Wisconsin student government, angry at student newspaper’s debt, calls for adviser’s resignation

WISCONSIN — Faced with a mountain of debt, the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh’s student newspaper, the Advance-Titan, has started a fundraiser to slowly pay back the university. But for student government leaders, it’s not enough to save what they see as an untenable situation, and they have called for more drastic measures.

On Friday, the Oshkosh Student Association vice president and chief of staff released a resolution that calls for the Advance-Titan’s faculty adviser’s resignation. The staff, they decreed, “deserve[s] an adviser with fiscally responsible budgeting practices.” The resolution, which will be voted on early next week, asks the university administration to not renew adviser Vincent Filak’s contract if he refuses to resign.

The resolution is non-binding. But it has been troubling to Filak and the student editors, who fully support their adviser. Filak, who has advised the paper since 2009, has said he will not resign and he has the chancellor’s support.

“The kids have been worried about money for some time,” Filak said. “This on top of that — the sense that they’re under siege, the sense that someone is coming for them …. that sense is new, and it’s not good.”

The newspaper is about $75,000 in debt. It recently launched a fundraising campaign to help pay off the debt — university administrators initially said the paper can pay it off in $5,000 installments each February for the next decade, but Filak and student editors expressed concern that February 2016 is not enough time to raise the first installment.

On Wednesday, the university chancellor canceled the Feb. 1 deadline, Filak wrote in a Facebook update. The UW-Oshkosh Foundation will take over the alumni fundraising, and the chancellor pledged financial support to the paper through either a subscription fee or through the school’s Titan Readership Program.

“He stated point-blank that it was clear to him that there were no financial shenanigans going on at the A-T but rather just a case of deficit spending,” Filak wrote.

The student government resolution, which will be voted on Monday and Tuesday, states that in fall 2008, the Advance-Titan had a reserve balance of $26,459 — and by fall 2015, the balance fell to a negative $75,130. The resolution says that the student government disapproves of university administrators’ plan to forgive some of the paper’s debt, as it “would set a precedent that the university must continue to follow with all student clubs and organizations.”

OSA Chief of Staff Reginald Parson said the student government feels like it is time for a leadership change at the newspaper.

“It may seem like it’s an attack on the press that we’re trying to boot out individuals — that is not the case,” he said. “It is looking at it from an institutional standpoint.”

Still, editor-in-chief Kaitlyn Knox said losing Filak would be to the detriment of the paper. He’s a mentor to the staff, she said, and knows “everything and anything” about the newspaper industry. Filak previously served as the adviser to the Ball State Daily News, which won multiple national awards during his tenure, including an Associated Collegiate Press Pacemaker.

“If they want us to succeed, they would keep Vince on,” Knox said. “He knows what he’s doing, and he needs to stay at the A-T.”

The resolution, if passed, would be sent to administrators as a recommendation. Filak wrote in his Facebook post that on Wednesday, he asked the chancellor what he would do if the student government voted to ask for his resignation.

“I asked point blank, ‘Are you going to fire me?’ He didn’t even blink: ‘No.’ He then explained that he didn’t link personnel decisions to votes of no confidence,” Filak wrote.

Most importantly, he said, was Knox’s support. If she had wanted him to resign, Filak said he would have quietly stepped out of the newsroom and publicly step down at the end of the semester in order not to set the precedent of acquiescing to the student government’s demands.

“At the end of the day, I work for her,” he said. “I serve at the pleasure of the editor, that’s how this works. [If she wanted me to resign], it would be heartbreaking to me, but if that’s their thought process, then I’m okay.”

Knox said she plans to speak to the student government next week to encourage representatives to vote against the resolution. She said she can’t think of any stories published this year that would anger the student government, but she said it’s been a “never-ending cycle” of animosity between the paper and the student government for several years.

The paper’s debt is not owed to the student government, but to the university’s general fund. The only student fees that go to the newspaper are for a bookkeeper position.

But Parson said the student government has a responsibility to look out for the interest of all students. And the paper’s unstable financial situation is not fair to either the current students or future students who want to join the paper, he said.

“It’s about accountability,” he said. “We’re not trying to attack their right to free speech.”

Still, the news has sparked outcry from student media onlookers and alumni.

“It is always troubling when government gets involved in media operations, no matter the reason,” said Kelley (Callaway) Lash, president of the College Media Association in a statement. “My hope is the Advance-Titan is given the chance to address the issue internally first.”

CMA’s Committee for First Amendment Advocacy, which advocates on behalf of college newspaper advisers, is investigating the case.

A Twitter hashtag, #WeNeedTheAT, was started to raise awareness for the paper’s fundraising campaign, but alumni have also rallied around it to show support for the newspaper.

The Advance-Titan is the latest student newspaper to turn to online crowdfunding to stay afloat. An article in the SPLC spring Report magazine found that in the last year, an increasing number of papers have supplemented their revenue streams with donations from alumni and members of their college communities — although the campaigns aren’t sustainable long-term.

Filak said before he started at the Advance-Titan, the previous adviser and staff made the decision to cut the paper from a twice-weekly to a weekly, which made them look less attractive to national advertisers and started the budget slide. Since then, even local advertising has dried up and the staff “could not cut ourselves fast enough,” Filak said. Staff salaries and conference travel money have been slashed, he said, and the staff has become more innovative with trying to raise money through special publications.

The resolution has been a “huge distraction” from the staff’s work, Filak said.

“They should be trying to find the news, not be the news,” he said. “We’re going to figure this out and go back to being journalists, which is the important thing.”

Contact SPLC staff writer Madeline Will at 202-833-4614 or by email.

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