Some might say Marc Levin is industrious. When the 22-year-old wanted to start a student group at Rice that would bring conservative speakers to campus to "enrich public dialogue," he went ahead and wrote up a student group mission statement and constitution. He found a faculty member to sponsor the club. Then, as Rice requires, he registered the group on the school's web site, listing three student contacts. After the school's Student Association recognized the club, Levin brought two speakers to the school. Thanks to the group's affiliation with Rice, Levin didn't have to pay the $500 lecture hall rental fee charged to nonstudent groups.
The only problem is that Marc Levin is not a student at Rice University. He's the editor of the conservative Houston Review and president of its parent company, Houston Community Publishing. Now, three months after Rice recognized Houston Community Publishing Lectures and Forums as a student group, the organization has been disbanded after complaints that Levin used its status as a tool to recruit writers for his paper and find lecture space for free. What is even more disturbing to Rice's associate director of student activities, Mona Hicks, is that two of the three students listed as club contacts weren't sure what they were getting involved with.
"He is really, in my opinion, trying to promote the Houston Review, and whatever political views, at Rice through this system," says Hicks, who was alerted to the situation through a January 22 article in The Rice Thresher. "He is very persistent. I'm going to have to be the hammer and tell him he has to go someplace else."
Levin contends he did nothing against the rules. Rice allows non-Rice affiliates to be members of student groups as long as 50 percent of the club is students, and "there's nothing that says the initiative and work [to start a club] can't come from a nonstudent."
"It sounds like I perpetrated a fraud on Rice," says Levin. "I think the university would welcome community involvement with the school. I have to believe if we were an environmental group, a left-wing group, they would have no problem with this."
Actually, Hicks says, politics have little to do with it. The issues of recruiting, faculty sponsors and student initiative do.
"A group cannot be used as a recruiting tool," Hicks says. "We don't have an Andersen Consulting Club." If Levin was interested in promoting and finding writers for his paper, Hicks says, he should have used the Rice career services office. Hicks also worries that the group's listed faculty sponsor, professor Ewa Thompson, was abroad during the formation of the group. (Levin maintains she is still interested in being involved. Thompson was unavailable for comment.)
But what concerns Hicks above all is that students in student groups should be willing and informed members -- something Marisa Levy says she wasn't.
"I definitely felt misled. I felt like he didn't tell me the whole truth, even from the beginning," says Levy, a Rice sophomore. Levy is one of the three students Levin listed as student contacts when he applied for group status in mid-October. While Levy and fellow sophomore Jose Luis Cubria say they agreed to be informed of the club's happenings, they think Levin used their names to promote what was basically his club.
The unhappy marriage among Levin and his fellow group members began this summer when Levin e-mailed The Rice Thresher's editor in chief, Brian Stoler, to seek writers for the new Houston Review. Levin wrote that the Review planned to cover "campus, local, state and national public policy issues as well as sports and culture" and was "looking for Rice students who want to gain writing, editing, and/or cartooning experience while reaching not only their fellow students, but also a broad audience in the greater Houston area."
"I didn't know who they [the Houston Review] were at the time," says Stoler, a sophomore, "but as a courtesy I forwarded the e-mail to the staff."
Levy, Cubria and Thresher cartoonist and freshman David Chien decided they might give it a chance. "I was very excited about it; like everyone else who got the e-mail, I thought this was another place to get published," says Levy. "I called Marc and I kept asking him what type of paper it was, and he said they accepted all types of opinions." But when Levy called some friends in Austin and discovered that The Austin Review (which Levin once edited) was the Houston paper's sister publication, she decided against writing for the new paper.
"The Austin Review was very one-sided," Levy says. Levy, who had wanted to write about arts and entertainment, was especially discouraged by the Austin paper's movie review condemning the gay lifestyle portrayed in The Object of My Affection. Despite her decision to not write for the paper, Levy continued to receive e-mails from Levin about the publication.
Cubria, who hopes to break into sports writing, says he did not closely examine the Review's background and wrote a few sports articles for the paper. "Eventually people started talking about the Review, and I looked at it and realized, 'None of this is objective,' " Cubria says. He stopped writing for the paper.
But that was not the students' last involvement with Levin. In mid October, he approached the students about creating a campus affiliate group of Houston Community Publishing. To be in accordance with Rice University regulations and to take advantage of free room reservations offered to Rice student groups, Levin needed the names of three student contacts, which could be filed with Rice on-line. He also needed to file a club mission statement and constitution.
"I wanted to see if it is okay for me to sign you up as a member of the campus organization we are forming at Rice for the paper," Levin e-mailed Levy on October 12. "It will be called something like Houston Community Publishing Campus Forums and Lectures. The purpose of the group will be to organize speeches and discussions on various public policy issues at Rice." Levin described Levy's role in the group as minimal. "By being a member of our campus group, you will have the opportunity to meet these speakers and play as much of a role as you have time for in organizing these events. There is not any obligation. You can always remove yourself from the group if you decide you want to for some reason." Levin mentioned the possibility of bringing University of Pennsylvania professor Alan Kors to campus. (Kors, who wrote about political correctness on campuses in his book The Shadow University: The Betrayal of Liberty on America's Campuses, eventually spoke under the group's sponsorship in November in Duncan Hall Room 1064, a room that would have cost a nonstudent group $300 to rent.)
Levin closed the e-mail by asking for a quick response "due to the urgency of organizing November events."
Levy assumed she was signing up for an e-mail mailing list of some kind, alerting her to speakers and lectures on campus.
"I thought it was like when you go to the Activities Fair and sign up to get information from different clubs," she says. "He had been very kind to me; I thought I'd just be receiving information." Levy, who says she didn't want to seem rude, e-mailed a short message back.
"Sure, it is fine if you sign me up," she wrote. "I have found that I have recently overextended myself so my involvement will be limited in this organization."
Despite her request for limited involvement, Levin signed Levy up as vice president and second contact person for the club.
Cubria, who received a similar e-mail, said he had become annoyed by Levin's messages about the Review.
"In a way, part of it was to get him to stop bothering me," says Cubria of why he agreed to let Levin use his name. "I was stupid. I don't think I was misled, but he was misusing me for his club." Cubria also agreed to be treasurer for the organization, as Levin told him the club had no money and Cubria would have no real duties.
Levin says he wrote the group's constitution and mission statement, which reads that the group is "founded on the belief that public dialogue and participation in the democratic process are key to sustaining a free and just society."
"Therefore," it continues, "members of our Rice University campus group work to organize lectures and forums that provide an opportunity for students and community members to learn more about public policy and journalism."
The third student Levin contacted, David Chien, thinks his fellow staffers might be blowing the whole thing out of proportion. "It's like paranoia at the Thresher," says Chien. "It does no harm to the Rice community to hear lectures on campus about different ideas. There's no political base at all; these people weren't coming to sell books. They were coming to lecture."
But because Chien was not able to attend either group-sponsored lecture due to his class schedule, he did not get to see Levin distributing free posters of Ronald Reagan at the group's second lecture, held January 21. The speaker, Rabbi Daniel Lapin, who has addressed several Republican groups, advertised his new book several times during his speech. Also, Levin maintains that Chien reserved Sewall Hall 301 for the Lapin lecture, which would have cost a nonstudent group $200. Chien says he didn't reserve the room.
However, Chien, who plans to stay with the club if it is reformed, believed in the organization enough to attend the Student Association meeting of October 26 which recognized the group. (Student Association rules request the presence of at least one student member of the group under consideration.) When the approval came up for a vote, Levy, an SA senator, realized this might be the group Levin had contacted her about. She says she abstained from the vote.
The group is not the only source of dispute between Levy and Levin. According to Levin, he contacted Levy before the formation of the Lectures and Forums group to inform her about a journalism seminar sponsored by Leadership Institute, based in Arlington, Virginia. The Institute, which "provides seminars on journalism for students," Levin says, was willing to fly a student to an early October conference. Levy agreed to go.
"He said it was fully paid for, and I would learn about journalism," Levin says. "My ears perked up because I am very interested in journalism. But when I went to the conference it was basically about how to start a politically conservative newspaper on campus. They even discussed how not to get your paper burned or destroyed by the students."
Levy said she was asked to sign a contract stating she would attend all the events. But after the first day, she didn't return.
"Because she didn't attend the second day of the seminar, the Institute only paid for half of her fare," says Levin, who paid for the rest of the trip out of his own pocket.
The tangled ties between Rice and Levin concerned Hicks, who became aware of the situation after the Thresher article. After Hicks and SA Internal Affairs Vice President Jace Frey met with Levin on January 22, the club was put on probation, but a late-night SA vote on January 25 ultimately dissolved the group.
"Basically two contact people removed their names from the contact sheet, and one student does not a student group make," says Frey, a junior.
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Levin says perhaps Rice needs to rethink the way student groups are formed: "Look, maybe it's too easy to form a student group. Maybe we took advantage of a process ... that was too lenient."
But Hicks says the school has no immediate plans to change how student groups are created, as most clubs are student-initiated and student-run. The only similar incident involved a square-dancing group in the late '80s which was attempting to gain free space under the guise of being a student group, Hicks says. What Levin and other non-Rice affiliates need to understand, says Hicks, is that while they can be members, student groups are just that -- student groups.
"Marc is not a Rice student, and I have no obligation to support him in any way," Hicks says. "Students are our ultimate priority."
The need for willing participants might be the only thing Rice University and Levin agree on. "We need to have students who are generally interested," says Levin, who adds he has already been contacted by students who want to organize a similar group under a new name. "The red flag has been raised, and with the new group it will be very clear it is the students who are initiating it.