FREEDON FROM THE PRESSNAU'S PRESIDENT IS ON THE CUTTING EDGE--AND THAT'S WHY JOURNALISM STUDENTS AND FACULTY ARE WORRIED
Thousands of students and professors returned to the Northern Arizona University campus in Flagstaff this fall to discover that their academic careers were about to be messed with. Blaming budget woes, university president Eugene Hughes announced in late August that 19 majors could be eliminated over the next few years.
The cuts were not a total shock. The administration started taking the pulse of various colleges and departments last year, and an Orwellian vocabulary for the academic axing had already been established. If all the proposed cuts are made, the university's "retrenching" and "right-sizing" efforts will by 1995 kill the majors of almost 2,000 of the university's more than 15,000 students. The jobs of hundreds of professors are also at risk.
Majors like art history, fashion merchandising, journalism and microbiology will be lost in the first wave of potential cuts. Advertising, dental hygiene, nursing, public relations and others will follow in phase two. Engineering students and some foreign-language students also face extinction. Forestry and hotel management--a couple of the school's prestige programs--will be untouched, if not enhanced, by "retrenching."
Of all the wounded majors, journalism students--as well as journalism faculty and alumni--were likely the least surprised by Hughes' plan. The president has feuded for years with the campus's student newspaper, the Lumberjack, which in turn has been habitually critical of his office. Professors and students believe that Hughes has targeted journalism for elimination solely because he hates the student-run newspaper.
"I knew that if there were going to be any cuts of programs, that journalism would be the first one to go," says Lesley Mitchell, a former Lumberjack editor now working as a business reporter for the Arizona Daily Star in Tucson.
The Lumberjack, published every Wednesday, is considered a semi-independent school paper. The student editor, picked by a publication board (typically made up of a few professors and some "real-world" professional journalists), hires the staff and is totally responsible for the paper's content. The paper's staffers don't receive any class credit for their work, but are paid through advertising sales. The university provides office space and pays half the salary of the paper's faculty adviser. The paper has a free circulation of 13,000 and is distributed both on and off campus.
Editorially, the Lumberjack--like almost all college newspapers--is a totally independent entity, protected by high-court rulings from meddling administrators.
Such rulings have not discouraged Eugene Hughes from at least trying. Since the mid-1980s, Hughes or his minions have called for several official reviews of the paper's status. In that time, several veteran journalism profs have left the university. More recently, Hughes has regularly called (over the telephone or onto the carpet) the student editors and/or faculty advisers to bitterly complain--some would say nit-pick--about the paper's content.
The editors typically withstand the Hughes barrage for a semester or two, then move on. A similar pattern exists for the faculty advisers. Mollie Altizer, the Lumberjack's current adviser, says she's the 11th such adviser in a decade. Manny Romero, an associate professor of journalism who's been at the university since the mid-1970s, says the average length of stay for an adviser has been 1.7 years.
"Whenever the administration was unhappy with something they see in the newspaper--I don't think this is unique to our administration--they tend to take it out on the adviser," says Romero. "There's a lot of pressure put on the adviser."
Hughes also has ridiculed the student newspaper in public speeches, Romero says. And Hughes has established a statewide reputation for jumpiness around reporters. (Just one example: When the Arizona Republic conducted an investigation of the school's athletic department two years ago, the NAU administration attempted to bill that newspaper more than $5,000 for copying and research cost associated with the probe. Needless to say, the bill is still way past due.)
"I have to say that the president does not respond well to criticism," says J-school prof Romero. "You could characterize his attitude as being hostile to extremely hostile."
Finding examples of Hughes' hostility for campus reporters does not require much of an investigation.
In recent years, a series of Lumberjack editors have battled the administration over the release of campus sexual-assault crime reports. One editor was told by a campus police official that the policy to withhold details of the assaults "came from the top." The editors and other observers believe that Hughes has fought the release of the police reports because the news would tarnish the university image.
There have been several more ivory tower-newsroom clashes. According to faculty members and current and former editors, the following Lumberjack stories have caused Hughes' stomach to churn over the past several semesters:
One student editor was called to Hughes' office following her publication of a story carrying the headline "Tribe battles university in cultural conflict." The story below the headline reported on a public forum called to discuss a mild dispute between Hopi tribal leaders and the university (some of the tribe members were upset that an NAU professor was attempting to publish a book containing sacred tribal secrets). A photograph of Hughes speaking at the forum also ran with the story. Hughes complained to the student editor that the headline's spin was too negative. "The headline was accurate," says adviser Altizer. "His concern was how the university was portrayed."
Hughes howled when the newspaper reported that the university was using an outdated recruiting brochure. The brochure quoted a national college survey done in the mid-1980s, which found an NAU education to be a "good buy." According to current Lumberjack editor Erica C. Wilson, the survey's findings likely wouldn't be the same today. "We're in deep financial ca-ca here, and they're painting a false picture to the students," she says. "We wrote the story. He was none too happy."
Most entertaining of all the incidents was a grab-bag column written by Jim Rathburn, the paper's editor last fall. Rathburn, quoting a term used by the school's basketball coach when referring to one of his own players, called the school's quarterback a "flagrant asshole."
"The president was outraged by this, and wanted to know what we were going to do about it," says Altizer. (Ironically, at the time Rathburn ran with his "flagrant asshole" commentary, Altizer was out of town--she was in Denver to pick up a national student-journalism award won by the Lumberjack.)
What Hughes did about it, according to those who later felt his wrath, was to send the column to various journalism professionals around the state, who responded with the expected harrumphing condemnations. When a meeting on the incident was eventually held--during the following semester, long after offending editor Rathburn had left the editor's post--Hughes presented the letters as evidence of the gravity of the situation.
Elsewhere on campus, the column did not exactly spark chaos. Most of the journalism faculty believed the column was poorly done; a few called for Rathburn's head. As for the students, "some believed it wasn't appropriate in that context," remembers current editor Wilson. "But a lot of people said, well, yes, [the player] was a flagrant asshole."
Jennifer Etkins, Lumberjack editor last spring, says Hughes called to complain to her or her adviser at least once a week. "He is a riot," says Etkins, now a law student in Washington state, "an absolute riot."
Several current and former editors of student newspapers at the University of Arizona and Arizona State University say they rarely heard (or hear) a discouraging word from their presidents. Kris Mayes, editor of the ASU State Press, says Lattie Coor has "never, ever" called to gripe about a story, headline, column or editorial. Beth Silver, editor of the UofA Daily Wildcat, says Manuel Pacheco called once last year to complain that a photographer had been sent to his house on a holiday, but otherwise has kept his distance. (Interestingly enough, she also says that NAU's Hughes returns her reporters' calls quicker than either her own president Pacheco or ASU's Coor.)
Several unsuccessful attempts were made to contact Hughes for this story. New Times was told that all official commentary on NAU's "right-sizing" (the school's official phrase for budget-cutting) must come from the university's news bureau, and that interviews with the president on this topic also had to be set up through that office. (Some professors say a memo was circulated around campus last year insisting that all media questions concerning "right-sizing" be handled by the news bureau.) According to Jane Manning, director of the bureau, Hughes didn't have time for an interview.
Meanwhile, claims one journalism faculty member, "a climate of secrecy and fear exists here." In such a climate, anonymous memos circulate wildly. Rumors take on a life of their own.
One such rumor has to do with the disposition of the Lumberjack once the journalism program is killed off. No official word has come down on the paper's fate, but some have heard that it will be run by the school news bureau--essentially the university's public relations office--a move that many believe would effectively remake the paper into a good-news PR organ.
Others speculate that the paper will continue as an independent news operation--without any guidance from faculty or staff. Journalism prof Ralph Hanson is himself a regular critic of the paper--but for different reasons than Hughes'. "I haven't seen a real level of aggressiveness here," Hanson says. "I believe that the Lumberjack has not gone after him in the way it could have. If the paper were better, the president could have a lot more to worry about." Hanson believes a completely independent paper--one without any faculty guidance--would anger the president just as often as the currently semi-independent Lumberjack.
"Were the journalism professors be eliminated, he would have a great deal more to worry about from the Lumberjack," says Hanson. "There would be far less competency and professionalism.
"He'd get far less legitimate criticism from the Lumberjack and far more petty criticism, more name-calling. I don't think that would make the president any happier."
Ironically, the jousting with Hughes has given the student journalists valuable real-world training in dealing with hostile subjects.
"I guess that semester was a real awakening for me," says ex-editor Jennifer Etkins. "I had never realized that adults, people who are supposed to be your guardians and care about your education, really have other agendas. Hughes clearly has a political agenda, whatever that may be, especially in the way he deals with the Lumberjack."
The journalism faculty also is getting a taste of the real world. Several of them, including Hanson and Lumberjack adviser Altizer, have received letters informing them that their jobs may be eliminated. At NAU, journalism is not an official department with its own chairman. A university-wide administrative reshuffling a few years ago placed the journalists under the wing of the College of Creative and Communication Arts. Advertising and public relations--both scheduled for elimination in the first two phases of "right-sizing--are classified in the same college and were, along with journalism, the three academic components of the original journalism department. After "right-sizing," one professor points out, the entire journalism department as it existed when Hughes took over as NAU president in 1979 will have been disappeared.
Saved, for now, from the "right-sizing" list are the school's broadcasting majors. Hughes' critics say this move doesn't make much sense as a budget-cutting measure, in light of the high cost of maintaining training equipment for the broadcasters. "It's almost impossible to remain state of the art," says one observer.
Other critics say it makes perfect sense in light of one of Hughes' pet projects at the school: its satellite-campus program. Hughes has pushed for NAU to establish an annex campus in Yuma, where students get instruction via satellite from the main campus. Although that program is now maintained separately from the broadcasting program, critics and other conspiracy theorists see a connection. It's to Hughes' advantage to have lots of trained broadcast technicians hanging around campus; he sees a hundred or so print-journalists-in-training as somewhat less beneficial.
Understandably, many of those critics are endangered print-journalism students and profs. (Participants in other dead or dying programs seem to be equally sore over the cutbacks, but are not nearly so noticeable. "You probably don't hear about it as much," says current Lumberjack editor Erica Wilson. "We have the benefit of having a newspaper to bitch in.) And those profs and students are not yet ready to admit their fate is sealed.
They're meeting regularly to plan strategy, among themselves and with professors of other vanishing disciplines. They insist that reports of the demise of NAU journalism--which has produced such alums as former Boston reporter Lisa Olson, who tangled with the New England Patriots, and Arizona Republic political columnist Keven Ann Willey--are premature. With jobs to save, so far nobody has committed much time worrying about the fall of the Lumberjack.
"We feel very strongly about our program, a very valuable program on campus," says professor Manny Romero, "and we're not looking at what will be left when we're gone.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter