The Cost of Silencing a College Newspaper

by Leah Smith

A few months ago, while trying to piece together my broken resume full of all of the babysitting and temp gigs I’d worked since college, I shed a few tears, closed the document, and decided to log onto Facebook instead. I was deep in a whirling vortex of nail art and baby pictures when I stumbled upon a GoFundMe campaign to create an independent online newspaper at my alma mater, the University of Redlands.

The description of the GoFundMe campaign stated that Chris Munroe, a student staff writer for the University of Redlands newspaper, the Bulldog Weekly, had included a controversial quote in a November 2014 article about the largest donation that the school had received to date from alumni Richard and Virginia Hunsaker. The money would be established into a namesake scholarship called the Hunsaker Scholarship Prize, and would be offered to students who “who present exceptional achievement in leadership, civic engagement, academic excellence, entrepreneurial spirit, and community service.”

Munroe quoted a student stating that he felt the $35 million Hunsaker Scholarship was biased towards “rich, white males.” Shortly after the quote was published, the Associated Students of the University of Redlands (ASUR), which usually allocates $40,000 per year to fund the Bulldog Weekly, voted to suspend the newspaper, and fire the advisor, Erin Aubry Kaplan.

The issue: Munroe’s original draft didn’t include the “rich, white males” quote, and the way she collected it was put into question. After writing the first draft, Munroe asked the student source to clarify, “Did you mean rich, white males?” The student agreed, although what he originally said to her was that the scholarship was “intended for a certain type of person.” Munroe later admitted that she’d made a mistake.

“I knew when I did it that it was questionable journalism,” she said, “but the school made such a big deal about it saying that it was fabricated. It wasn’t fabricated, and I went to the student later to apologize about the quote, but he said, ‘No, it was definitely what I was feeling. I completely agree with it, so I stand by that quote.’”

According to Munroe, on the Wednesday after the article came out, the president of ASUR confronted her in the library, telling her that she couldn’t “write things like that,” referring to the “rich, white males” quote. The co-editors of the paper, Taylor Holmes and Morgan York, found out about this confrontation only after Munroe told them. Shortly after, ASUR held a meeting between faculty, the Director of Student Life, marketing department staff, and the Bulldog Weekly advisor and editors. In the meeting, the ASUR members announced that they had voted to put the paper on hiatus, and that ASUR would be forming a committee to create a new paper for the university. They also informed the advisor, Aubry Kaplan, that her position was terminated effective immediately.

“I asked at that meeting, ‘Wait a minute, what’s going on?’ and they never answered the question. At this particular meeting, they wouldn’t even look at me. I couldn’t even get anybody’s attention. It was very weird, and very disrespectful,” said Aubry Kaplan.

I tried to reach out to the Director of Student Life, Denise Davis, who sat on the ASUR committee to create a new paper. She directed me to her email to answer questions about the Bulldog Weekly hiatus, but after multiple emails to her, I also heard nothing.

A PR statement released on the university website states, “ASUR took its action based on evidence-based concerns about the quality and professionalism of the Weekly’s reporting, including a semester-long pattern of slanted, selective, and non-factual reporting.” But none of the evidence supporting these concerns has been presented to the public, and Aubry Kaplan stated, “We have quarterly meetings with the administration about the Bulldog Weekly, and the last report we got was a thumbs up. They were really happy with it.”

Aubry Kaplan suggested that the presence of the marketing department in the meeting was a clue to what type of paper ASUR was planning to create. “The school’s marketing department by definition, can’t run a newspaper. Marketing people are fundamentally at odds with newspapers.”

This isn’t the first time the University of Redlands marketing department had been called into question. During my senior year, a new marketing campaign that featured a video tour of the university spurred controversy on campus when a casting call for the video asked for a female part that “could be a diva” and was “beautiful,” and a male part that had “rock star good looks.” When the student body found out about this campaign, over 200 hundred students showed up to a marketing meeting claiming that this was not a truthful representation of the individuals on campus.

I have to admit, when I was a 16-year-old in high school trying to choose which college to attend, I picked up a glossy, marketing magazine about The University of Redlands that was laying on a table in my college counselor’s office. I flipped through a few pages, and I was sold.

“If you go to Redlands, you’ll have more debt than if you had a mortgage,” my dad warned me. “Debt” and “mortgage” seemed like nothing more than vague adult terms. I wanted the palm trees, sunshine, shiny happy people holding hands. The tuition was $33,594 a year when I was a senior in 2010. I’d been offered a few scholarships and grants, but my dad was right. I’m still in debt up to my eyeballs, and five years after college, I’ve barely scratched the surface.

But when I was a student, the Bulldog Weekly did have the freedom to take a critical perspective on campus. During my time there, because of a budget crisis, the administration threatened to lay off faculty members. The Bulldog Weekly reported throughout the controversy, and the criticism of the administration became so intense on campus that the president of the university resigned. As a student, being able to have a forum for critical discussion that could be a force of change within the university community was one of the most valuable experiences I had in college.

That’s exactly why Holmes and York decided to set up an independent publication. Their GoFundMe raised $4,400, and the bulk of the money was intended to pay the writers. The donations started pouring in mostly from faculty and alum. Within a few weeks, they launched the online paper through Squarespace. ASUR quickly dismissed the the Bulldog Weekly editors from their committee in reaction to this, and the editors went completely independent.

Now that the online Bulldog no longer relies on ASUR funding, they are able to publish articles that are critical of the university without fear of being shut down. In a recent article, the online Bulldog discussed a new budget report about the University of Redlands that revealed troubling facts about the way the university is allocating its funds.

“ASUR definitely would have shut us down for running a budget story that reveals that the president is making more than half a million dollars per year, and meanwhile we don’t have any tenured faculty being hired,” Holmes told me, “We never would have been able to publish some of the stuff we published in the last few weeks had we still been working with ASUR oversight, so overall I think it was the best possible outcome in the worst possible way.”

Tension between university administration and the student newspaper is nothing new. One of the donors to the GoFundMe campaign was Gary Hawkins, an alum from the eighties who helped set up a similar independent publication called Antithesis during his time at Redlands. Just like the controversy today, Gary and a few friends started Antithesis in reaction to friction that they felt between ASUR and the Bulldog Weekly.

One of Gary’s colleagues, Hannah Schell commented, “I think we saw the Bulldog Weekly as a mouthpiece for the administration and therefore lumped it with ‘what we must fight against.’ Autonomy was the watchword of the day.” But after Hannah transferred from the university, Antithesis fizzled out, and a few of the writers returned to the Bulldog Weekly.

Holmes’ perspective of the school has changed. “What I’ve realized is that so much of this university is about what people can see on the surface,” she said. “The image that it projects to the public is the priority, rather than the experience of the students. I found that the parts of Redlands that I really like are the student body and the faculty.”

Holmes and York are graduating, but a new editor still hasn’t been chosen. The GoFundMe raised only enough money to cover a semester, and it’s still a far cry from the $40,000 they used to have. Aubry Kaplan is advising them on a volunteer basis. Next fall, the voice of the student body could be entirely silenced or sanitized by the marketing department.

Leah Smith is a writer, dog-walker, nanny, and Judge Judy star living in Brooklyn. Catch her on Twitter here: @leahsmith723

Photo: Amerique/Wikimedia Commons

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