Texas student media shifts administrative hands, leaving students to question implications of the change

TEXAS — Oversight of the Texas Student Media at the University of Texas at Austin will shift to the Moody College of Communication after what students say were “vague” and “brief” conversations with them about the transition.

TSM’s media properties include Cactus Yearbook, Texas Travesty, Texas Student TV, KVRX 91.7 FM, and The Daily Texan, which broke the news earlier this week. TSM is currently housed in the Division of Student Affairs.

“This would just shift it administratively from one arm of the university to another,” said Gary Susswein, the university’s director of media relations. “In terms of The Daily Texan and other student media being independent, robust voices for the students, we don’t expect any changes at all.”

Editors and members of the TSM board say they’re upset students weren’t consulted more about the move. The Daily Texan editorial board wrote that they are “distressed” that thus far, no one involved in the decision “has adequately explained how TSM will maintain its independence under the Moody college’s umbrella.”

Student managers expressed concerns about censorship and limited independence at a September TSM Board meeting where the change was first brought up and discussed. Though they did have a chance to discuss the move at that meeting, some student managers thought the plans were still in early stages.

“We weren’t thinking it would be any time soon,” said Ian Reese, student manager for Texas Student TV.

Laura Wright, The Daily Texan’s editor-in-chief, said she was surprised to hear about the move through a news tip. She, like other student media leaders, was under the impression administrators would contact them again before moving forward.

“I’m just generally concerned about the level of student involvement administrators feel is appropriate, seeing as they didn’t even feel the need to alert us that they were moving,” Wright said.

Jaclyn Kachelmeyer, editor-in-chief of the Cactus Yearbook, said she understands the decision was beyond their control but still would have liked more notice.

“But given how brief and pretty vague the very first discussion of it was at the board meeting months ago, I think it could have been good to have mentioned progress was being made and serious talks were happening,” Kachelmeyer said.

Dave Player, president of the TSM Board of Trustees, said the move sends a message that student input isn’t valued.

“We raised the concerns and then basically didn’t hear from them for four months,” Player said. “You have to ask why wouldn’t they want to include the stakeholders in this kind of decision?”

Moody College of Communication Dean Roderick Hart said University President William Powers approached him shortly before Christmas and asked if his department would be willing to oversee TSM.

“I’ve got a busy job… I didn’t need another job of some size, but I believe passionately in Texas Student Media and my president asked me, so there you go,” Hart said.

TSM director Jalah Goette announced in December she would step down at the end of January, according to The Daily Texan. Jennifer Hammat, assistant vice president for student affairs, said this “expedited” the conversation about the move. The school announced an interim director, Frank Serpas III, Thursday. Serpas is the TSTV-KVRX studio engineer, according to TSM’s website.

Hart said he doesn’t want to run a paper, answering a question regarding students’ worries about the media’s continued independence.

“We worship the First Amendment,” Hart said. “This is the stuff we teach in the classroom, so it would be insane to go and try to strongarm student journalism.”

Wright said she isn’t concerned about Hart or Powers controlling The Texan but rather future administrations.

“My concern isn’t that the administrators currently in place are interested in controlling The Texan,” Wright said. “It’s that they are not putting in place protections for future generations.”

The TSM Board and the trust, which help secure TSM’s autonomy, won’t go away with this transition, said Hammat. The same degree of independence would remain, she said.

Robert Quigley, a TSM board member and senior lecturer at the school of journalism, said the school isn’t interested in interfering with or interrupting student media. He said the same concern could exist regardless of which administrative branch of the university oversees TSM.

Cliff Avery,The Daily Texan managing editor in 1972 and current president of Friends of The Daily Texan, a non-profit alumni group, agreed.

“As long as, you know, those are university-owned computers downstairs in the newsroom, there’s got to be some, as I say, vigilance to make sure that it remains free, independent and robust,” Avery said.

He would ultimately like to see The Daily Texan return to an independent non-profit corporation. However, current financial struggles make that difficult.

With the development officers who raise money in the college of communication, Quigley said he’s optimistic this transition will be beneficial for TSM, which is in a “very, very dire financial situation.” Last year, a TSM proposed budget threatened to cut The Daily Texan’s printing to four days a week from five. Alumni and staff spoke out, urging the media board to consider other options and ultimately forming Friends of The Daily Texan.

Hart said philanthropy is part of the solution to ensuring the future of student journalism. Wright sees the fundraising potential with the communication college as a benefit.

“I think if you look at struggling college papers across the country, a lot of them are housed in the division of student affairs,” Wright said. “It once seemed like a natural fit when they were cash cows, but The Texan isn’t anymore and the division of student affairs has been really struggling to handle a failing media company.”

Reese said he’s not sure what this will ultimately means for Texas student media, but doesn’t see it as a negative change.

“I’m confident that there will be a positive change to student media, hopefully in the realm of resources that are available to us and potentially more faculty members that will provide critiques and learning opportunities for our students,” Reese said.

Wright still has her concerns. She wants to make sure students from all majors can participate, that college of communication professors don’t incorporate The Texan into their curriculum, that student media independence is guaranteed, and ultimately, that the trust remains.

“The change isn’t going to be bad per se,” Player said. “There’s just a lot of uncertainties that we want answered.”

By Lydia Coutré, SPLC staff writer. Contact Coutré by email at (703) 807-1904 ext. 126.