Angered by two staff editorials that appeared in The Bulletin, the administration has declared that they are in an “adversarial” relationship with the student newspaper, seeking the possibility of an increased role of the Student Media Board in editorial decisions and re-evaluating the role of The Bulletin’s adviser.
At the center of the controversy are the changes that President Michael Lane directed his subordinates to seek in the advising and management of The Bulletin, which has been an independent student newspaper since 1901. Lane, however, has declined a request for an interview and has not communicated his concerns directly to The Bulletin staff or agreed to meet with the Editor-In-Chief. Her letter requesting a meeting and his response are printed on the Opinion page.
“I think (the situation) is twisting and turning,” said Marie Miller, chair of the English, Modern Languages and Journalism Department. “All I can report to was what the president and I talked about, and one of the items was this evaluation process. He and I talked about three very, very specific items – that he had no intention of changing the adviser, the evaluation process and the actual job description itself. He was unclear what the job description was.”
Last Friday, the Department of English, Modern Languages and Journalism met and voted to write a letter to administration in support of The Bulletin’s adviser and assistant professor of journalism, Max McCoy, The Bulletin, free speech and academic freedom.
During the meeting, McCoy spoke to the department about a meeting he held with the dean on Nov. 9. The dean told McCoy that the actions of the administration were triggered by two editorials, one on parking and the other on campus banking, in which the word “bribe” was used.
The Oct. 1 parking editorial incorrectly stated that the parking meter prices had risen and suggested that this was to help fund Memorial Union renovations. The price error was corrected in the next print edition of The Bulletin.
Another concern of Lane’s was the banking story, which used an open records request to expose a $600,000 contribution to the ESU foundation for the Memorial Union renovations. In an editorial that ran in the same issue, the contribution was referred to as a bribe.
According to McCoy’s notes, which were distributed at the department meeting, President Lane considered the word “bribe” defamatory and said the newspaper was “off the reservation.” He didn’t remember approving the most recent Student Media Board Constitution and he desired to see the constitution revised.
Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, confirmed that criticism is still a protected media right, despite how “angered” the administration might be.
“It’s absolutely protected speech to publish negative or critical information or opinion about the school,” LoMonte said. “The core mission of the student media is to inform people about what is happening on campus even if that reflects poorly on the college.”
The administration first raised the question of the staff editorials in an email from Lynn Hobson, vice president of student life, to McCoy.
“I would like to meet and discuss a number of the staff editorials which have appeared in the papers so far this semester,” Hobson wrote in the email on Oct. 20. “I would like to know what your thoughts are about who should be involved in this discussion….Media Board, Advisor, editor, me, etc. Please let me know.”
McCoy replied that he was uncomfortable meeting to discuss The Bulletin editorial content, as it might be perceived as an attempt to censor news and opinion. He suggested Hobson contact the Editor-in-Chief of The Bulletin directly.
McCoy does not edit or read any part of The Bulletin prior to publication.
“We do see very, very often at the college level that the adviser takes the brunt of what the students did,” LoMonte said. “That’s a very common occurrence because schools know that there’s only so much that they can do to the students. The students are paying customers and they want their money. But the adviser, especially an untenured adviser, is in a much more vulnerable position and unfortunately they often become the fall-guy. That is the school’s way of intimidating the students. It’s almost like a hostage situation. ‘If you don’t tone down your criticism of the school, bad things will happen to your adviser.’”
The role of the adviser was something that was discussed at length during the department meeting last Friday. The department felt that McCoy was fulfilling his role as adviser.
“(President Lane) admitted he went off given the recent decision from the Board of Regents on time that is taken from teaching and applied to other service areas and the efficiency report just really stirred up a lot of issues and the president apologized for that. (He) immediately began thinking about the efficiency report and the fact that this was the equivalent to one course load each semester and that it was not being evaluated,” Miller said during the department meeting.
However, the position of adviser to The Bulletin is evaluated by Faculty Recognition Committee.
“The FRC (Faculty Recognition Committee) absolutely reviews the adviser to The Bulletin,” said Rachelle Smith, associate professor of English, said during the department meeting. “We look at a number of documents that are submitted to the FRC as well as student evaluations that are done by the Bulletin students. We have found Professor McCoy’s performance as an adviser to be exceptional and absolutely in accordance with the standards of the profession and our understanding of those standards.”
Also in question is the Student Media Board Constitution, which is the document governing document of The Bulletin.
“That constitution was very carefully crafted 30 or 40 years ago specifically to let the student media do their job,” said Sally Turner, former adviser for The Bulletin and current president of College Media Advisers. “It has really worked well, even though people complain about the media, they have kept their hands off and that way the students learn and they can go on to perfect their craft and really be proud of the product that they produce while they’re in school, so I hope that nobody toys with that.”
The Student Media Board Constitution says that the Associated Student Government will appoint four members to serve. At a meeting on Sept. 24, senior political science major Jonathan Krueger appointed undergraduate student Kurt Fifelski, ASG senators Ashley McCullough and Bo Moddelmog and graduate student and ASG adviser Whitney McGinnis.
According to the document, there can only be two members of ASG appointed to the board, which Kelsey Ryan, Editor-in-Chief, brought to Krueger’s attention. She said that she believes the adviser counts as a member of ASG, making three ASG members on the Student Media Board. Krueger responded that while he disagrees, McCullough will be replaced on the board by undergraduate Alli Jordan.
Lane expressed his concerns with the Media Board constitution to Miller, which she relayed at the faculty meeting.
“At the time when all of this came up on Monday, (Lane) said that he did not remember ever signing off on that Constitution and he didn’t agree with it,” Miller said. “He admitted to me this morning that yes, he does have a copy of which he signed off on.”
Members of the administration have also expressed concerns with the accuracy of the reporting in The Bulletin and suggested ways to improve the accuracy. They also questioned the practices of Bulletin reporters.
“I wonder whether there is a method to try to ensure accuracy and whether the students feel like that method is working right now,” said Steve Brown, Dean of Liberal Arts and Sciences during an interview on Monday. “If that method is not working, are there other ways that you all could come up with that might ensure better accuracy in reporting? It’s not for me to try to suggest or impose. Truthfully, anything I might suggest or impose might be more flawed than what we’re working with now.”
LoMonte said that questioning the accuracy of a publication was a red flag for potential prior review.
“Our concern when we hear buzz words like quality and accuracy thrown around is that administrators are trying to nose their way into the newsroom by claiming they just want to improve the quality,” LoMonte said. “It’s especially suspicious when that follows very closely an investigative story or a hard-hitting editorial that makes them unhappy.”
Jim Ryan, professor of theater and member of the Student Media Board, suggested that accuracy may not be the issue in question.
“I’m not sure if it has to do with accuracy or if it has to do simply with sensitivity for certain issues, towards certain topics,” Ryan said.
Professor of Economics Rob Catlett is a member of the American Association of University Professors, a national organization dedicated to maintaining principles fundamental to academic freedom. Catlett said that the AAUP has dealt with student media related issues in the past, and would offer advice, if it was requested, regarding this situation.
“If a faculty member or administration wants our assistance, all they need to do is ask, and we want to do that as professionally as we know how,” Catlett said. “Somebody could contact me, somebody can contact other members of the AAUP, and we will direct them to somebody that can listen to their situation and provide an independent judgment….
We are committed to these higher level principles that guide universities and we want it known that we’re willing to act as professional intermediary,” Catlett said. “We’re not on the side of faculty members, we’re not on the side of the administration, we’re on the side of these basic fundamental principles.”
Miller believes that communication should be the first step in alleviating this issue.
“That’s not untypical of academic discussions, the problem being that if you are not face to face with people talking about things or second hand or fourth hand, that in that translation, things unintentionally become different,” Miller said. “I honestly believe that everybody is doing the best they can to get this cleared up.”
However, direct communication between the administration and the Editor-In-Chief of The Bulletin has yet to occur.
“I don’t think there’s any chance for resolution until President Lane agrees to meet with me,” said Kelsey Ryan, junior political science major and Editor-in-Chief of The Bulletin. “If there was any miscommunication, I feel it could have been avoided if the administration had just communicated directly. Until that time, there is no way to mend this ‘adversarial’ relationship.”
Sarah Shaw/The Bulletin