Trashing their image

Fairfield University’s orientation program was awkward for incoming freshman Mike Gianelle. He said he recalls receiving class information, looking at majors and learning about the dangers of alcohol. He does not remember the student newspaper, The Mirror, because he never received a copy. In fact, Gianelle did not even know the paper existed. Unbeknownst to him, Fairfield administrators pulled copies of a freshman guide put out by The Mirror before new students and their parents arrived for the orientation program in June.

Orientation issues are a staple for most college student newspapers and often offer freshmen a first glimpse into college life. But it is the audience that these freshman guides target — new students and their parents — that student editors say makes school administrators especially wary about content.

At two universities this past summer, administrators pulled copies of orientation issues from the racks, citing content that they deemed “inappropriate” for orientation. The incidents are raising concerns among students and faculty alike who worry that administrators are putting the school’s image before the rights of student media to publish the truth. 

Student press advocates also say that because parents are possible sources for donations in the future, administrators become more determined to portray the university in the best light. And orientation issues, which might feature a list of the best professors to take classes from alongside stories of late-night parties, might not fit the mold.

“Any self-respecting college newspaper is not a public relations vehicle for the administration,” said James Simon, adviser for The Mirror. “You can easily see the best interest of a newspaper, which is different from the interest of the administration.”

Officials at Fairfield, a small Jesuit college, pulled the issue after several articles were found to be “inappropriate,” The Mirror reported. The articles in question were student columns — one mentioned the local bar scene, another elaborated on the upperclassmen fascination with freshman girls. The last controversial column gave a male student’s observations about the opposite sex.

At Boston College, also a Catholic school, an administrator ordered copies of the student paper, The Heights, pulled away from the footpath of parents and incoming freshmen before orientation began in June. Copies of the newspaper were later found in trash cans. The head of the of the school’s orientation program objected to a student column describing orientation as  “miserable.”

Heights Editor in Chief Tom Wiedeman said he worries administrators do not seem to understand that orientation guides offer a unique student perspective unavailable in other forums.

“We’re here to inform students,” Wiedeman said. “As much as [administrators] believe they were acting lightly, I hope they realize our intention with the guide was also to help students.”

Editors at public universities have also encountered similar conflicts with administrators. Front-page photos published in past orientation issues of The Daily Nebraskan, the student newspaper at the University of Nebraska, have also stirred some controversy, so much so that administrators contemplated pulling copies of the newspaper, but did not, according to Adviser Dan Shattil. 

At the University of Nebraska, orientation guides are placed in auditorium seats where students and parents listen to remarks at orientation. In 2001, a parent complained to the university because of a cover photo of a martini glass. Shattil said the parent was worried about the photo because he did not want his daughter exposed to alcohol.

Shattil said the incident shows that because the orientation guides’ target audience is comprised of students and parents, there can be more anxiety over them.

“Administrators are concerned about the image the university projects more than [with] regular issue, which is primarily focused on existing students and faculty,” Shattil said. 

An Image

At campuses across the country, publishing an orientation issue has become a balancing act. Student journalists who want to portray real college life have clashed with administrators who want another image of the university projected. 

“I think that any college administration walks a tight rope,” Simon said. “Wanting to encourage critical thinking, exposing students to a lot of points of view, but some of those might not be so positive.”

University of Nebraska Associate Dean of Admissions Pat McBride, who runs the school’s orientation program, said orientation guides at his school face more scrutiny from administrators because they are placed in the seats of every program participant. 

“Anything that goes out is definitely looked at more carefully,” McBride said. “[Orientation guides] are different from other issues.”

McBride said he faced a tough decision during his first year as orientation director, when the newspaper published a photo that some described as sexist. McBride said the orientation committee discussed whether the publication should be pulled, but in the end, the orientation issue stayed. 

Boston College’s First Year Experience Director, Rev. Joseph Marchese, gave the order to move the freshman guides at his school, and said the issue had some information that would have diminished the credibility of the school’s orientation program. The most contentious article for him was an editorial from Wiedeman, which described the orientation process as “miserable.”

“We’re trying to get the students’ attention, trying to give validity in what the orientation leader is saying,” Marchese said. “And [the article] doesn’t help.”

Marchese said Wiedeman’s column countered the mission of his program and would confuse students on information they would receive from orientation leaders. 

But free press advocates argue that these freshman guides should not be treated differently from regular issues.

“To change the rules from a student perspective on what incoming students need is not only unwise but it also sends a troubling message to the whole campus,” said Paul McMasters, an ombudsman for the Freedom Forum. 

Greg Lukianoff, president of the advocacy group Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, said that the act of removing orientation issues is not any different from other types of censorship he has seen.

“It’s rationalizing censoring a newspaper because they think about the opportunity of future sources of giving, including parents,” Lukianoff said. “It’s a chance to raise funds and [removing issues] is not seen as something negative.”

But Marchese said the question lies in exactly what role student publications should play in orientation programs that have a specific, and perhaps different, mission. 

“There are a lot of other avenues where these other points of view can come in,” Marchese said. “There are many agencies, individual professors or outside vendors who come to present there, but we don’t see that constructed into the orientation program.”

Role of Orientation Issues

While it is unclear for some administrators whether freshman guides should play a specific role in orientation programs, some student editors see a bigger purpose for the special issues. 

“It’s part of our mission to inform the community,” said Michael Zennie, editor in chief of Indiana University at Bloomington’s student newspaper, The Indiana Daily Student. “It’s especially important to reach out to the freshmen who are the most susceptible to being left in the dark about things that are going on.”

The Daily Student publishes a freshman guide, called The Orienter,annually

For many student newspapers, producing orientation issues has other benefits. The guides might entice freshmen to become staff members. The pages, filled with advertisements from businesses trying to cash in on the freshman market, provide ad revenues, which become a substantial portion of newspaper’s budgets.

Wiedeman said The Heights lost advertising revenue, which he said was more than what the newspaper gets for regular issues, when administrators removed the guides from news stands.

“Advertisers want to get their teeth into freshmen early, so we did have a fair amount of revenue that would have been generated,” Wiedeman said. “We decided to not charge the advertisers in the end because we did not feel it was fair.”

At The Daily Nebraskan, ad revenues for orientation issue make up about 38 percent of the newspaper’s summer sales. The 60-page freshmen guides at Northwestern University’s The Daily Northwestern carry about 70 percent ads and include in-depth features.

“We’re trying to give them useful information that they might have to learn through trial and error,” Ryan Wenzel, editor in chief of The Daily Northwestern, said. “It’s more about experienced people on staff letting freshman know some of their secrets.”

Michelle Manchir, editor of last year’s Orienter at Indiana, described the process of publishing the 80-page publication as a “five-week long project.” Manchir said that at one point she encountered some concerns from administrators over an article about the university’s ranking as one of the top party schools in the nation. The article ran, but Manchir said universities want to appear as “the perfect school” for kids and parents.

“But [orientation issues] are important because it’s by students for students,” Manchir said. “They’re about what we know about campus and its traditions.” 

Working together

While the goals of a student newspaper and administrators often differ for orientation programs, some have found ways to come together as part of producing freshman guides. Melanie Payne, associate director of orientation programs at Indiana University, said she and staff members of The Orienter have a “nice relationship” and collaborate on the guide.

“I don’t necessarily assume input on the articles, but I have, in the past, suggested topics and issues that would be of interest or important for new students,” Payne said.

Likewise at Boston College, Marchese said his relationship with the newspaper has always been harmonious, until the incident in June.

“We sort of had this informal relationship,” Marchese said. “They would do the [orientation] issue, but we didn’t present the [orientation] edition as anything official, more informational.”

Simon said it might be useful for newspaper staff members to set clear guidelines with administrators to define what the purpose of the orientation issue is. At Boston College, Wiedeman said plans to meet with administrators to discuss the role of orientation issues in the future. 

“We’re currently working proactively in terms of next summer,” Wiedeman said. “How exactly does the university interpret our role in orientation and what role can we play?”

At Fairfield University, the academic council, the governing body of the university’s general faculty, has created a committee to investigate the censorship incident this past summer.

“The academic council decided to get serious,” Simon said. “They’re going to take testimonies to figure out who knew what and when.”

Simon also said students need to be careful that the special editions are not weakened, because they can build the reputation of a newspaper.

“Students shouldn’t put out a mush orientation issue,” Simon said. “It’s the first thing [new students] are going to see, it sets the tone to how they’re going to see the newspaper.”