NEW JERSEY — In light of an April Fool’s Day edition that some students found to be racially offensive, people resorted to stealing thousands of Drew University’s student newspaper, the Acorn.
On April 1 the spoof issue, called the Acron, featured a satirical letter to the editor about a new Pan-African Studies major offered by the university. The letter, entitled “Afreecan Studiez be all up in my grillpiece bout divershizzle and izzle,” was signed by “Whitey McWhiterson.” Lillie J. Edwards, director of the Pan-African Studies department, said the letter was written in “kind of a 21st Century Jim Crow caricature of black language,” and students objected to the its “inflammatory and derogatory language,” including the use of a word that translated into a racial slur.
Executive Editor Patrick McCluskey said about 1,500 copies–plus about 1,200 copies of the April 9 edition of the Acorn, which included an apology for making an “error in judgement” in the April Fool’s issue–were stolen. He estimates about $2,700 in printing and advertising costs was lost due to the thefts.
McCluskey said the intent of the controversial satirical letter was to address the newspaper staff’s concerns about diversity on the campus. According to the April 9 letter of apology, when faculty members met in December several of them were “adverse” to the creation of a Pan-African Studies major because only three students were enrolled in the minor, and because they believed the university lacked adequate funding for it.
“Listening to professors ignore the academic necessity for the major was hard to bear,” the editors wrote. The controversial letter to the editor “satirically addressed the fact that if members of a liberal arts university faculty could oppose a Pan-African Studies major and if nothing is being done to change Drew’s diversity other than discussion, there needs to be some serious changes,” read the apology.
Edwards said the controversial April Fool’s Day letter ignored the reality that at a meeting of about 100 faculty members, only three of them did not vote in favor of the major.
“So whether the kinds of statements made [in the Acorn] were intentional or unintentional, it was actually very bad journalism,” she said.
Acorn Editor in Chief Meghan Van Dyk said the university held two town meetings after the controversial issue to discuss diversity, both of which were attended by the Acorn‘s editors. But Van Dyk said neither meeting was a “progressive discussion.” Instead of discussing diversity, Managing Editor Brandon Picchierri said the second meeting “turned into a verbal assault on the editors who attended, and [on] the paper as a whole.”
Associate Dean of Student Life Gerry Muir said the meetings were intended to “discuss and identify issues” and to present how the campus community was moving forward. However, the second meeting “broke out into an explosion of hurt and anger, and just how much pain is involved around this incident and did not progress in the way that we had hoped,” she said.
However, the university is continuing to “work through what’s a very raw and hurtful situation,” she added.
At the meetings, Edwards said, students and student organizations asked for an apology and also called for higher quality journalism. An idea that the administration came up with for improving the paper’s journalism and preventing such controversial stories from being published in future, McCluskey said, could be prior review, since they were looking into “getting some type of faculty member to be more involved in the paper.”
“I think the idea is that it could involve someone who would either approve or not approve stories, but they haven’t specifically said that. It’s just one of the ideas that they’re looking at,” he said.
Van Dyk said the newspaper’s staff and the Office of Public Safety were willing to let the initial theft slide “due to the circumstances,” but both groups took the theft more seriously after the April 9 theft. The Acorn also reported both thefts to the Madison, N.J., police department, which is investigating the incidents.
Van Dyk said she thinks offended students stole copies of the April 9 edition of the Acorn because they thought the university should shut down the newspaper or fire the editors in charge of the April Fool’s Day edition.
“Because this did not happen, they took it in their own hands,” she said.
Picchierri suspects people who were offended by the April Fool’s edition stole the April 9 edition so “some of the less informed people opposing us wouldn’t know we apologized.” He said the university is handling both of the reported thefts “extremely cautiously, and not very seriously.”
“It’s $2,000 of our hard work and property. If a $2,000 check was stolen, or a TV or something, they’d be all over it,” he said. “With us, nothing.”
Vice President for University Relations Tom Harris said the university cannot condone stealing newspapers, but they could not condone “the type and tone of letter that was put in the Acorn April Fool’s issue” either.
“I mean, it was juvenile, it was thoughtless and it was embarrassing, and it was hurtful to just about everyone, especially minority students on campus,” he said. “But I don’t think the retribution of stealing newspapers is an appropriate way of showing your anger or upset with the newspaper.”
Harris said he would like this situation to be resolved soon, and he hopes out of the controversy “will come a better and more complete understanding among the student body about each other.”
Van Dyk said the newspaper made a mistake, apologized for it and now it is time to “move on.”
“Everyone on staff learned a valuable lesson and as a result, the editors are now more prepared to put out a successful paper next year,” she said.
—By Diane Krauthamer