UTAH — It happened over a year ago, but student editors at theUniversity of Utah’s Daily Chronicle believe the so-called ‘Huntsmanaffair’ is still impacting their newspaper in significant ways.
In August of 1999, former Chronicle editor Dave Hancock wrotea column criticizing the appointment of Karen Huntsman to the state’s boardof regents because of her lack of a college degree.
Huntsman’s husband, Jon, a multi-millionaire and one of the university’smajor donors, was outraged by the column and threatened to withhold allfuture funding unless Hancock printed an apology, said currentChronicle editorShane McCammon.
With over $400 million hanging in the balance, and after extreme pressurefrom the school’s administration, the editor was persuaded.
Hancock published an apology for any personal offense the column causedbut stuck by the view shared by he and his staff that there were flawsin the appointment of Mrs. Huntsman. After the apology, Mr. Huntsman’sanger — as well the controversy — appeared to have subsided.
But a letter to the editor Mr. Huntsman wrote after the incident chastisingthe school’s board of trustees for having “exercised no accountabilityor responsibility over a periodical which bears the institution’s name”may have led to another dispute.
Vice President for University Relations Fred Esplin said he was askedby the board to look into two issues raised by the incident. Esplin saidhe first examined the editorial independence of theChronicle andquickly determined that “they have full editorial independence and theyhave all of the First Amendment rights that any publication does.”
Secondly, he said the board — unsure about the exact nature of itsrelationship with the school’s publications council, which acts as thepaper’s publisher, and the connection between the council and the studentnewspaper — wanted to clarify what those relationships were.
Esplin then developed a proposal that he submitted to the council, whichhe said, among other things, calls for reaffirmation of the newspaper’seditorial independence and the right of the trustees to select membersof the publications council. It also makes several recommendations to “enhancethe educational experience” of working for the paper, Esplin said.
These recommendations include hiring a full-time working journalistwho would serve as a mentor/adviser for the paper and teach a course inthe communication department that would be required for all newspaper staffmembers.
McCammon said one of his objections to the proposal is that the paperalready has a mentor and a class for staff members, both on an informalbasis. He also said he fears the vagueness of the proposal could leavethe door open for administrators to exercise more control over the paper.Both the editor and the publications council are also concerned about thetiming and motives of the proposal.
“They say it’s to make the Chronicle more educational, but to me itseems that it’s really to make sure that incidents like what happened [last]August don’t happen again,” McCammon said.
Although Esplin denied that the proposal stemmed directly from the Huntsmanaffair, McCammon and others disagree.
“It came out of a high level of hysteria and concern that derived directlyfrom the relationship between the Chronicle and Mr. Huntsman andHuntsman’s threats to cut off funding to the university,” said Howard Lehman,a faculty member who chaired the publications council at the time the proposalwas presented. “The concern was, ‘Let’s do something so that this won’thappen again.'”
Shortly after the proposal was presented to the council in a meetingthat McCammon described as “contentious,” the trustees voted to changethe makeup of the council by removing Lehman as chair.
Lehman, who had served on the council for three years, said the explanationgiven for his removal was that the trustees — who every year have theright to appoint new members — were looking to get “new blood” on thecouncil. He recognized this as a legitimate explanation, but said his resistanceto the proposal could have been a factor in the board’s decision.
“That’s difficult to prove,” Lehman said. “They deny it, but certainlyI think it may have shaped the decision-making climate. Whether or notit explicitly was an issue, I don’t know.”
In addition to five student members of the council who were replaced,two new faculty members joined the board, and the former alumni representativereplaced Lehman as chair.
McCammon and his staff are concerned about the new makeup of the council-whichmakes decisions about funding for student publications and selects thenewspaper’s editor — and its relationship to the incident involving Mr.Huntsman and the ensuing proposal. He said they fear the trustees appointedthe new members based on whether they would support the administration’sproposal.
Esplin said the administration had no involvement with selecting thenew council members and in no way wants to infringe upon the paper’s freespeech or exercise control over its content.
“This is paranoia run amok,” Esplin said. “There is no story here.”