GEORGIA — Editors at Emory University’s student newspaper were surprised to learn Wednesday that their general manager had resigned.
A tight-lipped administration and a silent former employee have some staffers thinking she may have been forced out.
Eileen Smith, 56, who helped the paper increase advertising revenue, had been working for the paper for eight years, said Geoff Pallay, editor in chief of the Emory Wheel.
“Out of nowhere, I got an e-mail from the director of student activities informing me that Eileen had resigned effective immediately,” Pallay said. “She would have never done that to the Wheel. She would have never resigned leaving the students out to dry.”
Pallay said he thinks Smith was forced to resign because there had been no indication that she intended to quit.
Smith said she could not comment on whether or not she was forced to resign, but she did say she was seeking legal advice because school officials encouraged her to do so. She would not comment any further on her resignation for this article.
An administrator said he could not comment on whether or not campus life officials forced Smith to resign.
“That’s their opinion, I can’t comment on how they are interpreting that,” said John Ford, senior vice president for campus life, of newspaper staffers’ speculation that Smith was forced out.
Ford said he could not comment on the specifics of Smith’s resignation.
Pallay said Smith has had rifts with campus life administrators in the past because she often supported the newspaper over campus life officials when it came to financial and advertising decisions.
In one instance, Smith bought bagels for the staff with the paper’s money, which “bothered campus life because they thought we shouldn’t be spending our money that way,” Pallay said.
Pallay said the newspaper paid Smith’s salary and her benefits, but she was still considered to be a campus life employee. Although the Wheel is primarily supported by advertising revenue, the newspaper is not completely independent because the university provides free office space for the paper.
Pallay said campus life officials were upset with Smith for allowing the newspaper to run ads that were “too supportive of binge drinking and alcohol.”
“Campus life might ask Eileen for support” in those situations, “but she would say it’s a student decision,” Pallay said.
Bridget Guernsey Riordan, assistant vice president for campus life, told Inside Higher Ed, an online higher education news source, that she would support the Wheel becoming independent so students could have more leeway in reporting.
“More schools like ours are not having control over student newspapers because they want freedom of expression and freedom of the press,” Riordan told Inside Higher Ed. “Of course, becoming independent would mean giving up the free rental space.”
Riordan would not elaborate on her statement for this article, referring all questions to Ford.
“Emory is very committed to freedom of expression whether the paper is independent or not independent,” Ford said. “Those comments were not meant to take a position on whether or not a student press needs to be independent to have free expression.”
Ford said there has been talks with the paper about becoming independent, but “no strong preference has been expressed to change things one way or the other.”
“I think we are comfortable with the way things are,” he said.
The student newspaper ran a front page story today that quoted former Wheel editor Chris Wang as saying Smith’s unexpected departure “raises questions about the relationship of the paper and the school.”
“The student newspaper is greatly hurt by this,” Pallay said. “In terms of morale, we have more than 100 staff members here who all loved Eileen. She motivated the staff and kept a light atmosphere.”
Pallay said every time he tries to talk to administrators about Smith’s resignation they try to ask him how they can help him move on. He said he wants to know why he wasn’t included in Smith’s resignation process.
Ford said picking a new general manager would be a joint decision between campus life and the newspaper.
But Pallay said he isn’t ready to move on.
“For eight years Smith has been vital to this newspaper,” he said. “I want to know why I lost one of my best employees.”
—by Evan Mayor, SPLC staff writer