NEW HAMPSHIRE — Keene State’s clearer press rights policy hangs in limbo as the newspaper’s budget gets slashed and the university president resigns.
Today, Melinda Treadwell began her role as interim president at Keene State College, replacing Anne Huot, who, in a sudden move, announced June 26 she was stepping down.
This shakeup comes after a year of confusion surrounding press access and frustration for the journalism department. Students and faculty have been reluctant to speak to the press for fear it will affect their academic standing or jobs.
According to the press release sent out by The University System of New Hampshire, Huot will spend the coming academic year on an unpaid leave of absence preparing to return to her faculty position as a full professor in the Biology Department. She is quoted as saying this is something she’d been considering “for some time, but wanted to wait until the academic and fiscal year concluded and in advance of the arrival of the Class of 2021.”
Administrative executive editor of The Equinox Olivia Belanger, however, said she thinks perhaps the paper’s editorial may have had a bit of influence on this decision.
“We’re not really sure what triggered this to happen, [but] we’d like to think it might have something to do with our editorial in the last issue we put out,” Belanger said.
The editorial, published May 3, described “a pattern of suppression and obstruction that has been building since Fall of 2015.” Journalism students have found it increasingly difficult to interview staff and faculty of the university because there is an assumption that interviews must first go through the public relations department.
The journalism faculty supported the paper’s editorial May 4 in a letter to the editor. The letter stated that journalism students encountered barriers in their efforts to inform the community effectively.
“As of this writing, there have been 20 documented instances of students being told by employees on campus they are not allowed to talk to student journalists, but instead, must contact KSC Marketing and Communications,” the letter read.
When Huot met with the journalism faculty May 12, she was presented with a draft policy of how the college should deal with the press. She refused to sign it, but later planned to meet with students and journalism faculty again in late August.
With Huot’s resignation comes a new opportunity to push for a clearer press rights policy. Treadwell is a graduate of Keene State, and she has also served as a professor, vice president of academic affairs and interim provost. She joined Antioch University New England, also in Keene, in 2014 as provost, but has returned to Keene State College to serve as interim president.
“I’m excited about the interim president,” The Equinox adviser Julio DelSesto said. “Personally, I couldn’t imagine a better person for them to have chosen. She’s brilliant; she’s down to earth; she’s logical and seems to really have a good idea of what the right thing to do is. … I’m sort of cautiously optimistic, but there is more of a sense of hope.”
Treadwell has already met with Belanger and Alexandria Saurman, managing executive editor of The Equinox. Belanger said she felt the meeting was successful, and she and Saurman will attend an extended cabinet meeting with administration and the department deans in the fall to continue mending the relationship between student media and administration.
“She listened to our concerns, as well as our hopes for this coming year, and offered us all that we have been asking for all along: an open door,” Belanger said. “President Treadwell assured us we would have access to her throughout the year and she would be talking to the members of the administration to have all of us on the same page.”
With a productive meeting with the interim president under their belts, DelSesto said he is hopeful Treadwell will also help restore an atmosphere of free expression. DelSesto said the journalism faculty will continue to push for a written policy that protects everyone’s rights to free speech.
“I’m hoping that come this fall we can work with the administration to develop a policy that is in writing,” DelSesto said. “I don’t think that’s changed just because the president has stepped down. I think that’s still on our list of goals is to have that policy in writing so that people – faculty, staff, students – anyone on campus can practice their freedom of speech, whether it’s in the press or just some kind of public forum.”
Though there is hope for a new policy, The Equinox has another hurdle to jump – it faces a huge budget cut. Though the paper requested the same amount of money it was allotted in FY17 ($108,400), the Finance Committee on Student Assembly gave The Equinox just $60,000 — a 45 percent decrease, which was one of the largest cuts made to any student organization. DelSesto said this budget would not even cover the paper’s minimum costs, which include printing contracts, software licenses and stipends.
Belanger said the editors are looking at cutting the number of papers printed and using less color to try to make up for these losses. But the paper already prints fewer copies than students used to pick up. According to DelSesto, students were picking up between 1,600-1,800 copies, but The Equinox has already had to cut back to printing just 1,500. Now, he said, the paper will probably have to cut back even more.
“We’re looking into things like PDF email delivery so that we’re still doing that layout and we are still printing but maybe delivering it to people in different ways,” DelSesto said. “We’re trying to find new ways to keep readership up and keep that delivery up while still letting our students develop design skills.”
The editorial board will also not be able to attend the College Media Association conference for the first time in memory, which Belanger finds especially disheartening as she begins her senior year. Even cutting these expenses, however, is not enough to make up for the budget loss.
“We’re still kind of up in the air as far as how we’re going to make it through the next year,” DelSesto said. “That’s really scary. The Equinox – or the student newspaper, it’s been different names – it’s been on campus since 1929, so we…want to make sure that not only do we not lose it this year but that we kind of secure the newspaper’s future on campus.”
The Equinox was not the only student media organization to face big budget cuts. The college’s radio station and yearbook also received significantly less funding FY18 than they had FY17, losing 63 percent and 24 percent of their budgets respectively.
“I know that some people do feel that there is a strange connection there considering that some student organizations received more funding than they did last year, and that three of the four groups that were cut the most were the newspaper, the radio station and the yearbook,” DelSesto said. “I can only say that it seems like a coincidence, but I know that the students have expressed to me that they feel that there is a connection between the cuts and their relationship with the former president.”
Belanger was among those students.
“That on top of all of the other battles we were already facing just getting interviews and stuff, there was no way it was a coincidence,” Belanger said.
Belanger said the organization is trying to access its reserve funds. The money in The Equinox’s reserve account comes from ad sales and amounts to roughly another $60,000, which could help keep the paper afloat. DelSesto said accessing this money, however, is difficult.
“It used to be that [the funds] rolled over from year to year and whenever we needed it, we would just use it,” DelSesto said. “A few years ago, during the time that the former president was here, the process for getting that money changed.”
The Equinox now has to request the amount of money it wants from the reserve fund at the beginning of each year, DelSesto said, and whatever they do not use is lost. He said they had a meeting with the administration when the policy was implemented, but the students still couldn’t understand why the process changed.
DelSesto said he does not know where any unused funds go.
“There was a lot of back and forth about that because that is money that the newspaper earned, so that was an issue,” DelSesto said. “It’s strange that money that was generated by ad sales by The Equinox is frozen.”
Currently, all reserve accounts are frozen. DelSesto said they are working requesting access to the account from the administration and even up to the board of trustees, but they still do not know whether this will happen.
“We’re hoping that money will be made available to us so that we can survive the next year,” DelSesto said, “and make a plan for the coming years and figure out how we’re going to go forward and what’s a more sustainable budget not only from our end, but also what we really need from the school.”
With Treadwell beginning her time as interim today, DelSesto and Belanger are hopeful that good change is to come.
“I’m hoping that with the interim there’s a culture change,” DelSesto said. “Not only as far as how the administration and the student press work together, but we really hope people feel comfortable speaking. I think people are afraid to speak, whether it’s in the press or even in email or just speaking to friends on campus, people that you work with. I hope that fear can dissipate, and people can feel free to speak their mind. And that’s really what our college campus is about, that’s what liberal arts is about, it is the free expression of ideas. As of late, it hasn’t felt that way, so I am hoping we can return to that.”
SPLC staff writer Sophie Gordon can be reached by email or (202) 974-6318
Want more stories like this? The Student Press Law Center is a legal and educational nonprofit defending the rights of student journalists. Sign up for our free weekly newsletter to receive a notification on Fridays about the week’s new articles.