In September 2017, Rebecca Liebson broke the biggest story of her college career and put her school’s administration on its heels.
In a faculty senate meeting that month, Stony Brook University President Samuel L. Stanley announced a series of impending budget cuts, department closures, and layoffs that would eliminate the jobs of more than 20 professors. Liebson, a reporter for the student newspaper The Statesman, was the only journalist in the room. Her story went viral in the Stony Brook community, precipitating campuswide outrage and months of student protests.
Almost as quickly as her story appeared, she received an email from Stony Brook’s media-relations officer asking her to come in for a “fact check” on the report. She panicked. “I had no clue what she wanted to talk about,” Liebson told me, recalling that the administrator refused to provide any specifics about what the meeting would entail. “If you’re a student … you’re wanting to get more information on what you’re going to be scolded on, and she was denying me that—that was really scary.”
But within minutes of sitting down for the meeting, Liebson realized that the administrator wasn’t disputing the facts of her story. Over the next hour, Liebson was instead admonished for circulating an unflattering portrait of President Stanley, and her ethics were called into question over objective reporting. “It was purely to intimidate me,” Liebson said. “It just felt like she was there to implicitly say, ‘Know your place.’”
Stony Brook, a branch of the State University of New York system, is a public institution. In four years of reporting for The Statesman, Liebson said, she faced a pattern of resistance from her school’s administration. Her access to documents and her ability to interview university officials, she found, were often restricted to the point of smothering even positive stories. In her farewell column in The Statesman upon graduating from Stony Brook last spring, Liebson put her school on blast, condemning the administration—and particularly its media-relations office—for stonewalling the campus newspaper, bullying student journalists away from critical coverage, and putting “a chokehold on their first amendment rights.”
Liebson’s column prompted jaded responses from some readers: Welcome to the real world. This is what it’s like to be a journalist. “That kind of pissed me off,” said Liebson, who had by that point interned in several professional newsrooms, and who now works for The New York Times. “I never ran into as [many] roadblocks as I did as a student journalist.”
When professional pundits talk about dangers to free expression on campus, they typically refer to a handful of incidents in which colleges have revoked invitations for controversial speakers. This, however, is a fringe issue, confined to a small number of universities. The real crisis of campus speech lies elsewhere—in the erosion of student newspapers. These once-stalwart publications have long served as consistent checks against administrative malfeasance, common forums for campus debate, and training grounds for future professional journalists. Today, these outlets are imperiled by the same economic forces that have hollowed out local newspapers from coast to coast. And unlike their professional peers, student journalists face an added barrier: The kind of bureaucratic interference Liebson met at Stony Brook is becoming the norm for student journalists.
Few school newspapers are financially independent from the institutions they cover, says Chris Evans, president of the College Media Association. As a result, college administrators hold powerful leverage over student journalists and their faculty advisers. The need for aggressive student news organizations is as acute as ever. But image-obsessed administrators are hastening the demise of these once-formidable campus watchdogs.
The relationship between student journalists and the officials they cover is bound to be adversarial at times. If nothing else, this tension should sharpen young reporters for their post-campus careers. But administrators are tightening their grip. A 2016 study by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) outlined an array of tactics used by administrators to “subordinate campus journalism to public relations” through directly undercutting the rights to free speech on their campuses. Butler University, Muscatine Community College, Wichita State University, and Mount St. Mary’s University have punished or threatened to punish student newspapers for publishing potentially unflattering material. Even schools with lauded undergraduate journalism programs such as the University of Missouri, the University of Kansas, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill were among those cited by the AAUP for encroachments on student journalism. Both the College Media Association and the Student Press Law Center have tracked administrative threats to the funding of college newspapers or to the employment of their faculty advisers as responses to critical coverage.
The AAUP report notes a “growing tendency” for administrations to conduct important business matters “behind closed doors.” Administrators slow-roll student journalists’ requests for public records. At some schools, newspaper advisers have been instructed to conduct “prior review” of student articles before publication, a precaution intended to ensure that anything that could gin up bad publicity never makes it to print.
The decline of college newspapers has taken place against the backdrop of a decades-old power shift in the American university. As the Johns Hopkins University professor Benjamin Ginsberg chronicles in his 2011 book, The Fall of the Faculty, administrative bureaucracies at American universities have grown much faster than the professoriate, a trend that Ginsberg decries. “University administrators are no different than any other corporate executives or heads of government agencies,” Ginsberg said in an interview. “They’re engaged in constant spin designed to hide any shortcomings that they or their institution might have.”
And as Frank LoMonte, the former director of the Student Press Law Center, now the director of a free-speech institute at the University of Florida, points out, access to top administrators has tightened as public-relations offices have ballooned. In a bygone era, college newspaper staffers regularly worked the phones to reach their schools’ top administrators late into the evenings. Today’s student journalists are routinely told to channel their queries through the PR desk. Whenever Liebson and her fellow Statesman reporters wanted to speak with an administrator, they had to submit a media request form disclosing questions ahead of time. Often, she said, the requests went ignored anyway. “The concentration of resources into university PR offices has made the job exponentially harder for campus journalists,” LoMonte says. “The PR people see their job as rationing access to newsmakers on campus, so it is harder and harder to get interviews with newsmakers.”
University administrators can exert more pressure upon their own student journalists than they can upon reporters for outside publications. In her farewell column, Liebson described her 2017 meeting with Stony Brook’s media-relations officer as “a case study in intimidation tactics.” (I contacted the administrator in question, the Stony Brook media-relations officer Lauren Sheprow, for a response to Liebson’s complaints. “Over the years, the Office of Media Relations has worked to assist thousands of student reporters from the School of Journalism and who work in student media with their class assignments, and reporting assignments,” Sheprow said in a statement, adding, “The goal of the media relations team in working with any outlet or reporter is always to assist in their reporting process.”)
Some college administrators fail to understand the basic purpose of the free press. “Sometimes the administration wants the paper to be a PR outlet for the university,” says Evans, the president of the College Media Association. LoMonte goes further, arguing that many administrations see their campus newspapers as a liability, not an asset. “When we turned that corner culturally—when colleges became a brand and they began to embrace this idea that they were a brand—then the bottom fell out in support for independent watchdog journalism,” he says. “The endgame in many institutions is for the independent, student-run media to go out of business.”
At most schools, a financially independent student newspaper is no longer a viable option. The overwhelming majority of college newspapers today rely on some amount of funding from their university. Still, administrations could play a vital role in preserving the future of student journalism if they recognized its many benefits—not just to student life, but to the life of the university itself.
The Constitution protects press freedom because governments function better, and officials behave more conscientiously, when their doings are publicly reported. Especially as university administrative bureaucracies sprawl, student newspapers provide a crucial source of accountability. Local news has all but dried up in many college towns, and most schools—the Harvards, Yales, and Stanfords of the world excepted—are slipping from the crosshairs of media coverage. At state schools, student publications keep tabs on institutions that spend public dollars and employ thousands of people. Without student-run news organizations, LoMonte says, “you may have a powerful, well-funded government agency that’s being watched by nobody.”
But the decline of college newspapers is toxic for universities of all stripes. The consequences are more diffuse than just depleting journalism’s farm system or wounding an abstract ideal of campus discourse—though these are problems, too. The erosion of the student press threatens the integrity of the university in America, and the quality of its future.