In the Spotlight: Nathan Giebel, Carthage College

Last month, reporter Nathan Giebel wrote a pair of pieces for The Current, the student newspaper at Wisconsin’s Carthage College– a news report touching on Carthage’s tuition increase, expenses, and professor salaries and a separate editorial on the college president’s salary.

The pieces themselves were interesting but the real story was embedded within the forms on which they were based, and the journey Giebel undertook to obtain them.  Over three months- and via numerous e-mails, in-person chats, legal advice, and an administration occasionally confused and slightly annoyed- Giebel gained access and eventually analyzed the IRS Form 990 for Carthage and five other area schools.

As explained by the Student Press Law Center, “The IRS Form 990 discloses information about the amount of money the organization has made in a year; a listing of where the money was spent, how much and for what; a detailed balance sheet with the assets and liabilities of the organization at the end of each fiscal year; information on the sale and purchase of the organization’s investments and how they have fared; the identities and salaries of the top organization employees.”

It is a tax report all nonprofit organizations, including private colleges and universities, are required to keep but rarely, if ever, are asked to distribute.  As SPLC legal consultant Mike Hiestand explained, “The valuable thing about the Form 990 is that students attending a private school don’t have a lot of options when it comes to obtaining information about their schools and the 990 is . . . [a] valuable tool for getting behind doors that are normally closed. . . . It’s not always a matter of them [schools] not being willing to comply with the law, it’s a matter of them not knowing the law and knowing what the requirements are.”

The recent 990 reporting adventure for Giebel was a legal and journalistic learning experience.  In a chat with CMM, the economics and finance double major explains the process he went through and offers advice for students looking to make similar requests at their own schools.

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Nathan Giebel, reporter, Carthage Current

Write a six-word memoir of your Current experience so far.

I learned; I taught; I grew.

What motivated you to seek out the 990 forms from Carthage and other area schools?

I attended the ACP/CMA National College Media Convention in Austin. While there I learned a lot about various journalism tactics, including investigative journalism. I was made aware of the public nature of the IRS Form 990 and it was suggested that I request a copy to exercise my right to the information. I didn’t really have any intentions about what I wanted to write about, besides that I wanted to investigate why tuition was always increasing and where exactly our money goes. Then I decided to request the same information from other schools similar in size, structure, and location to Carthage. I used that information as something to compare Carthage to, since the data by itself is pretty hard to put into perspective.

What was involved in the process once you decided to give it a go?

First I made an in-person appearance in Carthage’s Business Office and requested the form from the woman responsible for payroll taxes and other tax forms. She had no idea what I was talking about, and suggested that I e-mail Carthage’s Controller.  At first, he was willing to provide specific information to me, but not the document as a whole. Half the time he would not respond to my e-mails and was not overly friendly with me when I made in-person requests. . . . [The Controller] spoke to Carthage’s attorney, who apparently advised him that it was the college’s policy to not release the document, even though it is legally required to do so.

After I cited the exact laws and statutes that require open access to the IRS Form 990, the Controller neglected to respond. At this point in time, I realized I needed direct assistance. I went to my Managing Editor, Carmelo Chimera, who is my direct supervisor.  He has great connections within the administration and was able to explain to Business Office staff exactly what I wanted and that I did not have any slanderous intentions. Then the Controller presented me with the documents and apologized for the misunderstanding. This all took roughly one month to do.

Then, I e-mailed the five other schools (Carroll University, Elmhurst College, Luther College, North Central College, and Wheaton College).  Elmhurst and Luther responded very promptly and were very accommodating and helpful.  Then I sat down and sorted through approximately 275 pages of financial and tax data that I had accumulated and determined what was relevant and interesting.  I also used some information from each of the school’s Web sites to compare enrollment figures, tuition figures, and other statistics.

Bill Abt, Carthage’s Vice President for Administration and Business, readily agreed to meet with me and gave me a sizable chunk of his time to answer some other questions that I couldn’t find the answers to online or in the Form 990. He approved everything I had composed to that point, and was very helpful to me. The entire process from start to finish took more than three months, so as you can tell it was rather strenuous and time-consuming.

One standout memory from the 990 requesting/reporting experience.

It definitely has to be how helpful Bill Abt was to me.  He is the most senior administrator at Carthage besides our President.  The fact that he set aside about an hour of his busy schedule just to meet with me really means a lot to me and says a great deal about the quality of Carthage’s administration as a whole. On the flip-side, it is hard to forget how stressful just getting the information from the Controller was in the first place.

One thing that I should probably add is that my editor, the paper’s advisor, and the administration granted me entirely free reign in what I wanted to write about or print. I think that is really spectacular, and probably unusual for a small paper from a small private college in which the paper is funded entirely by the college itself.  Even if I was printing something negative, I don’t believe that Mr. Abt would have had any issue with it so long as it was in an opinion format.

What stories have you reported based on the forms?

I actually have only written two stories about this information, and they were published concurrently in the middle of February.  The main one was purely factual, as was my intention.  I wanted it to be printed in a completely unbiased manner, since the other schools that had contributed their Form 990s would be seeing it, as well as many other people.

The other one was an editorial that did present some additional information on Carthage, but the main intention was to explain how I felt the data displayed Carthage, and why exactly Carthage looks the way it does by the numbers alone. I also took it a step further, because I really wanted readers to understand that it is impossible to only judge a school’s standing or performance from the figures. You have to dig deeper and figure out why administrators are making so much more than their counterparts at other schools, etc.

What is your advice for student journalists who want to follow your lead with the form request?

In most cases, you are the first person to ever request this information from your institution. Therefore, there is certainly going to be a decent amount of confusion about exactly what you want. The best advice is to be polite, but firm. Make it clear what you are looking for and what your intentions are and be persistent. Don’t be afraid to ask for help, whether it be from a trusted faculty member or a supervisor.  It won’t be easy to get the information, but with a little determination and resourcefulness there is no way you can fail. Often you can find this information online with guidestar.org or eri-nonprofit-salaries.com, but it’s always fun to try to exercise your right to the information directly through the institution you seek it from just like I did.

Comments
One Response to “In the Spotlight: Nathan Giebel, Carthage College”
  1. Nathan Giebel says:

    Dan,

    It looks great! Thank you for everything! I’m deeply honored by all of this interest, and I’m extremely appreciative of your efforts in broadcasting this!

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