Letter from the Editor-in-Chief: The killing of independent student media at UVM

Administration hires and changes adviser position with no input from student leaders, threatens freedom

September 22, 2020

“It’s a dangerous thing to start a paper.”

As I read these words etched across a March 1883 edition of the Burlington Clipper, a weekly newspaper that used to run in the Queen City, the words echoed throughout my head.

This line comes at the end of a bit of news. Students at the University of Vermont, just at the top of the hill, as they used to refer to the University’s campus, had passed around a circular that month saying they intended to start their own newspaper.

The editors of the Clipper added the line as a bit of parting advice for the founders of what we now know as the “Vermont Cynic.”

Two months after these lines were published in the Clipper, the first issue of what was known as the “University Cynic,” hit the stands.

Run by the students of the University, the publication has continued to do so.

But now, over a hundred years later, a publication created for students, run by students and written for students is under attack.

Whispers of potential changes as to how the Cynic, WRUV and UVMTv would be advised first came in July when our adviser Chris Evans, whose sole job was to be the Student Media Adviser, left UVM after more than a decade in the position.

Less than a month after our adviser’s departure, Provost Patty Prelock redesigned the advising role.

The redesign, made without the input or consent of student media leaders or the Department of Student Life, moves the position to the College of Arts and Sciences where a lecturer will split their time between teaching and advising three diverse media organizations in an attempt to integrate student media with the budding Reporting and Documentary Storytelling minor.

Effectively, the move puts all student media and especially the Vermont Cynic’s independence at risk.

When student leaders heard the initial whispers of change, we signaled our concerns, but they fell on deaf ears.

By the second week of classes, the University’s forceful takeover of independent student media was complete.

Our new adviser was selected without asking us, or seeking our input or advice.

We begged for weeks to meet with the Provost to explain why the specific changes to our adviser’s role would be ultimately detrimental not only to the student media organizations, but free speech and a free press as guaranteed under the U.S. Constitution.

The biggest concern here is an illegal practice called “prior review,” which is the most specific and probable way the administration can infringe on our right to operate independently.

According to Mike Hiestand, senior legal counsel for the Student Press Law Center, prior review is the practice of school officials, or anyone outside of an independent student news publication, demanding to review content before it is published.

The scariest thought however: the power that sits just overhead of our new adviser’s head.

Illustration by Kate Vanni/Vermont Cynic

Although repeated claims have been made that this new adviser won’t be subject to administrative pressure, it’s difficult to trust this claim when the adviser answers directly to a dean of a college.

When we asked the Provost why our adviser would answer to Dean Bill Falls, Provost Prelock said it was so the adviser “wouldn’t be influenced by the faculty.” It’s difficult to see how that doesn’t work from the administrative side too.

What’s stopping Dean Falls from exerting his pressure on our adviser, or the will of another upper level administrator?

Instead of working hard to meet with the students most directly impacted and concerned by these changes, the Provost instead appointed this adviser without the consent of the leaders.

Perhaps the most concerning change to the position is who exactly our new adviser directly reports to in their capacity as our adviser. Their supervisor is the Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences Bill Falls.

This is a disgusting administrative abuse of power.

The adviser to the independent student newspaper, reports to a high-level administrator. Just let that sink in.

I write this, because when asked what guarantees she’d put in place to protect press freedoms, such as ensuring no prior review of content by faculty, staff or administrators, Prelock responded by asking for our trust saying she had no time to read our articles beforehand.

How can we trust and respect administration when they don’t trust or respect us enough to offer us a seat at the table?

This reorganization at its core seeks to “greater align” the three media organizations with a stronger journalism curriculum and academic program, effectively integrating student-run clubs into academia.

By bringing the Cynic closer to the administration here at UVM, they are killing our more than century-long history of independence.

Think state-owned media, but the college version.

But specifically, aligning the independent college newspaper with one particular school and academic program leads to the possibility of greater restrictions as to who can participate and what content gets to be published.

At the Cynic, we have a robust educational system that is built on real world experience. We welcome any student from any college, degree program etc, to join. If you show up, and you’re willing to put the work in to learn, we’ll teach you.

We did a quick poll of the editors before this editorial went to print, and surprise surprise, not a single one is in the College of Arts and Sciences’ Reporting, Documentary, Storytelling minor, nor did they say they wanted to be.

And to say our model has been unsuccessful is flat out wrong.

For years, we’ve continually pumped out quality, budding journalists, from the likes of Pulitzer Prize winner Eric Lipton in the Washington D.C. New York Times office, to acclaimed Vermont Sports reporter Austin Danforth, Aviva Loeb at the Washington Post, community news reporter Bridget Higdon who has found a home at the Colchester Sun, Mariel Wamsley at the New York Times to Natalie Williams a dedicated journalist at the Bangor Daily News.

We produce top notch journalists and have some of Vermont’s most promising up and coming journalists in our midst right now.

The University’s forceful placing of a square in a round peg simply doesn’t work.

With the Provost’s redesign, student-owned and operated media has been brought into the College of Arts and Sciences. Prior to these changes, student media lived independently in the Department of Student Life, a way to keep our adviser neutral.

At the Cynic we take particular anger with this portion of the changes, as we’re the underdog in this situation. We know you won’t always love what we write, or agree with our reporting, but the fact that we get to write and report free and unfettered by the University Administration will effectively end here.

We have been asked by the Provost and Falls to just trust them and then in Fall 2021 we can all go back to the drawing board. The Cynic’s answer to that is a fervent hell no.

As journalists, one of the first lessons we learn is to not trust a source. We develop that source, work them, until we know their information is credible and they’re trustworthy.

Our job as journalists is to question authority, hold them accountable and tell the stories people need to hear.

In our profession, trust is a precious commodity. It’s not given lightly; it’s earned.

— Sawyer Loftus/Vermont Cynic

We sit and watch, take notes and write compelling stories. At times the University doesn’t like that and it’s hard to see this move as anything but an attempt to control what we write.

The Cynic is not alone. Leaders from WRUV and UVMTv have expressed their concerns over having an adviser selected and appointed for them, that has no knowledge of what their organizations do.

In a statement, Katie Masterson, station manager of WRUV said she’s particularly upset that much of the correspondence and language that has been shared centralizes on enhancing the journalistic aspects of all three student organizations.

“We are not journalists, nor a journalistic venture as your [Provost Prelock’s] correspondence so often cites us as,” Masterson wrote. “We are a member of the Student Media Association, an association of independent student run organizations, who celebrate the beauty of freedom of expression.”

For Masterson and the leader of UVMTv Daisy Powers, the student media adviser needs to have the technical expertise to help with production. The currently appointed adviser does not have that.

Powers said in a meeting with student media leaders and the Provost that UVMTv doesn’t need help making connections with other folks at UVM or the world beyond.
Rather, UVMTv needs an adviser that has robust experience in multimedia production and can help with the production of their videos now.

At WRUV, there’s a heightened need for the media adviser to know their stuff, specifically the ins and outs of the Federal Communication Commission’s rules that govern the public airwaves the tunes from WRUV travel through.

“Associating our student-led and programmed radio station with an academic program will destroy the fabric of what WRUV is and will ultimately lead to the detriment of students,” Masterson said. “I am disturbed and astonished at the obvious failure to incorporate students in a decision about their own organizations, seeing as we are working professionals who have been successful running these organizations for the betterment of the UVM name.”

Because of hiring freeze in place at the University due to the pandemic, the Provost has said this is the easiest solution.

It’s easier for them to redesign our whole advising system rather than hire someone to fill a pre-existing, open position in the Department of Student Life.

We are the experts here, not you Provost Prelock.

When President Suresh Garimella first granted an individual interview with the Vermont Cynic back in August of 2019, he told us his “North Star” was the student experience.

“My top priority is the student and their success, which means that we should offer them the highest quality of education we can,” Garimella said.

We fail to see how these changes, under his leadership, have student success in mind when students were actively excluded from the conversation.

We do not accept these changes placed on us, to restrict us.

We will not be silenced or face the threat of silence.

“It’s a dangerous thing to start a paper.”

The student journalists here at the Cynic know the risk and take it to heart, because we have an obligation to continue pushing for answers, exposing injustices and fighting for the truth.

That’s what a generation of Cynic journalists have done before us, and what the generation after us will continue to do.

We won’t allow the University to turn us into their propaganda, spewing phony journalism farce.

What we want is clear: we want a seat at the table.

We want the administration to hire a new adviser and place them back in the Department of Student Life.

We want to be taken seriously as student media professionals, as campus leaders.

We want a fair and open process.

We want our independence back.


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  • J

    Jordan HarriganOct 28, 2020 at 6:15 pm

    When we sent our daughter to the University of Vermont four years ago, it was with the healthy optimism that she would be buoyed by her experience in a bastion of freedom, far from the maddening MAGA crowd. Over the past four years, we have tracked the following developments at UVM: massive budget slashing for all programming in the College of Liberal Arts, often leaving current students in a lurch, poor responses from the FINANCIALLY OVERCOMPENSATED administrative staff, who are openly snarky and dismissive of very legitimate student concerns and parents complaints. Is it possible that this blatant attempt to suppress the student media could be a Trumpian response to The Vermont Cynic articles that have criticized the growing discrepancy between the salaries of professors and that of the ever-expanding bloat of do-nothing administrators?

    It is frequently noted that it takes approximately six years following the onset of pervasive neglect of the needs of the student body and mounting evidence that an institution’s practices are not aligned with the mission statement for a college’s reputation to suffer the irreparable harm that is reflected in a loss prospective student interest, reduced enrollment, and subsequent financial ruin.

    It appears that the glorious history of UVM is being undermined by the poor decisions of the same current mid-level administrators who are awarding themselves pay increases why slashing the salaries and benefits of actual teachers. So it appears MAGA values have invaded Burlington and taking a page out of his playbook, rather than take corrective action, they will seek to silence and sideline the fourth estate.

  • S

    Sue ApfelbaumSep 29, 2020 at 1:53 pm

    Class of ‘94 grad here and alum of WRUV and The Gadfly. I would fervently co-sign the need for an external advisor from Student Life. I was an English major and anthropology minor. I currently work for Google as a user experience writer, but have worked as a magazine and website editor in the past. The autonomy and independence I had working for WRUV did more to inform my career and post-college achievements than my studies did. I would have been excluded if only journalism or broadcasting majors had been allowed.

    Also it’s disappointing that the provost would make these unilateral decisions without discussing them with the student leaders. And by reining in their editorial autonomy, you aren’t doing them any favors. When these students leave the school and embark on their careers, they will be faced with this kind of bureaucracy and more. Their future audiences will benefit more from the editorial confidence they gain from being autonomous while in college than from doing the work for grades or faculty approval.

  • W

    WVBSep 28, 2020 at 6:55 pm

    I support your drive to remain independent. I also support better editing. This piece was too long by about 60 percent. You had us at “hello.” Learn how to write better.

  • P

    Paul BeiqueSep 23, 2020 at 1:18 pm

    The editors of the Vermont Cynic correctly see the implications here. Prior review is the death of independent student journalism. The administration may want to consider other solutions. The easiest is creating a separate online publication where journalism students can publish their work. Or the journalism classes can offer their work to the Cynic, which could work directly with the students without faculty or administration interference.

    By making these decisions without the help of student journalists and radio and TV producers, the administration has squandered an opportunity to address its concerns cooperatively. With that opportunity gone, administrators cannot be surprised that students are hurt, suspicious and disinclined to go along with this plan.

    I was a student media adviser at St. Michael’s College for more than 10 years. Administrators there occasionally tried to exert control over student media, but students always pushed back with help from a supportive faculty. (I applied for the Cynic adviser position. UVM chose Chris Evans, and I think they made the right decision.)

    UVM should do the right thing and hire a new, independent adviser and support independent student media. There is no better way to learn than to strive for accuracy, make your own mistakes and take responsibility for them.

  • C

    Caitlin HughesSep 23, 2020 at 3:19 am

    This former Cynic staffer, WRUV newscaster, and UVM Student Senator supports your efforts to remain free and independent of administrative control and curriculum alignment. I didn’t major or minor in journalism. Instead, I valued the opportunity to participate as an equal to others who were there for the pure experience. We wrote exposés, covered protests against school policies, and interviewed Mayor Sanders without editorial or content control.
    The time I spent on these activities was invaluable in preparing me for a career in government.

    If the College of Arts and Sciences wants a laboratory for its journalism majors, let it start its own paper or establish internships at the Free Press. And if the pleas to revert to the previous structure are ignored, let there be new life on line. There is a parallel example of the death of independent journalism in the story of DCist, Gothamist, and LAist a couple of years ago. When the staff sought to unionize, their owner shut down the papers. Fortunately for DCist, the local NPR affiliate bought the rights and resurrected it as an online publication, where it enjoys great readership through social media.

    Let’s hope UVM students past and present will support you in this fight to retain your autonomy.
    As the circa late-80s t-shirt said, “Left Wing, Right Wing, Chicken Wing.”

  • L

    Ld cobbSep 23, 2020 at 1:47 am

    Something similar to this happened to the student media at wssu.

  • M

    Mark KuprychSep 22, 2020 at 9:13 pm

    I’ve been listening to WRUV more and more over the past 3 years, especially this year, and it is becoming a more important part of my media experience in BTV. I have always been impressed with the quality of production, music choice, student-centered PSAs, and -for me- access to new sounds that a 63 year townie old guy cannot get on VPR or any commercial station. While I am not informed of the changes as described in the Cynic’s broadside above, they do make a valid, erudite and compelling argument for representation, as opposed to being required to subjugate under and during a convenient administrative change. The fact that the broadside was as articulate as it was is proof positive they have a reasonably clear idea of what their (student-centered journalistic) charge is, not the least of which is the argument that undue oversight does not always translate into good journalism.

    I am not privy to the goings on of the college, it’s offerings and the campus in general however I am no stranger to how large organizations can attempt to consolidate control when key staff members retire or are removed. The Cynic’s request for “a seat at the table” should be considered. If UVM feels the advisory role change is crucial to the integration of student-run orgs into academia, then certainly those orgs have a lot to offer in terms of getting that transition right.

  • E

    EmmaSep 22, 2020 at 6:35 pm

    Aren’t you guys funded mostly by the university? If you want complete actual independence, you need to sell more ads or get donations to produce. Your advisor has to get paid somehow.