UVM hires new adviser without student media’s input; adviser threatens editor’s job

Tensions between UVM administration and The Vermont Cynic are high. After the editor refused to meet with the new adviser, she threatened his job and stipend, but said, “this is in no way a threat.”

VERMONT — When the University of Vermont instituted a hiring freeze due to COVID-19, the administration decided to hire an interim student media adviser already working at the school as a professor of English. But they did so without permission or input from the independent outlets that would work with this adviser.

Now, just over a month since Jenny Grosvenor was named the student media adviser, the newspaper editor-in-chief wants her fired, and Grosvenor has threatened to fire the editor.

The student newspaper, The Vermont Cynic’s Editor-in-Chief Sawyer Loftus refuses to meet with Grosvenor, who mainly teaches for the Reporting & Documentary Storytelling minor. In a letter from the editor, Loftus writes that he should have a role in hiring an adviser, among other demands. He says Grosvenor’s hiring is a threat to the Cynic’s independence because she was hired without student input, works for the university, and has overstepped her advising role. But Grosvenor and administrators say this isn’t the case.

Grosvenor said in an email that Loftus refuses to meet with her solely because of how she was hired. But Loftus says her actions are what led him and all seven editors to not meet with her and call for her replacement.

“For the record, as I have stated countless times from the day I was hired, there is no threat to the Cynic’s independence — never was and never will be,” Grosvenor said in an email to a Student Press Law Center reporter.

But in an email to Loftus, Grosvenor threatened to have him fired or withhold his stipend if he didn’t meet with her. This is based on a clause in a letter editors are supposed to sign before getting hired — but Loftus never signed it and doesn’t plan to now. Because of this, he isn’t receiving a stipend for his work. Grosvenor and administrators declined to comment on the threat, but said the Cynic’s independence is not at risk.

“I feel sorry for Jenny,” Loftus said. “She was caught in the middle of a bad situation where organizations were having their worlds turned upside down. But my sympathies end when you start bullying the editor of a student paper because of something you don’t like.”

A ‘slippery slope’

Provost Patricia Prelock said the administration intended to integrate student media with their journalism minor. Prior to now, the adviser position was within the Department of Student Life, meaning student media was entirely independent of the colleges.

Sommer Ingram Dean, staff attorney at the Student Press Law Center, said that having a professor as an adviser can be helpful, but the university handled the situation poorly. She also said that Grosvenor’s threats go against how student media is supposed to function.

“I get that she wants to have a say in what’s going on, but to basically threaten Sawyer — because that’s what it was, a threat — that isn’t a good look,” Dean said. “Hopefully she wouldn’t take action to remove the editor because they aren’t seeing eye to eye. That would be the antithesis of how student publications are meant to run.”

Dean agreed with Loftus that Grosvenor reporting to the Dean of the Arts & Sciences college could lead to administrative interference. However, Grosvenor said his fear is “unfounded,” and Provost Patricia Prelock said, “we have no intention of interfering in their work,” in an email to SPLC. 

“They haven’t done anything illegal yet, but threatening my stipend is a very slippery slope because holding a purse over a content creator’s head is a dangerous thing,” Loftus said. “That makes me wonder what else she’s going to do when I do something she doesn’t like.”

Public schools cannot legally retaliate against student media for the content they produce.

An adviser’s job

The job description for the adviser position states the role is to “give advice and teach, rather than tell students what to do.” The description also outlines the university’s commitment to SPLC’s and CMA’s guidelines regarding press freedom.

Dean said the description mirrors the Vermont New Voices Act, which protects high school and public college students’ autonomy from administrator interference. 

“They can point to the job description to show that the adviser is not supposed to be there to dictate content or push the agenda of the school, but is simply there as an educational guide and shouldn’t be infringing on the free speech and free press rights of students,” Dean said. “I think it’s generally hard for a school to disagree with something they’ve written themselves.”

Former College Media Association President Chris Evans served as the student media adviser at UVM for more than a decade before he left in July to take a job at another university. He said he never stepped in to edit a story until a student asked for help, and even then, he told them, “they can blow me off at any time.”

“One thing about being an adviser is that you have no authority of any kind when it comes to what goes into the paper,” Evans said. “I know that right now, there’s tension around meeting with the new adviser, but I tried to build up trust overtime, and publicly, I was a cheerleader. If I had criticism, I told the staff privately.” 

Grosvenor says she respects Loftus’s wishes and won’t interfere with his or his editors’ leadership. But Loftus says she’s already fallen short of that promise.

When a reporter was attempting to write a story on Planned Parenthood, the source wanted to confirm the reporter’s identity with a faculty member. Loftus answered the source as the EIC, but the source insisted on speaking with the faculty adviser. He declined, but Grosvenor went to the source on her own, calling Loftus’s leadership into question later on in an email.

Loftus said Evans did not interject into their reporting or writing unless he was asked.

Defending their independence

UVMtv and WRUV are the two other student media outlets on campus, but they produce entertainment, rather than news. WRUV Station Manager Katie Masterson and UVMtv Station Manager Daisy Powers, support Loftus and the Cynic but recognize they have different needs than a journalistic operation. 

Loftus, Powers, and Masterson said that, going forward, they want the adviser position to be placed back in the Department of Student Life, and they want a say in who is hired. Evans told Loftus in an email that, as EIC, he would be on the hiring committee. However, after Evans left, UVM decided to place the position in an academic department, effectively “dissolving” the committee, Evans said. Prelock declined to comment on why Loftus didn’t have a say in Grosvenor’s hiring.

“I was proud of the media program that I built there and I think it is vital for the students to get support from the university in one form or another and that all three organziations get the support they need,” Evans said. “I don’t know what’s happening in the future. I’m just waiting to see like everyone else. But I am proud of the students for trying to find a solution.”

Dean said that keeping student media independent of a university is crucial.

“The importance of having student media that is independent and not tied to school officials’ interests can’t be overstated,” Dean said. “Journalists are there to be a watchdog over those in power, and we have to make sure we let students decide how they run their newsrooms and what content they produce without administrative interference.”

Correction: A previous version of this story mistakenly used the call letters WURV instead of WRUV, we corrected the error. 

Note: For any student media law concern, including financial cuts and threats to independence, contact SPLC’s Legal Hotline. We also have a Budget and Program Cut Tracker. Find out more about student media advisers and the law by checking out SPLC’s adviser resource hub.

Want more stories like this? The Student Press Law Center is a legal nonprofit defending the rights of student journalists. Sign up for our weekly email newsletter.