Saturday, February 10, 2018

Cognitive Ability and Vulnerability to Fake News


Cognitive Ability and Vulnerability to Fake News

Researchers identify a major risk factor for pernicious effects of misinformation

Cognitive Ability and Vulnerability to Fake News

Credit: gguy44 Getty Images

“Fake news” is Donald Trump’s favorite catchphrase. Since the election, it has appeared in some 180 tweets by the President, decrying everything from accusations of sexual assault against him to the Russian collusion investigation to reports that he watches up to eight hours of television a day. Trump may just use “fake news” as a rhetorical device to discredit stories he doesn’t like, but there is evidence that real fake news is a serious problem. As one alarming example, an analysis by the internet media company Buzzfeed revealed that during the final three months of the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign, the 20 most popular false election stories generated around 1.3 million more Facebook engagements—shares, reactions, and comments—than did the 20 most popular legitimate stories. The most popular fake story was “Pope Francis Shocks World, Endorses Donald Trump for President.” 

Fake news can distort people’s beliefs even after being debunked. For example, repeated over and over, a story such as the one about the Pope endorsing Trump can create a glow around a political candidate that persists long after the story is exposed as fake. A study recently published in the journal Intelligence suggests that some people may have an especially difficult time rejecting misinformation. Asked to rate a fictitious person on a range of character traits, people who scored low on a test of cognitive ability continued to be influenced by damaging information about the person even after they were explicitly told the information was false. The study is significant because it identifies what may be a major risk factor for vulnerability to fake news.

Ghent University researchers Jonas De keersmaecker and Arne Roets first had over 400 subjects take a personality test. They then randomly assigned each subject to one of two conditions. In the experimental condition, the subjects read a biographical description of a young woman named Nathalie. The bio explained that Nathalie, a nurse at a local hospital, “was arrested for stealing drugs from the hospital; she has been stealing drugs for 2 years and selling them on the street in order to buy designer clothes.” The subjects then rated Nathalie on traits such as trustworthiness and sincerity, after which they took a test of cognitive ability. Finally, the subjects saw a message on their computer screen explicitly stating that the information about Nathalie stealing drugs and getting arrested was not true, and then rated her again on the same traits. The control condition was identical, except that subjects were not given the paragraph with the false information and rated Nathalie only once.


The subjects in the experimental condition initially rated Nathalie much more negatively than did the subjects in the control condition. This was not surprising, considering that they had just learned she was a thief and a drug dealer. The interesting question was whether cognitive ability would predict attitude adjustment—that is, the degree to which the subjects in the experimental condition would rate Nathalie more favorably after being told that this information was false. It did: subjects high in cognitive ability adjusted their ratings more than did those lower in cognitive ability. The subjects with lower cognitive ability had more trouble shaking their negative first impression of Nathalie. This was true even after the researchers statistically controlled for the subjects’ level of open-mindedness (their willingness to change their mind when wrong) and right-wing authoritarianism (their intolerance toward others), as assessed by the personality test. Thus, even if a person was open-minded and tolerant, a low level of cognitive ability put them at risk for being unjustifiably harsh in their second evaluation of Nathalie.

One possible explanation for this finding is based on the theory that a person’s cognitive ability reflects how well they can regulate the contents of working memory—their “mental workspace” for processing information. First proposed by the cognitive psychologists Lynn Hasher and Rose Zacks, this theory holds that some people are more prone to “mental clutter” than other people. In other words, some people are less able to discard (or “inhibit”) information from their working memory that is no longer relevant to the task at hand—or, as in the case of Nathalie, information that has been discredited. Research on cognitive aging indicates that, in adulthood, this ability declines considerably with advancing age, suggesting that older adults may also be especially vulnerable to fake news. Another reason why cognitive ability may predict vulnerability to fake news is that it correlates highly with education. Through education, people may develop meta-cognitive skills—strategies for monitoring and regulating one’s own thinking—that can be used to combat the effects of misinformation.     

Meanwhile, other research is shedding light on the mechanisms underlying the effects of misinformation. Repeating a false claim increases its believability, giving it an air of what Stephen Colbert famously called “truthiness.” Known as the illusion of truth effect, this phenomenon was first demonstrated in the laboratory by Hasher and her colleagues. On each of three days, subjects listened to plausible-sounding statements and rated each on whether they thought it was true. Half of the statements were in fact true, such as Australia is approximately equal in area to the continental United States, whereas the other half were false, such as Zachary Taylor was the first president to die in office (it was William Henry Harrison). Some of the statements were repeated across days, whereas others were presented only once. The results showed that the average truth rating increased from day to day for the repeated statements, but remained constant for the non-repeated statements, indicating that subjects mistook familiarity for verity.

More recent research reveals that even knowledge of the truth doesn’t necessarily protect against the illusion of truth. In a 2015 study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, Lisa Fazio and her colleagues asked subjects to rate a set of statements on how interesting they found them. Following Hasher and colleagues’ procedure, some of the statements were true, whereas others were false. The subjects then rated a second set of statements for truthfulness on a six-point scale, from definitely false to definitely true. Some of the statements were repeated from the first set, whereas others were new. Finally, the subjects took a knowledge test that included questions based on the statements. The results revealed that repetition increased the subjects’ perception of the truthfulness of false statements, even for statements they knew to be false. For example, even if a subject correctly answered Pacific Ocean to the question What is the largest ocean on Earth? on the knowledge test, they still tended to give the false statement The Atlantic Ocean is the largest ocean on Earth a higher truth rating if it was repeated. When a claim was made to feel familiar through repetition, subjects neglected to consult their own knowledge base in rating the claim’s truthfulness.

These studies add to scientific understanding of the fake news problem, which is providing a foundation for an evidenced-based approach to addressing the problem. A recommendation that follows from research on the illusion of truth effect is to serve as your own fact checker. If you are convinced that some claim is true, ask yourself why. Is it because you have credible evidence that the claim is true, or is it just because you’ve encountered the claim over and over? Also ask yourself if you know of any evidence that refutes the claim. (You just might be surprised to find that you do.) This type of recommendation could be promoted through public service announcements, which have been shown to be effective for things like getting people to litter less and recycle more. For its part, research on individual differences in susceptibility to fake news, such as the study by De keersmaecker and Roets, can help to identify people who are particularly important to reach through this type of informational campaign.


At a more general level, this research underscores the threat that fake news poses to democratic society. The aim of using fake news as propaganda is to make people think and behave in ways they wouldn’t otherwise—for example, hold a view that is contradicted by overwhelming scientific consensus. When this nefarious aim is achieved, citizens no longer have the ability to act in their own self-interest. In the logic of democracy, this isn’t just bad for that citizen—it’s bad for society.

Rights & Permissions

Are you a scientist who specializes in neuroscience, cognitive science, or psychology? And have you read a recent peer-reviewed paper that you would like to write about? Please send suggestions to Mind Matters editor Gareth Cook. Gareth, a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist, is the series editor of Best American Infographics and can be reached at garethideas AT or Twitter @garethideas.


David Z. Hambrick

    David Z. Hambrick is a professor in the Department of Psychology at Michigan State University and a Fellow of the Association for Psychological Science. He is currently a Visiting Professor at Edith Cowan University in Joondalup, Western Australia.

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    Monday, January 29, 2018

    New faculty qualifications prove a challenge for some Illinois colleges

    Some Illinois community colleges have struggled to follow newly imposed regulations designed to ensure all faculty are well-qualified to teach their courses, but most campuses are in compliance, according to officials familiar with the issue.

    Last month, Illinois Central College signaled that up to 20 percent of its part-time faculty might have to be let go because of new rules adopted by the Higher Learning Commission (HLC), an independent panel that accredits post-secondary campuses in 19 states, including Illinois. Remaining accredited is a key concern for colleges because it is a prerequisite for them to offer federal financial aid.

    But Illinois Central College began the spring semester relatively unscathed because it had an adequate number of qualified part-time and full-time faculty to meet the student demand for classes, according to college President Sheila Quirk-Bailey.

    “All ICC faculty teaching this semester meet the new criteria,” Quirk-Bailey told Illinois News Network in an email. “No one was let go, all adjuncts completed their assignments last semester. There are adjuncts in the pool who cannot be rehired until they complete additional graduate credits.”

    The HLC this year clarified its standards and concluded that what’s called “tested experience” – knowledge gained by faculty outside the classroom in real-world situations – cannot apply to faculty members who teach credit courses that are transferable to other colleges and universities, according to Quirk-Bailey.

    The college had interpreted the standards too broadly, she said, and then later had to re-evaluate its faculty’s credentials. About 16 percent of the college’s part-time faculty members were found to need additional master’s degree credits to meet the HLC standards, according to Quirk-Bailey.

    “We also have five full-time faculty who will require additional master’s-level credit to recertify,” she said. “The Board of Trustees just approved early retirement and/or sabbatical options for the impacted full-time faculty.”

    The HLC requires that those teaching college-level courses, including dual-credit courses that provide both high school and college credits, have a master’s degree and at least 18 credit hours of instruction in the courses they teach. The HLC originally approved the new standards in 2015, and they took effect in September 2017, after the ICC’s fall semester had already begun.

    Matt Berry, spokesman for the Illinois Community College Board, said he was aware of some Illinois colleges having problems getting their faculty members’ qualifications up to par.

    “There are some colleges that are having trouble or have had situations or faculty who are not meeting that …” Berry told Illinois News Network. “I would say that depending on the mix of teachers, some colleges have had to look at their faculty qualifications.”

    The board is working with higher education agencies and its partners at the secondary school level to find solutions and help get instructors qualified, he said.

    “There are probably some instructors at other colleges that are having to get additional training,” Berry said. “We haven’t surveyed, and I don’t have numbers or data in terms of numbers of faculty and how many schools are impacted. … Certainly, it’s had an impact.”

    In applying the rules to member colleges, the HLC initially offered a five-year waiver to give institutions more time to get faculty in dual-credit programs the additional training needed to comply. Five or six schools in Illinois applied for and received such waivers, Berry said.

    “Illinois is in a little better position [than other states] because we’ve always operationalized that as our standard,” he said of the HLC faculty qualifications.

    HLC spokesman Steve Kauffman said he has heard of few problems relating to the new faculty standards.

    “They’ve had two years to prepare for this, and most have prepared quite well, from what we’ve seen,” Kauffman told Illinois News Network.

    The HLC came up with the new policy after it did a study on dual-credit programs, he said. Those programs had grown significantly in recent years, and the HLC saw a need to ensure that the qualifications of faculty teaching those courses mirrored the qualifications of full-time college faculty members, according to Kauffman.

    “We found on that study that those programs had actually grown exponentially, and HLC needed to expand our policy to assure that the guidelines are applied equally to all faculty teaching college credit courses,” he said.

    Other Illinois campuses contacted by Illinois News Network indicated that that they were complying with the new faculty standards.

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    Friday, January 19, 2018

    Court: Family can sue fraternity members in fatal NIU hazing

    Cook County

    updated: 1/19/2018 7:12 PM

    • Gary Bogenberger breaks down during the victim impact statement he made on May 8, 2015, during a hearing in Sycamore County where 22 Northern Illinois University fraternity members were found guilty of misdemeanor charges stemming from the hazing death of his 19-year-old son, David.

      Gary Bogenberger breaks down during the victim impact statement he made on May 8, 2015, during a hearing in Sycamore County where 22 Northern Illinois University fraternity members were found guilty of misdemeanor charges stemming from the hazing death of his 19-year-old son, David.
      Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer, 2015

    • David Bogenberger, seen here at his Palatine High School graduation in June 2012, died later that year after a fraternity hazing at Northern Illinois University.

      David Bogenberger, seen here at his Palatine High School graduation in June 2012, died later that year after a fraternity hazing at Northern Illinois University.
      Courtesy of the Bogenberger family

    • Gary and Ruth Bogenberger enter the Sycamore County courtroom May 8, 2015, where 22 fraternity members were found guilty of misdemeanor charges stemming from the hazing death of their son, Northern Illinois University freshman David Bogenberger of Palatine.

      Gary and Ruth Bogenberger enter the Sycamore County courtroom May 8, 2015, where 22 fraternity members were found guilty of misdemeanor charges stemming from the hazing death of their son, Northern Illinois University freshman David Bogenberger of Palatine.
      Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer, 2015

    Barbara Vitello

    Barbara Vitello

    The Illinois Supreme Court cleared the way Friday for a family's wrongful death lawsuit against officers and members of Northern Illinois University's Pi Kappa Alpha fraternity, where a freshman pledge from Palatine died in 2012 following an alcohol-fueled hazing.

    The court upheld a lower-court ruling reinstating the suit filed by the family of 19-year-old David Bogenberger. The high court also ruled sorority women present during the party on Nov. 1, 2012, can be held civilly liable, said Bogenberger family attorney Peter Coladarci.

    "This decision takes a step in the right direction," said David's mother Ruth Bogenberger. "We feel the tide is changing. In the past, hazing was looked on as something that happens. Nobody seemed to want to do anything to change it ... We hope the ruling is an instrument of change."

    While Friday's ruling won't solve all the problems related to hazing, Ruth and her husband Gary Bogenberger hope it will lay a foundation the next case will build upon.

    "We're very pleased the Supreme Court found they (the fraternity members and the sorority women) can be held accountable," said Gary Bogenberger.

    In May 2015, 22 Pi Kappa Alpha fraternity members were convicted of misdemeanors in a Sycamore County courtroom. Five former fraternity officers pleaded guilty to reckless conduct in exchange for 24 months of conditional discharge, a type of probation. Each was also ordered to perform 100 hours of community service and pay a $1,000 fine.

    Seventeen other former members pleaded guilty to misdemeanor hazing and were sentenced to two years of court supervision, plus 100 hours of community service and $500 fines. None of the women were criminally charged.

    Bogenberger -- a triplet who graduated from Palatine High School -- was among the Pi Kappa Alpha pledges under the impression that attending the unsanctioned party at the off-campus fraternity house and participating in a drinking game was a requirement for admission, according to the complaint.

    As part of the hazing, pledges were required to answer nonsensical questions and drink vodka. Those who refused were ridiculed. Over about 90 minutes, authorities say the pledges consumed between three and five cups of vodka in multiple rooms. As the pledges began to lose consciousness, they were given "vomit buckets," brought to various places in the house and positioned so they would not choke if they vomited, authorities said.

    Bogenberger was found unresponsive the next morning with a blood-alcohol level about four times the legal driving limit of .08 percent, authorities said.

    After Bogenberger's death, Pi Kappa Alpha International Fraternity suspended the NIU chapter's charter and its former members. The university announced charges against the fraternity and 31 students for violating NIU's Student Code of Conduct, which prohibits hazing in all forms. NIU subsequently removed the fraternity as a recognized student organization.

    The Bogenberger family's wrongful death lawsuit was dismissed in Cook County in December 2014. They appealed, and the Illinois Appellate Court reinstated the suit in 2016.

    Coladarci said Friday's ruling could serve as a deterrent for other young people.

    He anticipates a civil trial could begin in about 18 months.

    "I don't recall there being a state supreme court that has considered this issue as directly," said Coladarci, who described the ruling as a "powerful statement" which he expects "other courts will be influenced by and followed.

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    Saturday, December 30, 2017

    Dr. Baule out of job come July 1, 2018


    Emergency manager to end Baule's contract with Muncie Schools

    Seth Slabaugh, The Star Press Published 8:10 a.m. ET Dec. 30, 2017 | Updated 11:25 a.m. ET Dec. 30, 2017

    MUNCIE, Ind. — State-appointed emergency managers notified Muncie Community Schools Superintendent Steven Baule on Friday that his contract will not be renewed after it expires on June 30.

    Steve Edwards, a member of the emergency management firm, Administrator Assistance, declined to comment when contacted on Saturday morning but issued a statement to The Star Press:

    "Administrator Assistance has provided notice to Dr. Baule and the Muncie Community Schools’ Board of Trustees that they have decided not to renew Dr. Baule’s contract past its current expiration date of June 30, 2018 at this time.

    "Pursuant to Indiana Code 6-1.1-20.3-7.1, the emergency manager must approve the incurrence of contractual obligations exceeding $30,000.  To provide flexibility in reviewing financial options available to Muncie Community Schools, the emergency manager felt it was best not to incur this contractual obligation at this time. Dr. Baule’s employment with Muncie Community Schools continues through June 30, 2018."

    School board President Debbie Feick on Friday night declined comment on the status of the superintendent's contract.

    "Any personnel matter is confidential," she told The Star Press. "We will do everything we can to respect the rights of our teachers and administrators and honor that confidentiality."

    Baule's original three-year contract expires on June 30. According to state law, the contract automatically would have rolled over for another year if the school board took no action on it by the end of this year.

    The school board recently completed an evaluation of Baule's performance over the past year and presented the outcome of the evaluation to him.

    But the school board decided not to take any action on the contract after being reminded by the state's Distressed Unit Appeal Board (DUAB) that "if we chose to renew Dr. Baule's contract that decision would have to be approved by the emergency management team, that they had the authority to override any decision we made," Feick said Friday night.

    In addition, the school board's attorney advised the board to "leave the decision up to the emergency manager," Feick said.

    DUAB members recently voted 5-0 to place the school district under the full control of the private emergency management firm Administrator Assistance, effective Jan. 1, because of the district's financial instability. For the past six months, Administrator Assistance has been helping the school district at state expense.

    The firm will supersede the school board and superintendent starting Monday, also at state expense.

    The Star Press recently obtained more emails sent to DUAB about the controversial superintendent:

    • "The school board has recently painted a picture of Dr. Baule as exactly the kind of superintendent we need in Muncie — one who isn't afraid to make the hard decisions to save money, such as closing schools, changing bus contracts, etc.," wrote Tom Collins, an MCS parent and husband of an MCS teacher. "However, these cost cutting measures have only come relatively recently — Dr. Baule has been with the district since July 2015 — are too little too late as far as I am concerned — perhaps as a quick response to mounting public and state pressure — and have not solved the major issue of the misused general obligation bonds."

    Collins blamed the mass exodus of teachers from MCS on poor relations between teachers and the school district.

    • "Teachers want a state takeover," wrote Carol Anderson. "We are hoping that will bring LIFE back to our schools … we feel defeated, exasperated, discouraged, etc. Morale is still very low, and the environment still feels hostile."

    • "I have taught in Muncie Schools for 20 years and have never experienced the lack of working together between the administrators and the teachers union as I have since Dr. Baule has been here," wrote Denise Rutherford.

    • "Dr. Baule has always been honest with me and has shown me his resolve to free us of the economic burdens created by his predecessors," MCS Chief of Security Charles Hensley wrote. "Dr. Baule has suffered greatly in his service to this system including persistent negative letter writing efforts filled with untruths and insults, the mysterious poisoning of a loved family pet, to harassment aimed at his children who attend our system."

    • Baule and the school board have "done all that is administratively possible toward achieving financial stability" and "have acted in the best interest of the students …, " wrote Akilah Nosakhere, director of Muncie Public Library.

    Seth Slabaugh is a reporter at The Star Press who can be reached at (765) 213-5834 or seths@muncie.gannett,com.

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    Friday, December 15, 2017

    What is happening with former No Boone Superintendent, Dr. Baule?


    School board says Baule's future in state hands now

    Seth Slabaugh, The Star Press Published 2:55 p.m. ET Dec. 15, 2017 | Updated 4:06 p.m. ET Dec. 15, 2017


    MUNCIE, Ind. — With a deadline of Jan. 1 fast approaching, it looks like no one wants to take responsibility for renewing or terminating the employment contract of Muncie Community Schools Superintendent Steven Baule.

    Devastated school board President Debbie Feick told The Star Press, "We have no authority for any of that," speaking of Baule's three-year contract that expires June 30, 2018. "It's up to the emergency managers."

    However, Steve Wittenauer, co-founder of the state-appointed emergency management firm at MCS, said he thinks the school board between now and Dec. 31 "has every right to make that decision on Dr. Baule's contract. While they are still in power, they probably should still think about doing something like that."

    The state's Distressed Unit Appeal Board (DUAB) voted 5-0 on on Wednesday to place the school district under full control of the emergency manager effective Jan.1 DUAB determined the district has not made enough progress toward achieving financial stability.

    "We're devastated," Feick said. "I'd like the community to know our board worked tirelessly to meet all expectations of Senate Bill 567 (that declared MCS "fiscally impaired"). We felt like we had accomplished many of the financial goals required by that legislation — or most or all of the required goals."

    RELATED:State takes full control of MCS after unanimous vote

    A former special education teacher, elementary school principal and assistant superintendent who is now retired, Feick spent so many hours on school business in the past six months that "it was like being back in the saddle. We did everything we could" to prevent a takeover.

    For the past six months, the emergency manager's role has been limited, though it was statutorily responsible for certain actions like negotiating a new collective bargaining agreement with the teachers union and the sale of Northside Middle School and three elementary schools.

    The basis for Feick's conclusion that the school board has no authority over Baule's contract is a section of SB 567 that reads:

    "The emergency manager must approve any of the following actions by the school corporation before the school corporation may take the action:

    " … Incurring a contractual obligation that requires an expenditure of more than thirty thousand dollars ($30,000) … "

    "I think it's clear in the statute that the emergency manager has authority over any contractual obligation costing more than $30,000 … so in effect they have authority over the contractual process of the superintendent," Feick said.

    Wittenauer told The Star Press: "If that's the way they want to go … if it's back in our court, we will have to think about what we would want to do … We have made no decision about what to do with his contract."

    Wittenauer agrees that the emergency manager would have to approve any extension of the controversial superintendent's contract. But that doesn't mean the board can't act on the contract, he said. "It's still in the school board's field of play. We want the board to take action as they see appropriate."

    If the school board took no action on the contract before Jan. 1, by state law the contract automatically renews for one year.

    "If they do nothing, then it comes back to us," Wittenauer said. "His contract needs to be addressed in some manner by Jan. 1."

    RELATED:Northside Middle School could close 2018-19

    The school board is running out of time if it decides to renew the contract for up to five years beyond the term of the original contract. According to state law, at least seven days before a school board enters into an employment contract with a superintendent, the board must hold a public hearing on the proposed contract at which public comment is heard.

    At the school board's meeting on Tuesday of this week — its last regularly scheduled meeting this year — Baule's contract was not on the agenda, and when two members of the public rose to speak against its renewal, they were instructed that subject was off limits.

    Feick has said the board could renew the contract and keep it identical to the original contract and avoid a public hearing.

    Baule's supporters portray him as a superintendent who has stood up to the powerful Muncie Teachers Association and spearheaded deficit-reduction efforts (as opposed to "cost containment"). According to State Board of Accounts audits, the school district has been overspending for more than a decade. It has been cited in audit after audit for overdrawn cash balances.

    The teachers union and other critics of Baule portray him as a bully who lacks transparency and doesn't care about teachers' opinions or concerns — and whose budget-cutting campaign is "slash and burn." A former human resources director at MCS — two days before the DUAB vote on whether or not to take over the district — filed a lawsuit accusing Baule of often making sexist, racist and intimidating remarks that constituted a hostile work environment.

    RELATED:Lawsuit accuses Baule of gender, racial harassment

    According to Wittenauer, there is one action the school board could take on Baule's contract that would not require the emergency managers' approval: terminating it. Because that wouldn't require a contractual obligation of more than $30,000.

    Courtney Schaafsma, director of DUAB, told The Star Press:

    "At present time, the school board still has the opportunity to determine whether or not to extend Dr. Baule’s contract. The emergency manager would not be involved in the process until it is clear that the school board was looking to incur the contractual obligation. At that time, the emergency manager would evaluate the situation and determine the appropriate response."

    Emergency managers huddle with DUAB Director Courtney

    Emergency managers huddle with DUAB Director Courtney Schaafsma on Wednesday (Photo: Seth Slabaugh)

    Seth Slabaugh is an education reporter at The Star Press who can be reached at (765) 213-5834 or

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    Lawsuit accuses Baule of gender/racial harassment

    Seth Slabaugh, The Star Press Published 4:12 p.m. ET Dec. 11, 2017 | Updated 11:51 p.m. ET Dec. 13, 2017

    (Photo: Jordan Kartholl / The Star Press)


    Editor's note: This story contains language that may be offensive to some readers.

    MUNCIE — Kathy Ray, a former human resources director at Muncie Community Schools, claims in a federal lawsuit that Superintendent Steven Baule regularly made sexist, racist and intimidating remarks.

    The lawsuit filed Friday cites more than two dozen instances of Baule's "inappropriate, severely offensive and intimidating conduct that undoubtedly created a hostile work environment for several employees," including Ray, who is white.

    RELATED: State takes full control of Muncie Community Schools

    The school district denied the allegations in a statement to The Star Press.

    The superintendent, for example, allegedly:

    • Said, during a meeting of minority administrators, "I came down because I thought there needed to be another white person in this group."

    • Said, during a meeting with principals, that he has "big hands — as an insinuation to the size of his penis."

    • Told a joke in front of Ray and others about the length of a donkey's ears and penis.

    • Said of the president of the Muncie Teachers Association, "I will dance on Pat Kennedy's grave, and I will dig her grave with her skull."

    • Said, in front of several female employees, that he needed to "go home and chase my wife around" and that his wife "should rent me out."

    • Told a female employee wrapped in a blanket, "I hope you have something on under that."

    • Routinely said in reference to MCS employees: "I don't have to fire people; I make them miserable enough they leave."

    School board President Debbie Feick issued a statement about the lawsuit to The Star Press:

    "MCS is committed to maintaining an education and work environment that is free from all forms of unlawful harassment. The school board has implemented formal and informal processes for persons who believe that they have been subjected to unlawful harassment. When the allegations asserted in Ms. Ray’s complaint were brought to the attention of the MCS school board, they were promptly investigated and found to be unsubstantiated. MCS denies the allegations in Ms. Ray’s Complaint and will proceed with defending against the lawsuit."

    Ray claims in the lawsuit — which names the district and the school board as defendants — that Baule had a history of "intimidating those who opposed him and seeking their termination."

    While still employed, Ray complained about Baule to the school district's attorney, who filed a report about Baule's conduct with the school board in August of 2016 and recommended "immediate action," according to the lawsuit.

    Shortly afterward, a local attorney was appointed to conduct another investigation of the accusations, after which Baule allegedly told Ray, "I hope you don't know anything about what is going on with all of this stuff … for those who are involved it will be their end."

    The superintendent is alleged to have told Ray on another occasion that "I have people who will take care of people" and insinuated he had connections with organized crime in Chicago.

    When Baule purportedly interrogated the HR director a third time about the misconduct complaint, he allegedly told her that he has been in "three knife fights" and remains "unscarred."

    "This comment — combined with Baule's other intimidating actions and statements — caused plaintiff (Ray) to believe that if she participated in the investigation she would be either fired or physically harmed," the lawsuit claims.

    Ray says she had no other choice but to resign, on Sept. 8, 2016. After a nearly 34-year career at MCS, Ray is now an elementary school principal at Yorktown Community Schools.

    Read about Kathy Ray's retirement

    She recently submitted her 15-month-old letter of resignation from MCS to the state's Distressed Unit Appeal Board (DUAB), which is scheduled to rule Wednesday on whether to take over the operation of the deficit-ridden district.

    "Muncie Community Schools deserves to have a superintendent who respects people and treats them in a professional manner," Ray wrote to DUAB members.

    In the resignation letter, which school board members received a copy of in September of 2016, Ray reported that she had witnessed "Dr. Baule's bullying, vulgar language (including the 'F' word during meetings, in the administration building hallways, etc.) harassment (gender, sexual, racial and religious), inappropriate comments and actions (including retaliation), and his overall unprofessional behavior."

    DUAB Director Courtney Schaafsma confirmed that DUAB members were provided copies of Ray's letter.

    "DUAB is reviewing all comments received from the public regarding the situation at Muncie Community Schools," Schaafsma told The Star Press. "DUAB has not verified the … truth or veracity of the allegations made … However, we are reviewing the comments received to determine the appropriate course of action on the fiscal matters within DUAB's authority."

    Retirees filed lawsuit against MCS

    MCS' insurance company settles First Amendment lawsuit

    DUAB is charged by state law with determining whether MCS has implemented a deficit-reduction plan, whether it is making progress toward achieving financial stability, and whether or not it is in the best interest of the students, community, the district and its employees to have the state take full control of the district.

    Nine of Baule's 16 cabinet members are female. Black members of the cabinet include his assistant superintendent/HR director DiLynn Phelps; chief information officer Anthony Harvey; director of elementary education Dea Moore-Young; and director of secondary education Cassandra Shipp. The principal at Longfellow Elementary School and two assistant principals at Central high school are black. District spokesperson Anny Pichardo is Hispanic.

    The lawsuit, filed by Jason Delk of Muncie, alleges that Baule once joked in front of Ray and other employees that a black person and a Hispanic person could never marry because "their kids would be too lazy to steal."

    Ray reportedly filed a charge of discrimination against MCS with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission on March 8. The commission issued a "notice of rights" to sue on Sept. 8, giving Ray 90 days to file a lawsuit, according to Ray's lawyer.

    A spokesman for the commission told The Star Press Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits the commission from providing any information about a complaint, even whether one was filed, unless the commission files a lawsuit, which is a last resort.

    The process after a complaint is filed includes the possibility of mediation, or, in the alternative, an investigation.

    "If we aren't able to determine that the law was violated, we will send you a Notice of Right to Sue," the EEOC says on its website. "This notice gives you permission to file a lawsuit in court. If we determine the law may have been violated, we will try to reach a voluntary settlement with the employer. If we cannot reach a settlement, your case will be referred to our legal staff (or the Department of Justice in certain cases), who will decide whether the agency should file a lawsuit. If we decide not to file a lawsuit, we will give you a Notice of Right to Sue."

    Three of Baule's cabinet members (Shipp, Moore-Young and Phelps) submitted letters supporting him to DUAB.

    "Most of the negative reaction to the (school) board and current administrators is from those who are unhappy the board is actually addressing its fiscal issues," Moore-Young wrote.

    "It takes someone with great knowledge, strength, passion and courage to continue down the path that Dr. Baule has paved," Phelps wrote to DUAB. "The best person I know with the skills and talent to continue and complete the work of Dr. Baule is Dr. Baule."

    Shipp wrote that Baule "has remained respectful towards educators, parents, students and community partners in the collaborative process to improve the financial status of the district."

    The lawsuit claims Baule told several employees that "retarded kids' ears are below their eyes;" that when discussing a student facing disciplinary issues, he commented, "when he goes to jail, he will meet Tyrone;" that he frequently used the phrase "mental masturbation;" that he described a black employee as "the poster child of colored people and deadlines swishing by;" and that he said the boyfriend of a female candidate for a high-level administrative position "must really be hung."

    The lawsuit alleges Baule created a hostile, abusive work environment for which the school board is liable because it tacitly approved his "unlawful conduct." The school board also is liable for Baule's retaliation against Ray for filing a complaint with MCS legal counsel, the lawsuit claims.

    A resident of Pendleton, Ray's positions at MCS included 15 years as a teacher at Longfellow, assistant principal at South View Elementary School, principal at Garfield and West View elementary schools, director of elementary education, and HR director.

    Seth Slabaugh is an education reporter at The Star Press who can be reached at (765) 213-5834 or seths@muncie.gannett,com.


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    School board resumes evaluation of superintendent

    Seth Slabaugh, The Star Press Published 12:01 p.m. ET Dec. 19, 2017

    MUNCIE — The school board has resumed its evaluation of Muncie Community Schools Superintendent Steven Baule — after board President Debbie Feick said last week the board lacked authority to act on his contract.

    "At this juncture, we will complete the evaluation, then whatever direction we are advised to take from our attorneys is what we will do," Feick told The Star Press this week. "We have to inform him (Baule) prior to the first day in January."

    Even though the state will take over operation of the financially distressed school district. on Jan. 1, state officials have said the school board still has the opportunity before the takeover to extend or terminate Baule's three-year contract that expires June 30, 2018.

    The deadline for action on the contract is before year's end.

    The evaluation must be evidence-based, which "removes emotion from the decision-making process," Feick said. Otherwise, the superintendent would have "all kinds of grievances and remedies, just like a teacher."

    In fact, Baule's contract is called a "regular teacher contract" pursuant to state law. The contract reads, "Steven M Baule is a teacher as defined in Ind. Code 20-18-2-22."

    Of course, the scoring tool used by the board to evaluate Baule is not the same as one for teachers.

    Baule's effectiveness will be scored by each school board member in numerous categories, for example, instructional leadership; student achievement; professional, ethical and respectful behavior; communication with parents; forges consensus for change and improvement; effective operation of the physical plant and auxiliary services like transportation and food services; responsible fiscal stewardship; compliance with legal requirements; effective recruitment and retention of teachers; use of feedback from stakeholders; and keeping the school board informed.

    The superintendent also will be evaluated on progress in achieving specific goals like deficit reduction.

    "It's important to have objective data and that we not yield to emotions," Feick said. "All those emotional factors will be a critical feature in regaining trust, but his evaluation has to be very objective."

    The Muncie Teachers Association has said it lacks trust in Baule and the school board.

    Steve Wittenauer, co-founder of the state-appointed emergency management firm at MCS, told The Star Press last week the school board between now and Dec. 31 "has every right to make that decision on Dr. Baule's contract. While they are still in power, they probably should still think about doing something like that."

    But he agreed with Feick that the emergency manager would have to approve a decision by the school board to extend the controversial superintendent's contract. Still, that doesn't mean the board can't act on the contract, Wittenauer said. "It's still in the school board's field of play. We want the board to take action as they see appropriate."

    The school board is running out of time because of a provision in state law requiring it to hold a public hearing at least seven days before renewing the contract.

    Two days before the state's Distressed Unit Appeal Board voted to take over the school district, former MCS human resources manager Kathy Ray sued Baule in federal court, claiming he created a hostile work environment for her and several others through sexist, racist and intimidating comments.

    Feick said Ray's allegations were investigated by the school district and were found to be unsubstantiated.

    The school board met in executive session to start evaluating Baule's contract on Dec. 8.

    Seth Slabaugh is an education reporter at The Star Press who can be reached at (765)

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    Thursday, June 1, 2017

    NIU Airs both sides of Baker controversy

    Baker Report - Northern Illinois University

    The OEIG Report: Context, Reflections and the Way Forward

    Today the Executive Ethics Commission (EEC) publicly released the final report of the Office of the Executive Inspector General (OEIG) regarding its nearly three-year investigation into the university’s use of the affiliate employment classification in 2013 and 2014. Until now, Illinois state law and the OEIG investigation process have required that this matter be confidential. As such, I have not been able to be as transparent as I would have preferred, but I am now able to directly address this issue.

    First, by way of context, I want to reflect on the state of affairs when I arrived on campus in the spring of 2013. The FBI, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Department of Education and the Illinois State Police had recently searched the NIU Police Department; seized computers and records; and were actively investigating the university.

    The executive vice president and chief of operations in the former Division of Finance and Facilities had taken a leave of absence related to those investigations, and the leadership and oversight of the Department of Police and Public Safety had changed. We were also confronting significant strategic, structural and financial challenges related to student recruitment and retention, state support of public higher education and pension obligations.

    Faced with those circumstances, and charged by the Board of Trustees to change the culture and direction of the university, there was a need to quickly engage outside experts skilled in culture change and financial management for an unbiased and comprehensive assessment.

    As we filled those roles, I sought the expertise of senior staff, including the human resources and legal departments, to ensure we appropriately proceeded. I relied on the information I received and acted in good faith. At no time did I intend for myself, or any of my staff, to violate any polices or procedures. I sincerely believed that all decisions were in compliance with the applicable requirements.

    The individuals hired made significant contributions to NIU, and helped lay a firm foundation upon which we have built these last few years.

    In July 2014, we were notified through an OEIG complaint that there were concerns over hiring five individuals as affiliate employees. Once aware of this, I worked with the board to seek clarity and make corrections. Upon consideration and review, we took decisive action to revise policies related to hiring and compensation, eliminated the affiliate classification, and took steps to correct travel and housing expenses that were deemed inappropriate under applicable requirements. We also took steps to strengthen our whistleblower policy, and made it more visible so that it is easier to bring forward concerns if people have them.

    Separate from these efforts, the OEIG began its own investigation approximately three years ago. Its final report was presented to the NIU Board of Trustees in August 2016.  They concluded that internal university policy in the application of the affiliate classification, as well as the Higher Education Travel Regulations and University P-Card Policies and Procedures, had not been followed. They recommended that the board take appropriate action with the president on resolution and for two employees to receive counseling. At no time did the OEIG recommend suspension, dismissal or fining any party involved. Ultimately, the board felt that the corrective measures relating to policy, process and training personnel taken throughout the previous two years were suitable.

    I concur with the report’s findings that there were no violations of the state’s Ethics Act, and I appreciate that they not only acknowledge the numerous steps we’ve taken but also that recommend we continue. However, I disagree with any implications that there was intent to circumvent NIU’s guidelines or state regulations. Still, I take responsibility for the mistakes identified, and I have worked diligently since these issues were brought forward in 2014 to do everything in my power to keep them from happening again.

    The EEC solicited a formal response from me in April 2017 on this matter, and I obliged: I asked that if the OEIG report were to be released that my response be made public as well, which has taken place. 

    NIU’s Board Chair John Butler has made available a response on behalf of the Board of Trustees, and we’ve developed a Questions and Answers document to provide additional information.

    With this matter concluded and the corrective measures in place, I look forward to being able to devote my full attention to the issues facing our university and to ensuring that NIU will continue to fulfill its vital mission with an emphasis on preparing students for success after graduation.

    Doug Baker

    Wednesday, May 24, 2017

    Rock Valley College: A lesson in gov’t bureaucracy


    Guest Column: A lesson in gov’t bureaucracy

    May 24, 2017May 24, 2017 Editorial Staff 0 Comment

    By Paul Gorski

    I am a new board trustee at Rock Valley College and, as I usually do in any of my jobs, I ask many questions. Unfortunately, despite being a board member, I might have to request answers to my questions through formal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests rather than a simple “May I see a copy of that contract?” More on that in a bit.

    First, I want to thank local voters for electing me as a Rock Valley College Board Trustee. I received nearly 25,000 votes, which is quite a feat in an off-year election for a community college board position. People who know elections tell me those were phenomenal results. Thank you. I am humbled by the support.

    Second, I am not now nor do I expect to be in a position of speaking officially for the Rock Valley College Board. The opinions I express here are my own. My opinions will not likely reflect the official position of the board or other board members. I wanted to make that clear because board “policy” states only the board chairman may speak on behalf of the board.

    It is also a board policy that only the chairman and committee chairpersons ask the president of the college for certain information. There are seven trustees. One trustee is the chair and three other trustees are committee chairpersons. The three remaining trustees need to direct their questions for the president and staff to one of four other trustees. Sounds like an unnecessary communications hierarchy for a small seven-person board. Talk about red tape.

    By the way, according to “red tape” refers to: “official routine or procedure marked by excessive complexity which results in delay or inaction.” Yep.

    When I served on the county board, the twenty-eight board members could ask any staff member a question. The County Board Chairman at the time, Scott Christiansen, encouraged board members to go directly to staff. County staff answered our questions promptly and politely.

    Back to the RVC present: the information in question now concerns certain contracts already made and signed part of the public record; and surveys or questionnaires used to determine the need for a new service on campus, also a public record. My initial request for this information was rebuffed, directing me to the board chair and or committee chair to obtain and discuss the issues.

    Local residents may request the very same information simply by asking for it, and by mentioning FOIA the college would have to reply in a matter of days. I, on the other hand, a board trustee, have to go through channels, a process where I could be denied, and then discuss it in committee, which would not happen until next month at the earliest. As I mentioned to RVC officials, that workflow does not work for me.

    I would like to review these documents, do some research, list my questions, and then discuss these matters with fellow trustees at an open meeting. I think that is a very reasonable request from an elected official.

    I am not blaming RVC staff; these policies are board-driven. I am not sure if someone does not want me digging into these issues or maybe we just need some management training for the 21st century: agile, open and transparent leadership training. That said, I repeated my request to the board chair. As I write this article, I have not received a response.

    My political friends and foes know that I ask questions. Lots of questions. I ask your questions, my questions and questions to increase the level of discussion on government financing. I have served on the Winnebago County Board, Cherry Valley Township Board, and Cherry Valley Library District Board (very briefly), and I never had to file a FOIA request to obtain documents like this before.

    I hope I do not have to file one now. I will keep you posted.

    Paul Gorski is a newly elected Rock Valley College Board Trustee who supports open meetings, open government, and equal ballot access to encourage public participation in local government.

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