By: ALLAN WOLPER
PETER SACKS, A pseudonym for a reporter who became a journalism professor at a West Coast community college, has written a blistering
first-person account of his campus experience.
He also suggests that faculty members who defy administrators anxious to please the students are in danger of losing their jobs and are denied tenure.
But journalism instructors believe Sacks’ refusal to identify himself, the college or the people he interviewed raises questions about his research.
Sacks, 42, says his r?sum? includes stints at newspapers on the East and West Coast, mostly covering business and the environment.
Sacks said students at his college terrorized professors into giving them high marks, often taking their case to timid administrators or threatening to destroy an instructor’s reputation on unsigned classroom evaluation forms.
He alleged that college officials at financially challenged institutions were treating students like consumers, allowing them to purchase high grades with their tuition money for a minimal amount of work.
His allegations were published in a book entitled, Generation X Goes To College, by Open Court Trade and Academic Books, in Chicago.
The author said he was in the process of resigning from the college because he felt he could not return to the campus after savaging it.
“Having written the book, it doesn’t feel right remaining there,” Sacks explained in a telephone interview from his West Coast home. “Keeping this secret and continuing to teach seemed hypocritical.”
Sacks, who refuses to disclose his real-life identity, said none of his colleagues knew that he had written about them.
“I did not want to embarrass my students or my colleagues,” he insisted. “What I described is happening everywhere. I didn’t want specifics to overwhelm the larger story.”
Sacks said he taught in a community college located in a mainly white, working- and middle-class suburb that was just beginning to draw a substantial number of minorities.
But community college instructors believe Sacks has committed an unpardonable journalistic sin by writing an alleged expos? about a school without giving it a chance to defend itself.
They question whether there is any difference between his book and Primary Colors, the roman ? clef of the 1992 Clinton presidential campaign that was initially said to be written by an author known as Anonymous.
The Washington Post discovered that Anonymous’ real name was Joe Klein, a columnist for Newsweek magazine.
“Sack’s book could all be made up,” said Nils Rosdahl, the recent past president of the Community College Journalism Association (CCJA). “To make it real, you have to identify the place you are talking about.”
Rosdahl said that community colleges that are in the CCJA have won a hard-earned reputation for excellence.
“I want him to name the school, selfishly, so readers would know it’s not that way here,” Rosdahl said from his office at North Idaho College. “We’ve won two Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Awards.”
Sacks insists that he has “good, solid, journalistic reasons for not identifying the college. Journalism is not a clear-cut science.”
He compared his fudging of names and places to a newspaper’s concerns about invading the privacy of underage juveniles and victims of sexual assault.
“We don’t identify adolescents,” Sacks noted. “We don’t name rape victims. When a newspaper doesn’t identify one rape victim, it doesn’t mean that all the other women in the country could be that rape victim.”
Reporter, who became j-prof, writes blistering account of his campus experience under the protection of a pseudonym Sacks indicated he would have published the institution if it were well-known or it served a social purpose.
“If I had worked at Harvard or Yale, or the New York Police Department, or the CIA, then there would be a compelling argument to come clean,” Sacks said.
Jolene Combs, the incoming president of CCJA and director of the journalism program at El Camino College in Torrance, Calif., sees Sacks as mixing ethical apples and oranges. “I don’t think he understands the legal and ethical issues of what he has done,” said Combs. “He is not helping the school by not identifying them. What he did was not journalism.”
She worried that Sacks’ brand of nonfiction journalism has already cast a wrongheaded shadow over all community college programs.”I was driving around one day and heard a couple of talk show hosts talking about the book and going on about how bad community colleges were,” Combs said. “That’s unfair.”
David Ramsay Steele, editorial director of Open Court, emphasized that his organization would not have produced the book if either the school or the writer were identified. “We spoke to our lawyers and they said the only way we could publish the book was to delete the names of everyone,” Steele said. “We see the book as a true story.
“The message of the book is that grade inflation has reached epidemic proportions in colleges and universities across the country.”
Sacks, meanwhile, is trying to decide whether to scour the country for a teaching job or scout the newsrooms for something in journalism.
He opted for a job in academic life after becoming burned out by what he saw as an epidemic of USA Today-like newspapers.”I was tired of prepackaged journalism,” he said. “The kind of journalism where you knew the answers before you asked the questions.”
?(Wolper, professor of journalism at the Newark campus of Rutgers University, covers campus journalism for E&P.) [Caption]