What’s the Matter: Tensions flare between ASUO president and UO Matters editor
Broken car windows are nothing new in Eugene, particularly around the University of Oregon. But it doesn’t often happen to two high-ranking ASUO officials about a mile apart in one night.
MacGregor Ehlen found the driver’s side window of his car had been smashed in late at night on Feb. 28.
Nothing was stolen.
He had recently raised some ire by appointing three fraternity brothers to the elections board, so he texted a photo of the damage to ASUO President Sam Dotters-Katz with the caption “Maybe I’m making too many waves as elections coordinator.”
Dotters-Katz called back an hour later. The ASUO president had just found that his own car’s tires had been slashed. His vehicle was the only one vandalized on the entire block. It was parked in front of his parents’ house in the College Hill neighborhood.
The two went down a list of people who could have had an axe to grind with both of them. One person stood out: Bill Harbaugh, a professor in the economics department, author of a divisive blog called UO Matters and a rival on the Intercollegiate Athletics Committee.
Ehlen acknowledges that it seems farfetched a tenured professor would sink to vandalism against students. But he isn’t ruling out any of Harbaugh’s supporters and readers.
“I don’t know if Bill did it personally. I’m not necessarily making that accusation. I think it has something to do with Sam’s and mine opposition toward Bill,” said Ehlen, who resigned from the IAC on March 3. “Even the professors I’ve talked to who hate Bill say this isn’t his M.O. I agree, but that’s not to say that he’s not involved indirectly.”
But it made sense to Ehlen and Dotters-Katz at the time: Tensions between the ASUO president and Harbaugh came to a head the previous day during an IAC meeting.
“People are finally calling Bill Harbaugh of @uomatters on his bullshit during this IAC meeting,” Dotters-Katz tweeted on Feb. 27. Harbaugh then retweeted it.
The day after the car vandalisms, a post on UO Matters contained an email allegedly sent from Dotters-Katz pointing a finger at Harbaugh and his “intimidation tactics.” Dotters-Katz wouldn’t comment whether he sent the email and the UO Matters post has since been removed. Ehlen had yet to file a police report as of March 4. Harbaugh denies any involvement.
“I obviously haven’t vandalized any cars,” Harbaugh said. “The first thing I heard about it was (Saturday) when I received an email from Sam with him accusing me of vandalizing his car. It’s really too bad that their cars were vandalized. That’s a really ugly thing to do.”
The accusation was the culmination of a term of back-and-forth within the IAC.
Harbaugh uses his popular blog and public records to crowbar information from the administration and the athletic department. Harbaugh has been lauded by some for his efforts to keep the school transparent and vilified by others who say he slanders and defames in his writings.
“Bill has willfully and merrily destroyed the ability of the committee to function, in my opinion, in order to create a dysfunctional relationship to help advance the false narrative of an unresponsive athletic department,” Dotters-Katz said. “He has to justify his ridiculous tactics and actions, but in doing so he destroys the ability of myself and the IAC to have that crucial external safeguard of student athletes.”
Ehlen decided to start his own blog called UO Matters Doesn’t Matter on Feb. 23, intending to give Harbaugh a taste of his own medicine. Harbaugh sent emails to the IAC, specifically Dotters-Katz and Ehlen, after comments on UO Matters falsely penned under the names of IAC members telling commenters to visit the new blog surfaced.
The first order of business during the Feb. 27 IAC meeting — the day of Dotters-Katz’s tweet — was to approve the previous meeting’s minutes. Even that was contested. Committee members quickly switched to the question of the day: Does the IAC function as it should?
Debate raged over whether Harbaugh and his role with UO Matters presented a conflict of interest. Some say he acts as a whistleblower. Others feel that UO Matters commentaries border on defamation. Dotters-Katz has been the subject of a UO Matters post accusing him of “intercepting“ emails to secure himself a position on the newly formed Board of Trustees.
The vandalism happened the night of Feb. 28.
A controversial figure within the university, Harbaugh has been running UO Matters since 2009. His efforts to help the faculty in union negotiations last summer led to an administration-run blog called UO Fact Check. He’s been awarded the First Freedom Award from the Society of Professional Journalists. He’s written headlines such as “Rob Mullens drives another student-athlete to drink.” He has a CafePress account that sells merchandise that displays the slogan, “University of Nike.”
“Whenever I ask him, ‘Bill why are you doing this in such an inflammatory way?’” UO professor and IAC member Andrew Karduna said, “his response would be ‘Andy, I used to be like you. I used to be where I would try and work it out and talk to people, and I got nowhere. This is the only way it works.’ That’s how he does things.”
Lately, Harbaugh has been pushing for the athletic department to foot the bill of academic support for student athletes, and send some money to fund scholarships for undergraduates. It’s a $2.5 million endeavor currently paid by the university, which Harbaugh rounds up.
“If we keep fighting, we’re going to get the three million bucks back,” Harbaugh said. “That’s why they’re trying to paint the committee as dysfunctional. They want faculty to stop fighting for the $3 million.”
There’s also the issue of whether the IAC has the authority to be a watchdog of the athletic department. It’s charged with advising, but the athletic department is not bound to divulge everything to the committee. Dotters-Katz has opposed Harbaugh because he feels that the blog exceeds the duties of the committee.
“In response to my actions opposing Bill’s antics, he has made things personal, routinely authoring blog posts about me which not only are filled with personal attacks and smears, but further consist of outright lies,” Dotters-Katz said.
Harbaugh, however, is undeterred. He has been elected twice to the IAC from the faculty senate by people who know he runs the blog.
“There is a lot of money in athletics. There are a lot of people getting rich off it. There are a lot of people that care a lot about it,” Harbaugh said. “And those people don’t like the faculty asking questions about it. They want to run it as a business where they can do what they want to do in private, but it’s a public university.”
The committee hasn’t functioned for some time. Chairman Rob Illig’s predecessor stepped down before Thanksgiving. The chair prior had been impeached. “In the spring I said, ‘Could this be saved?’ I sat on the meetings and watched to see if we could salvage a working relationship,” Illig said. “(Now) I’ve given up. In its present structure it doesn’t work.”
Jennifer Freyd, a psychology professor at the UO and member of the IAC, suggests that opening the meetings up to the public may remedy the toxic environment.
“If (the meetings) were open, it wouldn’t be all of Bill’s reporting,” Freyd said. “Let’s say Bill says something that isn’t true on UO Matters. Who’s going to be there to counter it? There’s no significant information flowing.”
Illig will address the faculty senate on Wednesday on what the future holds for the committee and the university’s relationship with its athletic department. He suggests a watchdog group appointed by faculty members seems the best course. Harbaugh, however, insists that being upfront with everyone is better.
“I hope that we someday get a university administration that realizes the university’s interests will be served by being more transparent,” he said. “They’ll put me out of business.”
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