Unaccountable Oversight: the PubBoard, the Collegian, and the Circuit

SCCC security breaches fed law

Author’s note on plausible bias: Early drafts of this story were written as part of a 5-credit independent study with Jeb Wyman; the author was trained and is paid and supervised by Student Leadership. Neither party saw or edited the article that you are reading. -CJ

Do you deserve a student newspaper?

This article describes how unaccountable administrators illegally terminated the Seattle Central student newspaper six years ago in what amounted to a secret court—and could do it again tomorrow if they wanted.

But it also asks whether that even matters—whether Seattle Central students are democratic citizens to whom administrators ought to be accountable, or just consumers of education and employees-in-training who should expect no say in campus decisions. An independent student publication is only needed if the first vision is true: if students care about what happens here, and need information on which to base their involvement in school governance.

If you want a voice in your school, read on. And prepare to be concerned.

Glossary of Players

Jeb Wyman currently teaches English at Seattle Central. From 2003-08 he taught journalism, served as the Collegian’s advisor, and sat on the Publications Board.

During the Collegian’s last quarters in winter and spring ‘08, Rachel Swedish served as the paper’s editor in chief and sat on the Publications Board.

Laura Mansfield was the Seattle Central Director of Public Relations and Marketing and served as chair of the PubBoard in ‘07-’08. She is now the Director of Communications at UW Bothell.

Lexie Evans was and is the Dean of Student Leadership. She did not serve on the PubBoard in ‘07-’08, but lobbied for tighter control over the Collegian. She is now the PubBoard chair.

Paul Croon was and is an English professor at Seattle Central. He was the faculty-at-large on the ‘07-’08 PubBoard.

Lee Myers wrote the controversial editorial which ostensibly sparked renewed PubBoard oversight of the Collegian. Myers had written similar (though less pointed) editorials in the past.

Mildred Olee was the president of Seattle Central during and immediately after the Collegian’s termination.

Tom Davis is an International Programs faculty who lobbied for the Collegian’s reinstatement. In an online petition, Davis and other Collegian supporters garnered 280 signatures, many from Seattle Central alumni, in favor of their cause.

JK Howell was a Collegian editor elected by the paper’s staff to become the ‘08-’09 editor in chief. Prior to his work at the Collegian, he was an Army journalist stationed in Iraq.

Audrey Wright was the Dean of Humanities during ‘07-’08. She was Wyman’s immediate supervisor, and cut all Seattle Central journalism classes weeks after his resignation from the Collegian.

Sam Chesneau was and is a non-student employee of Student Leadership. He sat on the ‘07-’08 PubBoard, and currently advises the College Activities Board (CAB).

.          .          .

Prelude: Meet the Collegian

From fall 1966 through spring 2008, Seattle Central’s student newspaper was the City Collegian. Published twice a month, the paper was praised by the Seattle Times because it “won numerous state and regional awards and has twice been a finalistfor the national Associated Collegiate Press Pacemaker award.”

In its last five years, professor Jeb Wyman advised the Collegian and ran upper-level journalism classes. (He now teaches English.) These classes followed a lab model, meaning that students used the Collegian to develop their skills as journalists in much the same way that students today can receive credits for service learning. According to the winter ‘08 syllabus, paid Collegian positions (e.g. editing, proofreading) were separate from and complementary to classwork (i.e. writing). For this extracurricular work, Collegian staff received quarterly stipends funded via student fees, which were channeled through Student Leadership, headed by associate dean Lexie Evans.

Several sources confirm that the Collegian was a flourishing enterprise during the last five years of its existence, largely due to Wyman. A spring ‘07 review of the journalism classes by outside faculty heaps praise on him, writing that the program “is thriving because of its strong advisor.” In emails to Wyman that the Circuit retrieved through a public records request, other faculty wrote things like “You resurrected the Collegian from the grave over the past five years” and “Under your guidance, The Collegiangrew from a skimpy, erratic publication that no one noticed and emerged as a real, professional newspaper that everyone read.”

 

Enter the Publications Board

Per state law, student publications at Seattle Central are supervised by a Publications Board.The PubBoard was (and is) part of the Seattle Central administration, and is staffed by students, faculty and staff who are appointed by the college president. State law (WAC 132F-121-040) gives the PubBoard “general authority” over student publications in order to promote “free and responsible discussion of  campus and community issues,” though the PubBoard may not censor content and must adhere to law and industry standards (unless otherwise approved by the president).

In 2007-08, the PubBoard included Wyman and editor in chief Rachel Swedish, as well as Student Leadership employee Sam Chesneau (Cultural Programming & Development Coordinator) and English faculty Paul Croon. The PubBoard was chaired by Director of Public Relations and Marketing Laura Mansfield. Prior to the ‘07-’08 school year, the PubBoard didn’t do much. That year, however, it became the setting for an escalating conflict over the independence and credit load requirements for staffers of the Collegian.

The most obvious impetus for the PubBoard’s newly-invigorated involvement was an editorial by student-editor Lee Myers, who claimed systemic racism is a fiction and black poverty is caused by a culture of victimhood. According to professor Carl Livingston, who advised the Black Student Union at the time, students of color felt “outraged” and “belittled” by the Collegian’s decision to run the article—a decision which, he says, Collegian staff saw as a free-speech issue. Angry readers organized a protest of the paper, and a forum was held in the Atrium for students to voice their reactions. The following issue of the Collegianfeatured several rebuttals to Myers’ article, and a front-page apology from the editor in chief for not appropriately vetting the editorial. Wyman says that he offered his resignation to Vice President of Instruction Ron Hamburg, who declined it.

But there are other Collegian stories from Wyman’s tenure which might have embarrassed the college and Student Leadership and plausibly motivated intensified administrative involvement. For example:

• Its coverage and criticism of the Associated Student Council’s (ASC) controversialdecision to use $465,000 of student money toward the opening of the Science and Math (SAM) building, purchasing furniture that the school had failed to budget for. To celebrate Evans, the ASC attempted to name the SAM’s Learning Center after her; in response, Collegian Managing Editor Chris Bruffey disparaged Evans as “the equivalent of [a] live-in lobbyist.”

• Its coverage of two consecutive Seattle Central security managers who both allegedly violated the federal Clery Actby failing to accurately record and report campus crime. Both resigned.

• Its coverage of the (still ongoing) strategy by administrators to fill budget holes by courting international students, who pay much higher tuition than domestic students.

In interview, Croon described content-related tensions between the Collegian and the administration during ‘07-’08. In the view of some administrators, he says, the Collegian was “just a mouthpiece for the faculty union,” and the administration did not want a strong investigative journalism program; then-president Mildred Olee felt especially targeted by the paper. Tom Davis, an International Programs faculty who lobbied for the reinstatement of the Collegian after its termination, agrees. Convening the PubBoard and the eventual decision to end the paper “was motivated by fear that [the Collegian] was making the college and/or certain administrators look bad,” he says. “It was very clear that the administration had decided to axe the Collegian for reasons of public relations.”

These content-related tensions also surfaced within the PubBoard. Swedish says that at her first meeting with the PubBoard, she was “handed a sheet by a member of Student Leadership with a list of demands for content,” including “that every member of Student Leadership be featured in the Collegian.” An internal Student Leadership email sent on 11/12/07 obtained by the Circuit supports her story:

 

Student Leadership requests that The City Collegian enters into a formal agreement to: 1) report on all student events in which a press release has been submitted for in a timely fashion, 2) publish a list of the current clubs each issue, 3) publish picture & a biography sketch of every student board members (ASC, CAB, and SORC) at least once a year, 4) publish all articles submitted by ASC, CAB, and SORC as long as they meet the requirements that the collegian has set for their own submissions in order best represent and serve the student body of Seattle Central Community College.

 

The WAC governing the PubBoard specifically cites the American Society of Newspaper Editors’ (ASNE) “Statement of Principles” as a guide for appropriate conduct. Article III reads:

 

Independence. Journalists must avoid impropriety and the appearance of impropriety as well as any conflict of interest or the appearance of conflict. They should neither accept anything nor pursue any activity that might compromise or seem to compromise their integrity.

 

It’s not clear how Student Leadership’s request for a “formal agreement” mandating content is consistent with this principle.

But the main bone of contention that year was whether to require paid Collegian staff to register for a minimum of 10 credits per quarter, rather than simply be a registered student. Wyman and Swedish held that the burden of 10 credits would effectively prevent quality student journalism: between keeping up with class and working a second job to make rent, editors would have little time for their Collegian duties. Evans countered that the paper was an “extra project through which a student can augment his or her academic development,” and should be brought “into congruence with the student development goals” via the 10 credit requirement, which was (and is) standard for paid student leaders.

This dispute cuts to the heart of a fundamental philosophical disagreement: is the student publication just another student board, like the College Activities Board (CAB) or Tournaments and Games (TAG)—a space solely for “leadership development,” in which the product is basically irrelevant as long as everyone learns and grows? Or does the role of student publications as watchdogs of democracy mean that their product (i.e. the news) has a special importance beyond “leadership development,” and thus student journalists should be held to different standards from student leaders (e.g. the ASNE’s principles)?

Evans, Chesneau, and Mansfield maintained the former; representatives of the Collegian maintained the latter. And according to Wyman, the PubBoard was used as a vehicle of administrative harassment to control the paper, and impose a philosophy of “student leadership development” that eroded the paper’s public mission.

It is not clear what other members of the PubBoard thought, because—in violation of state law—there are no public records of its meetings.

 

Sunshine Laws

No one at Student Leadership was able to provide me with any minutes of the meetings of the PubBoard. Chesneau says the meetings were “very informal.” Evans’ assistant told me that she had “never seen them,” and Director of Communications David Sandler was also unable to locate any.

That means that there is no documentation of a series of controversial meetings which culminated in the effective termination of the student publication. From an ethical standpoint, this is troubling, since the absence of documentation makes it impossible for students or anyone else to hold Boardmembers accountable. The PubBoard was essentially a secret court.

Beyond the ethics of transparency, however, is the requirement by Washington state Sunshine Laws that meetings of public governing bodies—including committees within public educational institutions—be declared open to the public and keep publicly available minutes. Mansfield and the PubBoard violated state law by holding meetings that were closed to the public and unrecorded. (See the laws’ language at CentralCircuit.com.) So the circumstances leading to the termination of the Collegian were not only opaque and unaccountable; they were also illegal.

 

Conflicting stories about PubBoard operations

In June ‘08, about a week before the end of the school year and a few days after that year’s final issue had been published, Wyman resigned in protest from his position as Collegian advisor (not from his faculty position). According to Wyman, he unsuccessfully tried to meet with his dean, Audrey Wright, weeks beforehand to discuss his plans.He says that he quit because the ‘07-’08 PubBoard was “used by the administration as a punitive body to harass and persecute the paper” via false accusations and increased credit requirements. The crux of his view is that Mansfield, in collaboration with Evans and with the complicity of dean Wright and president Olee, manipulated the PubBoard to control the Collegian. And when even the PubBoard itself voted down Evans’ proposed 10 credit requirement, he says, Mansfield overruled the vote and handed the issue to Evans to unilaterally decide. Disgusted, Wyman resigned, thinking a new advisor would be assigned to the paper (as had always happened in the past). Had he known his resignation would lead to the termination of the Collegian, he says, “I would never have stepped down.”

    Evans and her employee Sam Chesneau contest Wyman’s allegations of corruption and harassment. Evans was ill on the day we were supposed to interview, so I was directed to speak with Chesneau instead. (Evans remained too busy in following weeks to reschedule our interview, so my only direct contact with her in this investigation was via email.)

Chesneau, who sat on the ‘07-’08 PubBoard, maintains that its involvement with the Collegian was triggered by outcry against Myers’ controversial editorial. In Myers’ wake, he says, “the Publications Board started convening to just make sure that things were running—operations wise, administratively—OK, since they’re using S&A dollars.” Starting from specific concern about the Myers editorial, the PubBoard expanded its involvement to other aspects of the Collegian’s production—in particular, considering a 10 credit requirement for newspaper staff.

Chesneau says that, far from being overruled by Mansfield, the PubBoard itself approved the 10 credit requirement for newspaper staff nearly unanimously. “Our response [to the concern that a 10 credit minimum would prevent serious student journalism] was, ‘If the students aren’t willing to participate because they’re not taking 10 credits, is this really a need for students?” Chesneau says. “If we’re gonna pay students, they gotta be students.” He repeatedly mentioned the fear that “hired guns” “off the street” could work for the paper (though he did not know of an actual instance of this occurring) and said that students who couldn’t handle 10 credits “should find another gig.”

Wyman, in Chesneau’s version of things, was the only hostile presence at the PubBoard. He “was really unruly in the meeting. [He] started shouting at people…He had a fit about it, and then resigned…He very strategically waited until people were checked out for spring quarter…[and] took his ball and went home.” Chesneau also suggests that Wyman dodged responsibility for the Myers editorial—“You gotta take some sort of accountability, and not let your students take the heat”—and financially exploited his position: part of an advisor’s job includes “not letting other people do their work for them while they’re collecting a big paycheck or stipend, as their advisor [Wyman] was doing.” (When asked to substantiate this serious accusation, Chesneau “retracted” it, saying that I was taking his words out of context; you can read the transcript for yourself at CentralCircuit.com.)

After Wyman resigned in June ‘08, Chesneau says, Student Leadership and the Publications Board “put the paper on pause while we reassess[ed] and figure[d] out what the students want[ed]. There was a lot of work done by the ASC [asking students]…’What is it you guys want? How do you want your funds to best serve you?’” (Chesneau was not able to produce any documentation of that survey work.) Most students the ASC talked to, he says, felt that the Collegian “didn’t represent them,” had bad content, and was “utilized for people’s personal beefs with administration.”

 

The stories vs. the evidence

Per the evidence uncovered in my investigation, Chesneau’s story is problematic (to put it mildly). If the paper was low-quality, how did it manage to win so many awards? And how would a 10 credit requirement address this (rather than make it worse)? As Wyman and Swedish predicted, Circuit staffers (subject to the 10 credit requirement) have struggled to succeed academically and survive financially while still producing serious journalism. My staff routinely works twice the number of hours they’re paid for; so far this year, we’ve lost two staff writers and four editors due to overwork, i.e. our staff turnover rate is greater than 50%.

There are other problems with Chesneau’s narrative. If Wyman was exploiting his position, why did his superiors and peers applaud his dedication in curriculum reviews and personal emails? How was Wyman responsible for allowing the Myers editorial when he was ethically prohibited from interfering with newspaper content? And how can Chesneau consider a guy who offers his own resignation for one of his editor’s bad decisions to be ‘dodging responsibility’? If the Collegian was unresponsive and uninvolved in campus culture, how is it that dozens of students contributed articles to each issue, and why were the vast majority of its news stories specific to the Seattle Central campus and community? Perhaps most importantly: if (as Chesneau claims) the PubBoard voted in favor of the 10 credit requirement for Collegian staff, why does a 4/22/08 email show PubBoard chair Mansfield handing the decision off to Evans, who then imposed the 10 credit requirement? Only if, as Wyman claims, the PubBoard voted down the 10 credit requirement does this upwards delegation to Evans make sense. (Chesneau did not respond to request for comment on this discrepancy.)

 

No conflict of interest?

When I suggested to Chesneau that Mansfield might have had a conflict of interest serving as both chair of the PubBoard and head of college Public Relations, he was skeptical. “[S]he was just there to make sure the meetings ran smooth,” he says. “[M]ost of the issues that were coming up were brought up by the students themselves.” Chesneau was not able to recall any specific student complaints; it was more “just the vibe…especially among students of color.” He dismisses Wyman’s claims that Mansfield used the PubBoard to control the Collegian. “I doubt it. Not in the Pub Board at all.” He added, “The thing is, the Publications Board wasn’t meant to stifle freedom of speech. It was just meant to make sure that operations were running smoothly on an administrative level…that the process was ethical.”

Chesneau’s characterization of Mansfield as an apolitical facilitator is suspicious. Emails the Circuit retrieved via public records request show that there was, in fact, ongoing collaboration between Evans and Mansfield on the subject of the PubBoard. Whatever her role on the PubBoard—neutral facilitator, agenda-driven manipulator, or something in between—Mansfield has since refused any public accountability for her role in the PubBoard. She appears content to let decisions about student voices occur behind closed doors, without explanation or documentation. She has repeatedly refused to speak not only with me about this story, but with almost anyone in a documentable way. Replying to an indignant email from a student in 2008, she wrote, “Jeb [Wyman] has distorted my words and lied to discredit me. I am happy to talk with you personally but I will not have this discussion with you or anyone else by email.”

 

The fallout

After Wyman’s resignation, all Seattle Central journalism classes were cut. The Collegian’s offices were locked for the duration of the summer. Allana Bourne, former Seattle Central journalism professor, says that “it was obvious to everyone I talked to, including [a Seattle Times reporter], that the paper was doomed.”

In August, editor in chief-elect JK Howell says, he went to campus security to be let into the Collegian offices:

 

I specifically wanted the documents that belong to the paper’s Editor-in-Chief, and are handed down from one editor to the next. (I was hoping I might find Pub Board regulations there, as the EIC is automatically a member of the Pub Board.)

 

An employee (I don’t recall his name, he was in his 20s) of Dean Evans showed up and unlocked the door for me. When I started pulling the EIC folder out of the editor’s desk, he said he couldn’t release them without permission from Dean Evans, and called her on his cell phone.

 

His cell phone speaker was loud, and although he was trying to have a private conversation, I could hear every word.

 

Dean Evans asked him if he thought I was gathering material for a lawsuit. He said he wasn’t sure.

 

I was allowed to take a couple of documents (an in-house style guide and a copy of the flyer we used to recruit writers) but wasn’t allowed to take anything else – including the manilla folder marked “Pub Board”). I was also allowed to take one copy of each issue from our archives that I had worked on.

 

I was never allowed back in the room, and shortly thereafter the contents disappeared.

 

The Circuit has not yet been able to identify that employee, or to confirm or disconfirm Howell’s statement.

Though Howell says Evans made it clear to him that the Collegian would not be returning during the ‘08-’09 school year, the official line from Mansfield and president Olee was that it would be up and running as soon as they could find an advisor. Olee wrote in an all campus email that “the Collegian has not been permanently discontinued” and was expected to “resume publication this academic year.” But no attempt was made to find an advisor until January ‘09, eight months after Wyman’s resignation, when Student Leadership put an ad on CraigsList.org.

Evans says the delay was due to the elimination of journalism classes, which “required us to seek a new advising model.” This explanation is dubious. An advisor could have been hired immediately after Wyman’s resignation, and a new model worked out subsequently: the elimination of the journalism program in no way necessitated the suspension of the Collegian. In fact, the journalism class cuts should have made getting an advisor to continue the Collegian even more urgent, since the editors already trained in Wyman’s classes were ready to work in fall ‘08 but would soon graduate and move on. The delay makes sense if, on the other hand, Evans’ goal was not to continue the Collegian as such but to reboot student publications with an entirely new mission—one more palatable to the college administration. Waiting until Wyman’s editors left before hiring an advisor would have made this kind of radical but covert restructuring possible. When asked what specific activities necessitated the eight month wait, Evans replied, “I  feel I have answered this question:  Some restructuring  was required  and it took some time and effort  to reorganize and implement a new process.”

In March ‘09, Student Leadership hired a new advisor, Rhoda Belleza, who quit almost immediately. In the fall they hired Jim Vesely, who had recently retired from editing the Opinion section at the Seattle Times, to advise the new student publication, the Central Circuit. According to the Circuit’s first editor in chief, Cassandra Piester, the magazine was envisioned as less hard news and more culture and opinion. Piester insisted on keeping most of what she told me off-the-record for fear of reprisal, but when asked point blank “Did you feel like you had the journalistic freedom to investigate the history of the Collegian without interference?,” she replied, “No.”

 

Summary of events

So here’s what we know: for the last five years of its existence, the Collegian was a “thriving” student newspaper with widespread support and heavy student involvement. Several of its stories embarrassed the administrators who supervised it. After Myers’ controversial editorial was published, Student Leadership began to use the PubBoard to “request” mandatory Student Leadership-friendly content, and to push for a 10 credit requirement for Collegian editors as part of a broader strategy to bring the paper into the administrative fold. Over the course of the school year, the PubBoard held a series of illegally secret meetings chaired by the head of college Public Relations, which culminated in Wyman resigning in protest. The journalism program was scrapped, and the Collegian died despite administrators’ assurances that it was only on hiatus. Nearly two years after Wyman resigned, the culture-heavy/news-light Central Circuit emerged.

 

Now what?

While my investigation has not comprehensively answered how and why the Collegian died, the evidence I’ve uncovered from documents and testimony is unambiguous in its general support of Wyman’s story and its incongruence with important parts of Chesneau’s/Student Leadership’s narrative. Still, there’s a lot we don’t know, and it’s possible that evidence will emerge next week which casts an entirely new light on elements of this story.

And that’s the biggest point to take from this article: we don’t know for sure what happened. Why? Because Mansfield kept no records, despite being ethically and legally obliged to do so. Consequently, the burden of proof should not fall on Wyman (who has literally overwhelmed me with documentation in support of his story) but on Mansfield, Student Leadership, and especially Lexie Evans, who emerged from the Collegian debacle as a full-fledged Dean with consolidated control over student publications.

Evans is now the chair of the PubBoard, which directly supervises the Central Circuit. Her more recent behavior has been similarly unaccountable: at the beginning of this year, her office failed to pay Student Leaders for a mandatory, week-long training until the Circuit reported that such payment is required by state law. Evans is also a powerful influence on the student committee that manages the budget allocations of student funds, and is the direct supervisor of the Circuit’s advisor. Even with the most trustworthy administrator, this level of consolidated influence over student press (regulatory authority, budgeting, and personnel management) would be unacceptable. That it is wielded by an administrator who—either through calculated manipulation or sheer incompetence—killed the City Collegian is farcical.

So what can we do?

There are two options. The first is: nothing. When Evans and Chesneau loudly and non-specifically denounce this article as speculative trash, faculty and students might feel a vague sympathy toward the Circuit but be too busy to get involved. Other administrators will make noble noises about how much they care about free speech, and behind-the-scenes changes will ensure that future student journalists are more tractable than my staff and I.

The second option is that students, staff and faculty organize to demand a student publication that is properly insulated from administrative control. The faculty and staff unions can lead this, as can the ASC and other Student Leaders if they are willing to take the risk. We need to make one demand: that president Killpatrick replace Evans as PubBoard chair with a neutral faculty member (i.e. someone acceptable to both the staff of the Circuit and to Student Leadership). It needs to be faculty because they’re better insulated from administrative influence than, well, administrators. This one reform might seem insufficient, but the PubBoard is the mechanism by which other policy decisions about student journalism are mediated. If we can get a neutral party as PubBoard chair, other reforms—like a reasonable ratio between credit requirements and paid hours, or hiring Circuit staff based on specific journalistic qualifications rather than generic Student Leadership qualifications—will have a chance to receive a fair hearing.

I started this article by asking whether you deserve an independent student publication. This is another way of asking, When decisions are made on campus, do you want a newspaper that investigates who is making them and why? Those who hold power will always offer persuasive rationales for their behavior. The only way to make them be accountable instead of just sounding accountable is to expose them to the light of serious journalism.

So, do you deserve an independent student publication?

That’s up to you.

 

President Killpatrick’s office is in BE 4180. He can be reached at Paul.Killpatrick@seattlecolleges.edu or 206-934-4144. Casey Jaywork’s office is in BE 4108. He can be reached at EditorInChief@seattlecentralcircuit.com or 206-934-0943. Please fill out our online petition at CentralCircuit.com.

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