WASHINGTON, D.C. — In a move that may limit student speech on campus, Catholic University announced last month it will cut $80,000 in scholarship money that currently goes to students involved with the newspaper, the yearbook and the student government.
The student newspaper the Tower and the yearbook may have to discontinue altogether as a result, according to editors from both organizations. Editor in Chief Phil Essington said the university gives the Tower a full tuition scholarship to split among the editors, which is currently about $24,000 divided among ten editors. With the scholarship cut, editors will no longer get paid for their work.
“I wouldn’t have [worked in the yearbook] without that scholarship, and I’m not sure if anyone would,” said the yearbook’s editor in chief, Peter Bowman.
Editors of the Tower say there may be a connection between the scholarship cut and tension the newspaper has had with the university administration.
According to Essington, the Tower ran stories throughout the year that were critical of the university administration, including a story about the university’s decision to ban actor Stanley Tucci from speaking on campus because of his support for abortion rights, and a story about the university’s rejection of a student application to form an NAACP chapter on campus.
In response to these stories, Essington said that beginning in October, university President David O’Connell has declined to comment to the Tower on all stories. Victor Nakas, a university spokesman who responds on O’Connell’s behalf to all comment requests, wrote to Essington on Oct. 19: “Given what I have read in the Tower over the past few issues, I have decided to have no more dealings with you or other members of the Tower staff.”
Tower news editor Kate McGovern said many members of the university administration, not just O’Connell, refuse to speak with Tower reporters.
“It is completely unheard of and very immature for them to ignore us. It would be helpful if they would at least tell us that they don’t wish to comment, but they will not even grant us that courtesy,” she said.
Bowman said the yearbook has had its share of problems with the university as well. O’Connell and Vice President for Student Life Susan Pervi refused to write a letter of introduction for the yearbook, according to Bowman.
“It’s just flat out absurd that the vice president for student life wouldn’t write a letter for the largest, funded student-life organization. There was really no reason for it,” he said.
Nakas declined to comment on why top officials made this decision to cut off communication. Essington said he was not given a specific reason why the administration stopped talking to the Tower, and although he “can’t say whether or not that’s connected” to the scholarship cut, he does not think the “university is going out of its way to try to keep [the Tower] around.”
On Feb. 4, the Tower ran a story about Nakas’ and O’Connell’s refusal to comment. Essington said that four days later, Bill Jones, the director of student programs, told him that the university might cut the scholarship money.
The university said the reallocation of funds comes from a recent audit of all the financial aid that is being dispersed by the university.
On Jan. 28, less than a month before the university announced the decision, they raised more than $1 million in scholarship money at a fundraising drive in Miami. University spokesman Victor Nakas said this money, along with the $80,000 that will be reallocated, is needed to fund scholarships based on academic merit and financial need.
Nakas called the move a “business decision” that was made to rid the university budget of an “antiquated system.” The scholarship money was awarded to the three student organizations every year for more than 40 years. Nakas said the three groups are the only organizations receiving scholarship money, out of 79 total groups at the university.
“There was no need for the university to be using financial aid money to support student organization activity. The students [involved in these organizations] have an opportunity to receive funding through their student activity fees,” Nakas said. The current student activities budget is $390,000, distributed among 52 student organizations. The Tower independently raises money through advertising revenue, but does not receive money from the student activities budget.
Essington said the newspaper does not have a lot of extra money, and as a result the decision will have negative consequences regardless of why the scholarship will be cut.
“The Tower is the most influential medium and forum for the entire campus, and whether or not the university is trying to do away with it, it will not be able to continue without the scholarships,” Essington said.
“So whether or not they’re trying to shut us down, that might be the effect,” he said.
McGovern said when she asked the office of student life for assistance in finding funding, she was told that “it would be mostly up to the students to be creative.” She said she will actively seek money from alternative sources this summer, although running the newspaper next year will be difficult.
“It is hard to understand how they expect us to attend classes 20 hours a week and then work 40 hours a week without any form of compensation,” she said.
Essington said student free speech at Catholic University is already very limited, and this cut may further limit it.
“The Tower, the yearbook and the student government are the only outlets for student speech,” he said. “The university will really lack student input without them.”
–By Diane Krauthamer