College Media & the College President: ‘I Wouldn’t Call It a Warm Relationship’

College president transparency — from the search process to everyday dealings with students and the press — has become an increasingly scrutinized and in some cases criticized issue.

To that end, I recently reached out to the spring 2015 CMM Fellows — an elite crew of top editors and reporters at student media across the U.S. and in Europe — to get their perspectives on a main question prompt: What is your outlet’s relationship with your college or university president?

Depending on the direction they wanted to take things from there, I also threw out a few quick follow-up prompts: How much access are you granted to your school leader on a regular basis? What form does that access take? What do you wish would change about the nature of your access or interactions? And have there been any specific events during your student media career that highlight how transparent or hidden the president tends to be?

Three more prominent themes weaving through the students’ answers: 1) An appreciation for their president’s politeness and occasional willingness to be interviewed. 2) A desire for more, and more candid, interactions, especially on newsworthy issues and during moments of significance. 3) Concerns about the stonewalling carried out by separate high-level administrators or campus communications offices. 

Here is a full rundown of their responses.

Alex Bitter, editor-in-chief, Ka Leo O Hawai’i, U. of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa

1Our recent presidents have been skeptical of the media, including student media on campus. While scheduling an interview has never been an issue, I wouldn’t call it a warm relationship.

For David Lassner, the current president, I suspect part of that has to do with events that happened last July, less than two months into his term. One of these was his decision to fire the well-liked chancellor on our campus, which drew public protests and demands that the chancellor be reinstated.

As it happened, I had scheduled an interview with the president weeks earlier. My original intent was to focus on his transition to the office, but I had to ask him about the firing, which was getting lots of attention from Ka Leo and other media outlets. He largely avoided naming his reasons for firing the chancellor, though they later came out in some leaked evaluation papers. Ever since that controversy, he’s kept a low profile on campus other than appearances in our paper.

In contrast, we developed a warmer relationship with Tom Apple, the chancellor Lassner removed. He frequently sat down to talk with us about everything from athletics to campus beautification. Outside of those interviews, Ka Leo staffers, myself included, have often chatted with him when we run into him around campus, at football games or in public.

Ric Sanchez, editor-in-chief, Montana Kaimin, University of Montana

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A university is a business, whether we want to admit it or not. And most businesses don’t want their executives commenting on every story without some coaching.

Our president’s office sits in the University of Montana clocktower building, Main Hall, which we can see from the window outside our newsroom and vaguely gesture to whenever we’re frustrated with the administration. Most comments from Main Hall aren’t directly from President Royce Engstrom, obviously. Instead, they come from UM’s communications officer and, here’s the kicker, former School of Journalism dean Peggy Kuhr, who the Montana Kaimin usually asks for comment.

In the time I’ve been editor, we’ve only gotten one negative note directly from the president, which was in response to comments we made about the school’s former vice president in an editorial. The letter wasn’t so much a rebuttal to what we said, but rather a show of solidarity with the former VP as a person.

I’d describe our relationship with our president, or at least his office, as courteous and professional. If given enough notice, he will do personal interviews with the paper. And occasionally he’ll play ball with some of our more outlandish requests — like taking part in a social experiment we did last semester.

The Kaimin is intensely critical of UM’s administration, recently calling for the release of our former quarterback’s shady disciplinary records and questioning the motivation of some faculty to push for a flat-rate textbook fee. But we know these decisions aren’t made by one person in a vacuum. We’re not afraid to call for transparency — we do it loud and often — but we think it’s more important to know exactly who to push to action. It isn’t always the person sitting in the big chair inside the clocktower.

Sami Edge, editor-in-chief, The Emerald, University of Oregon

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The Emerald’s relationship with the University of Oregon president is the best that I can remember in my last three years on staff and as a student at the University of Oregon. However, that isn’t to say it’s anything of a candid nature. It’s very cordial, very professional and typically pretty remote.

Since his tenure began at the beginning of this school year, the current interim president has been willing to respond to our requests for comment when issues of pressing importance arise – like a lawsuit filed by the survivor of an alleged sexual assault by three members of the UO Men’s Basketball team last spring. And he has occasionally even reached out to us with commentary preemptively. Our interactions with him are rarely in person and are typically pretty short and issue-oriented, but they’re a far cry from the relationship with our former president — which was limited to occasional statements facilitated through email by the university spokesperson and short, formal interviews once in a blue moon.

The University of Oregon has had four different presidents in the last six years, so it’s hard to remember which ones have been willing to speak with us either in person or over the phone and which haven’t. The current president’s willingness to be interviewed over the phone and in person is a considerable change from the former president and we can only hope that the next president will continue that trend.

As the leader of any independent student newspaper knows, maintaining a working relationship with administrators is a delicate balance. My newsroom stands firm on philosophy that responsible, accurate and fair reporting is the ultimate tool to maintaining a working relationship built on mutual respect. We operate as transparently as possible, steer clear of “gotcha” journalism by informing the parties we’re reporting on that we’re reporting on them and giving them chance to comment, and remain receptive to constructive criticism. And when differences of opinions arise, we strive to be as respectful and professional as possible while we stick to our guns and continue pushing for the information that we need to know.

We are fortunate that The Emerald’s complete autonomy from the university administration allows us to make the decisions that we deem most beneficial for the sake of appropriately informing the student population. However we also recognize that our fierce adherence to independence is only respectable if our journalism is accurate, responsible and fair.

Liz Young, editor-in-chief, The Lantern, Ohio State University

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At The Lantern, we traditionally get one hour-long interview with the president per semester. Because Ohio State hired a new president last summer, though, we’ve only had one on-the-record sit-down interview with the president this year.

We typically hold the interviews in our newsroom with most of our staff members. Staff members and reporters submit questions ahead of time, which the editor-in-chief then sorts through and organizes. The EIC then distributes printed sheets of those questions to staff, which are used during the interview to keep order and make sure the questions we want to know the most about are asked.

Currently, our relationship with the president is warm but still professional, because we’re still in the early stages of establishing that relationship. My wish would be to have more frequent access. I’d personally love for us to interview the president more than once per semester, but I also know that our busy work and class schedules and his packed schedule make it hard to find recurring times to hold those interviews.

Liz Young, editor-in-chief of The Lantern at Ohio State University, recently took part in a staff interview of OSU president Michael Drake in the Lantern newsroom. Behind Young are two OSU spokespeople and (in the right corner) the paper’s managing editor of design Madison Curtis. Photo by Mark Batke, Lantern photo editor.

Liz Young, editor-in-chief of The Lantern at Ohio State University, recently took part in a staff interview of OSU president Michael Drake in the Lantern newsroom. Behind Young are two OSU spokespeople and (in the right corner) the paper’s managing editor of design Madison Curtis. Photo by Mark Batke, Lantern photo editor.

Riley Brands, editor-in-chief, The Daily Texan, University of Texas

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Our outgoing president, Bill Powers, has always been accessible to, and supportive of, the Texan. He’s not the easiest person to pin down, but in my experience his team is happy to accommodate our requests for interviews wherever possible.

More importantly, however, he’s helped the Texan and Texas Student Media, our parent company, by allocating generous transitional funding so that we didn’t have to worry about going out of print as we begin to get our financial house in order under new management. I’m greatly appreciative of that. We’ve occasionally had tension with his office in my time at the Texan, but Powers has always been very supportive of our mission and is a great booster of the Texan.

Natalie Daher, editor-in-chief, The Pitt News, University of Pittsburgh

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At a large public university, I don’t expect to have many interactions with our top dog. Our current Chancellor Patrick Gallagher just succeeded a hallowed predecessor and was officially sworn in about a month ago. The Pitt News spoke one-on-one with him last year after the announcement of his new role, before the current academic year and after his first three months in office. Otherwise, most of our interactions exist in quotes from press releases largely about administrative decisions.

While it’s our job to be the watchdog of student and university leaders, I haven’t faced a situation where the paper needed the chancellor’s comment on an issue that it couldn’t obtain. When seeking interviews with administrators, reporters at TPN do first contact communications staff as part of standard procedure.

My greatest wish is that we’d have quicker and more in-person access, as opposed to the limiting emailed interviews, but I realize it’s not always possible on our deadlines. I’d hope that in the near future we could develop a policy at the paper to differentiate between email versus in-person interviews, because I realize these discrepancies didn’t exist even a decade ago. As of now, university administrations tend to be bureaucratic, so I’ve found the answers we’ve needed generally haven’t rested with the head honcho, but rather with someone from the lower ranks.

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Joey Stipek, assignment editor, OU Nightly, University of Oklahoma

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I think your relationship with your school’s president is a little different when you take him to court for the university’s interpretation of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act involving student parking tickets.

University of Oklahoma President David. L. Boren’s background includes a stint as governor of the state and multiple terms in the U.S. Senate. He’s the most powerful man in Oklahoma, in my opinion. Because he’s the most powerful man, the university is this well-oiled economic machine. Sometimes, I feel a few within the university — outside of Boren — forget it’s a public institution of higher education.

I have met President Boren four times. Twice before my lawsuit against the University of Oklahoma and twice after the lawsuit settled. On all four occasions, he’s acted as a true gentleman to this student reporter. I would describe him as charming and gregarious with all students. I have often wondered after I have met him if he knew it was me who sued him.

That said, I do not have any sort of relationship with him nor have I had the need to interview him for stories I have written. I interact more with his press secretary, Corbin Wallace. I’d describe that relationship as a mix of professional, candid and helpful. At times, I wish more public information officers were as helpful as Wallace is. I’m fine with my relationships with both men as they are.

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Nicole Brown, former editor-in-chief, Washington Square News, NYU

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There is little direct communication between the Washington Square News and NYU President John Sexton because there is a spokesperson from the university who gives reporters or editors comments we need for stories. Last year, however, I was able to get an interview with President Sexton. It was one of the few one-on-one interviews he has done with the student newspaper in years and he has not done one since.

I wish Sexton did more interviews with students because talking to him directly is very different than talking to a spokesperson, reading a press release or even speaking to him at a town hall. It is important for students to be able to read the president‘s stance on issues and his or her comments on what is happening at the university. This is especially the case when there is opposition or criticism of the president, which was the main reason I pushed for an interview with Sexton. There were a lot of questions that deserved answers from him, and as student journalists it is our job to get those answers.

NYU will be transitioning presidents in the next year, so the relationship between WSN and the president could change. I was pleased that the new president Andrew Hamilton spoke with WSN when his appointment was announced two weeks ago, and I hope he will speak directly to student journalists on a regular basis when he is president.

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Courtney Jacquin, editor-in-chief, The DePaulia, DePaul University

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Working for a newspaper at a private university can often be tricky. We’re not afforded the luxuries of being able to FOIA information on DePaul, so we rely on what officials will tell us. Sometimes, that’s easy — we’ve always been able to get direct access to our president Rev. Dennis Holtschneider and he’s been available for almost every interview request we have. He’s a fan of The DePaulia. We deliver a copy of the paper to his desk each Monday. But getting other sources at the university has been hit or miss.

We’ve been told multiple times from DePaul’s Office of Public Relations and Communication (OPRC) that there’s no policy in place for staff and faculty members when it comes to speaking with The DePaulia or other media as expert sources. Yet, increasingly this school year we’ve had reporters and editors stonewalled by potential sources, asking for the questions to be funneled through the OPRC. This ranges from requiring questions to be pre-screened, statements being provided by the OPRC rather than by the source or our requests being denied all together. It’s gotten to the point where our news editors can barely do their job — at least one story per week is delayed because of interview requests being deflected.

Stephen Koenigsfeld, editor-in-chief, Iowa State Daily, Iowa State

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The Iowa State Daily has had an incredibly healthy and open relationship with not only ISU president Steven Leath, but his entire administration during my time at Iowa State. As long as the Daily is willing to schedule meetings far enough in advance, he is always willing to meet with our editors and reporters.

It’s interesting that this prompt comes along now because we just had a meeting with him on April 1. We talked about some upcoming events, the future of Veishea (actually, the lack there of) and we also talked about sexual assaults on campus. He was never shy to answer a question and was always seemingly thoughtful in his answers. I was telling a few of the editors that I felt the Daily was incredibly lucky to have such a healthy relationship with the administration at Iowa State. I imagine there are some college organizations that aren’t as lucky to have that relationship, and it’s unfortunate when the upper administration fails the students in that capacity.

College news organizations are there to serve the campus, just like the president and his or her administration. When the “higher ups” are too proud or stubborn to talk to the campus paper, it only does a disservice to the students at that university.

Jordyn Reiland, editor-in-chief, The Daily Iowan, University of Iowa

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The Daily Iowan’s relationship with university presidents has included a sit-down, one-on-one Q&A for quite a long time. A reporter and TV cameraperson attend the 30-minute interview and ask the president questions, with a subsequent story and verbatim Q&A in the newspaper. This tradition came to a halt last spring and was not rectified until January 2015.

President Sally Mason made some comments to the DI in a Q&A about sexual assault that triggered a very strong response from the UI community. Following those comments, Mason canceled the following two meetings due to “scheduling conflicts.” No Q&A’s were had for the rest of the semester and into the summer, and instead Mason called for monthly media availabilities where all media members were welcome to come and ask questions.

I wrote a letter to President Mason that ran on the entirety of the DI’s Opinions page in which I explained the history of the relationship between the news organization and the university president. I also interviewed former editors about their experiences with past presidents, described the current situation from my vantage point and explained what I was hoping to see come out of this “call to action.” I interviewed President Mason my freshman year, and so I felt very familiar and comfortable writing this piece and explaining why what was happening was not OK.

After the letter was published, we received quite a few comments and letters to the editor, including one from Joe Brennan, the Vice President of Strategic Communications, in which he denounced a number of arguments I laid out. I stood by everything I wrote, and included a response at the bottom of the published letter.

After winter break, President Mason requested a one-on-one meeting with me in which we discussed the situation and decided the Q&A’s would be reinstated. I conduct the monthly Q&A’s with Mason, and as of right now April will be the last one for the school year. There are still some things I would like to see change in regards to the relationship with the DI and the university administration, but I think this is an important tradition that needed to be reinstated and I’m very glad it was. It certainly wasn’t easy, but it happened and I think more than anything else it shows the power of student media.

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Jordyn Reiland, editor-in-chief of The Daily Iowan, recently interviewed University of Iowa president Sally Mason. According to Reiland, it was the student newspaper’s second one-on-one sitdown with Mason this academic year –after nearly seven months of not having any. Photo courtesy of Reiland.

Erica Corder, editor-in-chief, The Collegiate Times, Virginia Tech

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The situation at Virginia Tech is interesting because our president was inaugurated just this past fall (so much fun to cover back when I was news editor). President Timothy Sands issued a new era at Tech, one that seemed far more open than previous presidents, especially following the massacre, which was a very significant point in Tech’s media presence.

I think some of this perception also comes from the fact that our president tweets from a personal account and talks with students, staff and faculty on the social media site. He’s dealt with pretty serious issues in some tweets, and I think it’s encouraging to see a president use the medium to connect better with the university. As far as the way our president responds to student journalists, Sands retweets content from the Collegiate Times regularly and once even congratulated me on Twitter for a story that he shared in the same congratulatory tweet. When writers request to meet with him, access is granted and, as far as I know, has not been denied since he’s been inaugurated.

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Steffi S. Lee, editor-in-chief, The Simpsonian, Simpson College

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Since Simpson College is a small, private liberal arts college, one-on-one interviews with President Jay Simmons aren’t difficult to arrange. I’d say President Simmons is most definitely warm, encouraging and candid in his interviews. He responds immediately and aims to let reporters do their jobs.

That being said, a president serves as the face of the school. Depending on the situation, it’s difficult to gauge what’s being said to us as pure truth versus a public relations statement meant to portray the institution in a positive light. I’ve covered staff layoffs at the school due to a budget crisis this past year, and it was difficult to get the raw truth from our president about how our institution was facing its financial challenges. Our president is more transparent than the ones our institution had in the past, but there could always be more of it.

We maintain a professional, yet warm connection with him, but as the main reporter on the budget cuts and staff layoffs stories, I do wish the president could be more candid and forego the public relations front.

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