Most college campuses have student-run newspapers. At some schools, like Ohio State with the Lantern, the newspapers are “laboratory” publications, where students receive course credit and training as they perform different positions; at other schools, the newspaper is an extracurricular activity. But in either case, the student newspapers are, in fact, newspapers, and are protected by the First Amendment.
Unfortunately, that protection seems to be eroding.
The latest example has occurred at Mount St. Mary’s University, a small school in Maryland where the newspaper is called The Mountain Echo. Two enterprising students reported that the school was considering a new proposal to shore up its student retention numbers, and thereby improve its U.S. News and World Report rankings, by looking to get rid of struggling freshman students. An even bigger scoop was that the University president, Simon Newman, was quoted as using a bizarre and disturbing metaphor to try to convince a professor about the merit of the program. Newman was quoted as saying: “This is hard for you because you think of the students as cuddly bunnies, but you can’t. You just have to drown the bunnies,” and later stating: “Put a Glock to their heads.”
By all accounts, the story was good, solid reporting, with the quotes attributed to the University president confirmed by two professors who witnessed the conversation. And the University president doesn’t seem to be denying that he said what he was quoted as saying — he apologized for his choice of words and explained that he was just trying to help struggling students at risk of failing avoid racking up a lot of student loan debt.
So how did Mount St. Mary’s respond to the blockbuster story in The Mountain Echo? Amazingly, by firing the newspaper’s faculty adviser, Ed Egan. The chairman of the school’s board suggested Egan had manipulated the student reporters into presenting the retention program negatively — a charge the student reporters themselves deny — and that he should have framed the story to focus more on the merits of the retention proposal than on the University president’s stupid comments about drowning bunnies.
The students on the newspaper were appalled that Egan was fired. Ryan Golden, the managing editor of the paper and one of the two students to break the story, was quoted as saying: “He’s really a good mentor for a lot of students at this school. He absolutely encouraged us to pursue journalistic integrity, absolutely encouraged us to be ethical, to be fair, to be thorough, to be objective and to do the best work that we could.” Mr. Egan sounds like Tom Wilson, who was the faculty adviser of the Ohio State Lantern when I worked there in the ’70s. Mr. Wilson was an old school newspaperman who cared only about the story — and let the chips fall where they may. He was a great teacher.
Things have changed a lot on college campuses since the ’70s, and in some ways not for the better. Many colleges seem to have become hotbeds of political correctness, where freedom of speech and freedom of the press are under assault on a daily basis. In any rational universe, students who broke a story about a college president’s weird and ill-advised comparison of struggling students to bunnies that need to be drowned would be congratulated for exposing that fact, and the president would face the music for saying something so ridiculously stupid. Instead, in our world, the newspaper faculty adviser gets terminated, and a chilling, anti-free speech and anti-free press message gets sent.
On too many college campuses these days, we are just heading in the wrong direction.