about you, forget it.

    I understand that someone might be upset that they took over captaining the Titanic after it already hit the iceberg and now share the blame, but that’s the gig you take. The administration, district office, churches and alumni share the blame on this disaster.

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  5. Out of pain and frustration, people say all kinds of things- sometimes inappropriate, wrong or mean. But of course, you’ve NEVER done that, have you Brian? When you’re associated with leadership, you’re on a pedestal, and every last word is dissected by the throngs of people who have no idea what it’s like to face the unique pain and pressure of the position you’ve been in. GOOD LORD man, she made an error. LET IT GO. Don’t take offense at this woman’s comment in the midst of a very difficult situation and hang your hat here. You’re better than that.

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  6. What a horrible comment to make. Back in our day georgia had us packaged to a tee for financial aid and I paid my student loans… Bethany didn’t engender a giving back spirit in me… Just the way it was. It was a low blow from a sad and weary woman. Hopefully time and distance heal her heart.

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  7. Ouch. But true! It’s “too late, ba-by, now, it’s too late…” Just chalk it up to the emotional vomiting that happens at a breakup.

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