Slashed budgets threaten journalism programs, papers

State budget crises this spring left some public college administrators scrambling to make ends meet, prompting unprecedented cuts to a broad range of programs.

But student journalists and advisers at universities and colleges in California and Texas, which are both facing massive statewide cuts, say school officials are using shortfalls as an excuse to eliminate journalism programs because of student newspapers that are critical of their administrations.

This spring, the College of the Sequoias Board of Trustees passed a resolution eliminating 85 full-time positions and several programs, including journalism, on campus. The administration has until May 15 to issue final pink slips to faculty members who will be let go.

College President Kamiran Badrkhan said the two-year college, located in the central California city of Visalia, is making the sweeping cuts because of budget restrictions. And he said if the journalism program is eliminated, plans are being made to offer certain classes. 

Badrkhan also said the administration is doing what it can to save The Campus, the student newspaper that is produced through journalism classes. 

“With some folks, the real worry is whether we will operate the student newspaper or not,” Badrkhan said. “The student newspaper can operate whether we have a full board journalism program or not.” Badrkhan added that he did not yet have details about how that could be accomplished.

The College of the Sequoias journalism program enrolls about 80 students out of the 10,000-student body, said Judy House, journalism instructor and adviser of The Campus.

House said that although the administration has selected to cut back the journalism department because of low enrollment, several administrators have been upset by “unflattering articles about the board of trustees and the administration.” House said the newspaper’s coverage of open-meeting violations, improper crime statistics reporting and budget mistakes could have weighed in the administrators’ decision.

“They’re calling the cuts the worst case scenario, but it seems very real,” House said.

Suzanne Yada, opinion editor of The Campus, said when staff members learned the newspaper could be in jeopardy, they released a special edition about the overall budget crisis and the proposed cuts at the college. They donned buttons, reading “Respect the First Amendment,” and circulated a petition signed by 1,400 students opposing cuts to the journalism program. Yada said she had hoped to be named editor in chief next school year.

“We’ve done a lot of convincing, brought a lot of people in to try to convince the board that yes, the journalism program is wanted, is needed and we are willing to fight for it,” Yada said. “I don’t know if that’s going to be persuasive enough.”

In response to a projected $27 billion state budget gap, administrators at the University of California at Santa Cruz are considering the elimination of its undergraduate journalism department, the only such department in the UC system. The journalism department, a part of an overall writing program, currently relies on carry-over funds from previous years’ budgets, but this year that money was seized by the state to lower the budget deficit.

Academic Senate Chairman George Blumenthal said the senate, which makes budget decisions, will announce the cuts in May. He said although there has been large alumni and faculty support to save the program, its fate has not been determined.

“In a sense, the journalism department and the writing program together are kind of an orphan program,” Blumenthal said. “They serve a campus function but live within an academic division, which sees as its main mission possibly other priorities.”

Katie Schneider, arts editor of the City on a Hill student newspaper, said discussion of eliminating the department started prior to the budget crisis because UC-Santa Cruz is primarily a research institution specializing in “skilled professions.”

Although the newspaper generates its revenue through advertising, Schneider said the cut would affect many staff members working toward minors in journalism.

“At this point it’s going to be cut unless they say otherwise,” Schneider said. “I have one or two classes left for a minor, which means I would have taken eight classes and not actually received the minor if they don’t change their mind.” 

The journalism program at Oxnard College in southern California is also at risk. Administrators told faculty and students in early March that the program and the school newspaper, The Campus Observer, were being recommended for suspension in fall 2003. Morgan said the program was targeted because of low enrollment. The administration is expected to make a final decision about the program’s fate by early May.

Partly in response to the potential cuts, the California Newspaper Publishers Association issued a statement encouraging administrators to consider the value of journalism programs and student newspapers.

The association outlines several benefits of journalism programs, including the skills they provide students, the availability of entry-level positions for recent graduates and the professional experience students gain by working on campus newspapers.

“While CNPA understands that, in Gov. Gray Davis’ words, ‘everyone will feel the pain,’ CNPA strongly believes that in no case should budget challenges result in the killing outright of any journalism program or student newspaper,” the association wrote in its release.

In Texas, potential journalism program cuts are just as rampant as the state experiences a reported $9.9 billion budget shortfall. 

Administrators at Lee College in southeast Texas have decided to scale down the school’s journalism program because of consistently low enrollment. 

The college requires that all courses must enroll at least 10 students. The journalism program had been exempt because the program only offered one section for each journalism class per year. But under the new guidelines, only classes with a tendency to meet enrollment requirements —mass communication and reporting — will continue to be offered. 

Lee College President Martha Ellis said enrollment in the program has steadily declined in recent years, citing that few students take the upper level classes.

“If the students don’t want them, there’s not a reason for us to offer them,” Ellis said.

The administration’s decision to cut back the program prompted the student government to re-examine whether the student newspaper, The Lantern, should continue to receive student activity fees, which it allocates. The Student Congress voted April 29 to continue funding but lower the paper’s $24,300 allocation by 25 percent.

Student Congress President Justin Mills said there was much debate over the vote to continue funding. 

“There are some people who would like to see funding cut to the newspaper because they have problems with quality issues,” Mills said. “They think it’s a waste of money.”

Susan Cummings, journalism instructor and adviser to The Lantern, said student government members’ dislike of the newspaper could stem from articles published last year about a former student government president accused of plagiarism. 

Cummings said that although the budget shortfall is real, the administration and student government should be more concerned with doing the right thing.

“This goes very deep and has political implications all over the place,” Cummings said. “There’s a larger view to be taken. You do some things just because they’re right, not because they’re cost effective.”

Texas A&M University is also considering cuts to its journalism department, by possibly merging the program with another, revamping it or eliminating it completely. Cuts to the department, currently a part of the college of liberal arts, would not affect The Battalion, the school’s student newspaper.

After threatening to eliminate both the journalism department and the campus newspaper, administrators at another Texas college agreed to give each at least another year. 

Student journalists at San Jacinto College circulated petitions and contacted local media when they heard their journalism department, where the student newspaper is produced, was in trouble. 

“They said they were cutting it for budget reasons, but once we started asking questions they said that if we covered different things they might be able to find a way not to cut us,” said San Jacinto Times Editor in Chief Carly Wallace. 

She said some administrators told her she would be given a year to “turn the paper around,” adding that some were upset the newspaper did not cover issues that made the college “look good.” 

Wallace said administrators initially wanted to combine the newspaper with the school’s public relations newsletter. She said the staff sent a memo to the administration “letting them know it wasn’t something they could legally do,” and they backed down. 

Interim Chancellor Bill Lindemann said an executive management team voted in late March to subsidize the newspaper for the next year. He said any insinuation that the college was attempting to restrict content is untrue. 

“I have always felt that the student newspaper and the articles they did write were very fair, very balanced and very reasonable. [Censorship] certainly had nothing to do with this,” he said.

However in order to justify funding from the college, Lindemann said the student newspaper must include coverage about all three campuses.

Wallace said she is concerned because “we’re going to be facing a completely different administration after a year, and what their next move is going to be no one can really guess.

“We’re keeping our fingers crossed,” she said.