Board structure change at U. Connecticut student newspaper creates alumni backlash

CONNECTICUT — Staff at the student newspaper at the University of Connecticut voted last week to create a student-only editorial board, eliminating the voting powers of professional non-student board members.

The newspaper’s editor said they made the decision after university administrators said The Daily Campus would lose its funding if they kept their previous board structure because a 1940s state law says student organizations that rely on student fees must be entirely student-run. The board’s previous structure included three students and six professional members.

“Changes are always hard, and this is a very big change and very different from anything our paper has done before,” said Katherine Tibedo, the paper’s editor-in-chief. “I think the fact that this change was spurred on by the university telling us we had to is part of what’s contributing to that.”

Ed Mahony, a reporter for The Hartford Courant who resigned as a professional member on the board last week, said the university began enforcing the 1940s law after a dispute between The Daily Campus and the administration over the newspaper office’s ownership. Mahony said students raised the money to pay for the space.

“The position of the board was that, when the university threatens to cut off funding, these aren’t credible threats,” he said. “We bought our own building. We own it. I don’t think this is something that we should give in to.”

However, university spokeswoman Stephanie Reitz said a conflict with the newspaper did not prompt the university’s enforcement of the policy. She said the Board of Trustees started an audit on the newspaper in 2013. The university, she said, has been working with the paper for two years to ensure they were “in compliance with the state requirements for trustee accounts, notably creating the student-only governing board.”

“In an age of increased accountability and transparency, the University is compelled, particularly in regard to our fiduciary responsibility, to ensure the highest degree of compliance to the applicable state laws, University policies, and the best interest of the students who pay the fees,” Reitz said.

Reitz said administrators applied the same policy used for other Tier III student organizations, which says the university may create “trustee accounts” for the benefit of students and that student fees may only benefit students.

Students at the university pay $10 each semester for The Daily Campus, Reitz said, adding that it must therefore comply with the university’s policy and have a student-only board.

“This issue is about governance, not the news content or editorial direction of The Daily Campus,” she said. “Like any other student activity funded with student fees, the newspaper was created to be for students and run by students.”

Brian Zahn, the former managing editor of The Daily Campus in 2012-13, said the university has attempted to take the newspaper’s office building before, and it was the professionals on the board who kept the university at bay. In a letter to Tibedo, Zahn said this decision opens the door for the university to control the newspaper’s content.

During a board meeting on Wednesday, four professional members of the board resigned before the vote to change the structure, Mahony said. Although two stayed on to keep a quorum, one voted against the change and one abstained.

Mahony said the professional members who resigned didn’t want to vote for the structure change, but they also didn’t feel comfortable voting against the students.

“It’s not our business to force the students to do something that they don’t want to do,” he said. “It’s their newspaper. They make the decisions, and we’re simply there to advise, so that was why we resigned.”

The new board is now made up of seven voting student members and five non-voting professional advisers. Tibedo said she was filling the student spots on the board last week and will work to fill the adviser spots this week. None of the professional members decided to stay on the new advisory board, Tibedo said.

Tibedo said the university’s threat was not the sole reason she and the other student board members decided on the structure change.

Aside from administrators’ demands to change the board’s structure, Tibedo said in a Letter from the Editor published on Friday the old board structure wasn’t worth fighting for because she had been “yelled at, screamed at and attacked both professionally and personally,” by the advisers on the board. Additionally, she asked alumni to donate to The Daily Campus so that it could be financially independent from the school.

Mahony said he doesn’t understand the accusations in Tibedo’s letter.

“I’m absolutely saddened,” he said. “Her recollection of events are certainly at odds with my recollection of events. Nobody bullied her. Nobody told her what to do. I think if you look at the outcome of the meeting, we resigned so she could do exactly what she wanted to do.”

Contact SPLC staff writer Mariana Viera by email or at (202) 478-1926.