Manhattanville newspaper adviser's removal prompted by reader complaints

NEW YORK — Two semesters after finding out he was unceremoniously dumped as the school’s unpaid student newspaper adviser, an adjunct journalism professor is moving on from Manhattanville College.

Jeff Pearlman started advising The Touchstone in fall 2011. Last fall, as he was making plans for a third semester, the student editor-in-chief was the first to relay the news that things had changed in the newsroom, Pearlman said. She told him a new adviser had been chosen and that the office was cleaned out, he said.

Despite meetings with school leaders, Pearlman said he never got a clear, definite answer as to why he was replaced.

Pearlman, a Sports Illustrated writer and a New York Times bestselling author, touched on his removal in a blog post in early September. But it wasn’t until Pearlman published another post in March that the situation gained much notice.

Pearlman said he contemplated publishing the post for some time, but in the end felt it would be hypocritical not to use writing the way he’d taught his students to do.

“I feel like I’ve always encouraged my students to sort of write truthfully — it’s sort of one of the tenets of journalism,” Pearlman said. “If you see something that’s sort of an injustice or wrong, it’s worth writing about.”

Now, with the spring semester behind him, Pearlman has left the school completely. He taught his last class last week.

“I probably shouldn’t have come back this year because I never really got over it,” Pearlman said. “It is the reason I’m moving on. One hundred percent.”

Brandon Dawson, the college’s former dean of students, said the new adviser was brought in because of complaints about the quality of the paper, and to give the paper more stability.

Dawson said the paper was revived under Pearlman “with zero budget, zero guidance, zero structure… It kind of fell into my office because I supported it because I think it needed to happen.” Originally, another administrator oversaw the paper. In February 2012, the administrator left the school and the paper began reporting to Dawson, he said.

Students complained about the paper’s quality, including complaints of misquotes, quotes taken out of context, typos and factual errors, Dawson said. They also complained about inconsistency in the printing schedule.

A commentary piece that compared campus dining to food in Ethiopia caused “one of our biggest diversity issues we had on campus,” Dawson said.

Francesca Savella, the school’s 2011-12 student government president, said student government received complaints about the Ethiopia comment and relayed those to the administration. The comment led the school to host a “diversity series” on campus, she said.

Pearlman said his staff met with students who were upset about the comment to discuss the situation.

“I thought it was beautiful,” Pearlman said. “I thought it was one of the best sort of teaching moments and learning moments.”

The paper’s editor then wrote a follow-up piece to give the paper’s explanation, Pearlman said.

Savella said one other article also caused an “uproar” among students, about a fight on public transportation. She said that article was poorly researched and made a student involved feel “like their reputation was tarnished” unjustly.

Pearlman said the story was about a student being “accused of shouting a racial epithet” on a shuttle bus, but he didn’t remember any complaints about the story.

Dawson said the two controversial pieces came pretty early on in Pearlman’s tenure as adviser. The piece containing the comment about Ethiopia was printed in the second issue Pearlman’s staff published, and Dawson believed the article about the bus incident was either in the same issue or published around the same time.

When students, including some student government members, brought complaints forward about the paper to student government, those were passed on to administrators, Savella said.

Because Manhattanville College is a “small liberal arts community,” Savella said she thinks a paper there faces “a very different reality than for a paper that may be published on a public campus or a large-scale university.”

“I think a big problem that we experienced last year was the fact that there wasn’t a real look into who the demographic was at Manhattanville College as compared to other demographics that either the head of the paper or other students might have written for in the past,” Savella said.

Stephanie Camerone, a current Touchstone assistant editor and an intern in the school’s office of communications, said she worked on Touchstone before Pearlman took over the paper, but left it after he came on board. Camerone said the paper’s quality dropped and that “it was very much abusive of the college.”

“It really portrayed a poor light on the college instead of being a newspaper that built up the campus,” Camerone said.

Jonelle Jentilucci, who was an editor under Pearlman, disagreed, saying that students she talked to were “so excited to pick up the paper and read it.”

“There were some bumpy roads here or there but that’s part of journalism,” Jentilucci said. “I think that what he did for the paper was remarkable.”

Pearlman said his editors were chosen for internships at Sports Illustrated, NBC Sports, and with The Rachel Maddow Show. He said he worked to teach his staff the basics of how to put a newspaper together, and they published every two weeks.

“Mostly what we heard was for the first time people are actually interested in the newspaper,” Pearlman said.

He said he did not hear complaints from the administration.

“I never heard from the president, I never heard from the provost, I never heard from anyone,” he said. “It would’ve been helpful, I think, for the students and myself to know at the time how they felt.”

Dawson said he believes Pearlman knew administrators had concerns.

“I can’t speak for anyone else, but I would say I’m pretty confident there were concerns addressed,” Dawson said.

In part spurred by student complaints, the school eventually decided the paper should be more integrated into the “academic realm” and overseen by someone who could more easily devote time to it than an adjunct employee, Dawson said.

Dawson said he spoke with the school’s provost about the complaints that had been brought to him and told her some students had recommended Anthony Rudel as someone who might be able to advise the paper. Rudel was also an adjunct professor at the school, and Dawson said the provost told him she had already been considering hiring Rudel as a full-time visiting lecturer and wanted to bring the school’s student media together. Dawson said she asked him to see if Rudel would be interested in overseeing student media.

Dawson said he felt “this new proposal made sense” and also felt it was inappropriate for the Dean of Students Office to oversee the paper. Rudel’s new position wasn’t finalized until the fall, Dawson said.

Provost Gail Simmons declined to comment, referring requests to the school’s office of communications.

Manhattanville College President Jon Strauss also declined to answer questions about Pearlman’s removal.

“I understand you spoke to student reporters for our student paper Touchstone and to JJ Pryor, our Director of Communications,” Strauss wrote in an email. “They tell me they informed you that Touchstone is a student organization funded as a club through our Student Government Association and as a club they select their own advisor. Moreover, there is absolutely no administrative editorial control or censorship of Touchstone. I don’t believe there is anything more to say.”

Because he no longer works there, Dawson said he could not speak for the school. However, from his point of view, the change “was never about taking away the students’ voice,” he said.

“Really the goal was not to take somebody out and limit the paper, but to give the paper a home,” Dawson said.

Pearlman said replacing an adviser over reader complaints is “laughable.”

“A college newspaper that’s a good college newspaper isn’t going to please everyone,” Pearlman said. “Generally in journalism you know you’re doing a good job if you have people saying ‘that’s great’ and you have people simultaneously saying ‘that’s awful.’”

Dawson said for him, Pearlman’s replacement was not meant to be an act of censorship. Administrators discussed having Pearlman work alongside the new adviser, Dawson said. Pearlman was also allowed to let his journalism students publish an unofficial online newspaper.

Dawson said part of the reason school leaders waited to tell Pearlman about the change was that they wanted the new adviser’s contract finalized first.

“We probably should have brought Jeff in the loop sooner,” Dawson said.

In an email, Pearlman said the way he found out was “not right.”

“No matter what they say, or even think, about my advising; whether I was impactful or awful, there is the undeniable truth that I was a volunteer student advisor, and nobody at Manhattanville had the courtesy or decency to tell me I was no longer advising,” Pearlman wrote. “I learned via my student.”

Though Strauss said that “as a club they select their own adviser,” no staff existed when Rudel took over the paper in the fall.

Pearlman said his staff “did not feel welcome” after the sudden turnover. Rudel said he emailed three of Pearlman’s editors to offer them involvement with the paper, but each declined “graciously.”

A new staff was pulled together and two issues were published that fall. Two to three more issues followed this semester, and a “multimedia web presence” is slated for launch in the fall, Rudel said.

In his March blog post, Pearlman called the first issue published by Rudel’s staff a “PR pamphlet” and indirectly called Rudel a “PR person.” Rudel said he has worked as a management consultant but “resent[s] being characterized” as a “hack.”

“I can’t deny that part of my background is public relations,” Rudel said, “but it’s not limited to that.”

Rudel worked for WQXR Radio when it was a part of The New York Times Company, and published Classic CD Magazine. He has also written for The Wall Street Journal and U.S. News & World Report, and has published four books.

Rudel said the adviser switch was not handled well, but that there is no First Amendment issue.

“It’s not Manhattanville saying ‘you can’t write this,’” Rudel said. “No one has ever, ever, ever said to me ‘here’s what we need the students to write.’”

Adam Goldstein, an attorney advocate for the Student Press Law Center, said he disagrees.

“Every specific instance they’ve cited is content,” Goldstein said. “Offensive articles are content, typos are content, research is content, and firing the adviser for content is a First Amendment violation because the adviser isn’t in control of the content. So if by quality they mean they wanted to change the content, that’s the definition of censorship whether or not they understand it.”

The fact that Pearlman was a volunteer is irrelevant because it was the students’ rights that were infringed, he said.

“The students are the ones who are being retaliated against because they’re the ones in charge of the content,” Goldstein said.

Rudel said the paper’s quality under Pearlman was “the leading issue,” and that more should be expected from students, but Pearlman said he believes the quality of the paper has now dropped.

“Do I think they’ve done like a good college newspaper this year? I don’t,” Pearlman said. “I don’t think the administration cares about that.”

Pearlman said he doesn’t want the position back, but hopes the school will reassess its approach to journalism.

“What I really want is they take a journalist and they let him or her sort of guide the newspaper rightly and they allow the newspaper to cover the school rightly,” Pearlman said.

By Sara Tirrito, SPLC staff writer. Contact Tirrito by email or at (703) 807-1904 ext. 124.

Correction, 5/3/2013: This article originally misstated Anthony Rudel’s title before he began advising The Touchstone. He was an adjunct professor at the school when he was hired last fall as a full-time visiting lecturer.