With the recent Charlie Hebdo tragedy, freedom of speech has been the topic of great discussion in mainstream media. This liberty has been on the mind of Genevieve Hayman for another reason however as she looks at the shutting down of her former university’s newspaper, of which she was a former Co-Editor-in-Chief, and what it means for student journalism in the university.
The Bulldog Weekly serves as the only student-run newspaper for the University of Redlands in California. This past December, the Associated Students of the University of Redlands (ASUR) banned publication of the newspaper following the release of its November 10 issue, which featured an article on the establishment of a $35 million scholarship fund. The money for the scholarship was donated by the Hunsaker family and was the largest individual donation in the history of the university. In the article, a student was quoted as saying she thought the scholarship favoured “rich, white males.”
ASUR, the university’s student government, controls the establishment of and funding for clubs and organisations on campus, including the Bulldog Weekly. According to the group’s Facebook page, “ASUR Cabinet looked thoroughly at all of the issues of the Bulldog Weekly from this semester and decided that they were not a good representation of the student voice. This is based on many factors including ill-researched articles and misquoting.” The claim of misquoting stems from the manner in which the “rich, white males”quote was obtained. According to Co-Editor-in-Chief, Morgan York, “The original quote was ‘the scholarship seemed like it’s aimed at a certain type of person’ and that’s what our writer put in the article.”
Erin Aubry Kaplan, an adviser hired by the university to oversee the newspaper’s production, instructed the writer to clarify this statement, saying, according to York, “Well what does this person mean by certain type of person? Please clarify. Is it that rich white man thing you were talking about earlier?” The writer then went to the quoted student and asked them, “You know this thing about the scholarship is for a certain type of person, did you mean rich white men?” said York. It is explained that the student then responded, “Yeah, that’s what I meant.”
While York and her Co-Editor-in-Chief, Taylor Holmes, admitted this incident was a journalistic misstep, they refute the claim of Char Burgess, University Vice President and Dean of Student Life, that the quote was a “fabrication.” Indeed, the term seems too strong given the preservation of sentiment and acknowledged agreement from the quoted student. Still, the administration denies responsibility for the shut down. Burgess commented “[ASUR] took action based on their overall concern for a lack of journalistic quality and the fact that they did not see the paper reflected the student voice.”
The vote by ASUR officials was 13-2 in favour of placing the newspaper on “hiatus.” Denise Davis, Director of the Student Leadership and Involvement Center (SLIC) and ASUR Cabinet Advisor, said, “There were a number of other concerns, specifically that we spend nearly $40,000 a year in student activity fees publishing a paper that very few people actually read.”
This seems to be a convenient excuse for a university that charges an average annual fee of $43,186 per student, according to U.S. News & World Report. Given an undergraduate enrolment of 3,609 for 2014-2015, that equates to over $155 million received by the university each year from tuition and student fees alone. While the university has innumerable expenses and spends its money on many worthwhile causes, surely a student-run campus newspaper is an important investment. After all, it not only informs students on issues but also provides jobs for those students who struggle financially. In addition, The Bulldog Weekly serves as the only means of journalistic education on the campus since the university does not offer a journalism degree nor regular journalism courses. In 2012, requests for an online version of the newspaper were refused due to concerns of quality and inability to censor and maintain the website on behalf of the university.
Since the ban of the weekly publication, students, faculty and alumni have written to administrators and ASUR representatives expressing concern about the drastic measures taken. On January 20, nearly 200 supporters of the newspaper gathered in front of the administration building to protest the shut down. In an email to the campus community on January 10, ASUR stated that a committee had been established to review the newspaper and decide its fate in the coming weeks. Their first meeting was held January 23. This committee consisted of seven students, three from The Bulldog Weekly and four from ASUR. Additionally, Davis sits on the committee along with Leela MadhavaRau, Associate Dean for the Center of Diversity and Inclusion; Bill Rocque, Professor of Sociology and Anthropology; and Jennifer Dobbs, Web Content and Multimedia Editor for the university’s Marketing and Strategic Planning Department. This raises a number of red flags.
Why would the university hire Kaplan, who has written for The Los Angeles Times and The LA Weekly, specifically to advise the student newspaper and not put her on the committee? As a former writer and editor, I can attest that she played a tremendous role in teaching students how to write, edit, and run a newspaper. Kaplan’s contribution improved the quality of The Bulldog Weekly more than any other faculty or staff member, so the fact that she was not invited to join the discussion of its future implies ASUR’s primary concern has nothing to do with quality.
Another piece of evidence is the exclusion of faculty from the English Department who have always been supportive of the newspaper and are committed to establishing journalistic integrity on campus. In a letter to the editor, Alisa Slaughter, Associate Professor and Chair in the Creative Writing Department, said, “It is my judgment, as a former journalist and longtime mentor to Bulldog editors and writers, that nothing published in the newspaper merited so extreme a measure as total shutdown, which has left the entire staff without their salaries and opportunity to develop professional skills. The newspaper needs a better corrections policy, better institutional support, and better protection from its ‘leadership’ (another provocative abstraction!) – not necessarily in that order.”
If ASUR’s main concern is not improving the journalistic quality of the newspaper, then what other motivation could they have? The answer is made clear by the incorporation of Dobbs from marketing in the committee. In my experience, a student newspaper should not be a voice for the university’s marketing department, but a voice for the students.
In the end, this is another sad case in which a powerful entity takes down those who may tarnish its reputation, even at cost of free speech. Perhaps the “rich, white males” quote was the breaking point, but it is clear that the motivations of the university are other than the benefit of students. My optimism leads me to hope that despite the mishandling of the situation and formation of a questionable committee, ASUR and the administration will realise the importance of a newspaper independent from the strings of government influence.