Seattle Central’s problem with student press

This editorial was originally published in the Capitol Hill Times under a different title. As of 4/22/14 it is not uploaded to their website.

Imagine a public news agency charged with keeping watch on government officials, like the Seattle Channel or PBS’ Frontline. What if the government’s head of Public Relations had direct supervisory authority over that news agency? That’s a conflict of interest, right?

Now suppose that the government’s head of PR held a series of illegally secret meetings which culminated in the termination of the watchdog news agency. Suppose she collaborated with another government official in charge of the news agency’s funding and personnel management. And suppose both these officials were promoted afterwards.

If this sounds like something from House of Cards or the Bush administration, then brace yourself. Because I’m actually describing the recent history of student publications at Seattle Central Community College.

Six years ago, head of college PR Laura Mansfield collaborated with Dean of Student Leadership, Lexie Evans, to hamstring and ultimately kill the college’s award-winning student newspaper, The City Collegian. Their motives are not entirely clear, but it’s probably not irrelevant that in the years preceding its demise, the Collegian published several news stories and editorials which embarrassed the school administration: for example, that the head of security had violated federal law.

In any event, over the course of the 2007-2008 school year, Mansfield violated state Sunshine Laws and common-sense ethics by holding a series of secret meetings with no minutes or other records. At the end of that year, she apparently overruled the Publications Board (which supervises student publications) when it voted against heightened enrollment requirements (which would have kept student journalists too busy with coursework to do their jobs), and handed the decision off to Evans, who promptly instituted those enrollment requirements. (I say “apparently” based on eyewitness accounts and email archives; again, there are no official records.) When the Collegian’s adviser resigned in protest, Evans terminated the paper, though she and other administrators continued to assure students and faculty that it was only on hiatus. Almost two years later, a new student magazine—which explicitly considered hard news to be “archaic,” and whose staff had essentially no training in investigativejournalism—was born.

Evans now chairs the committee which supervises that magazine, the Central Circuit. Mansfield has become the head of PR for UW Bothell.

I am the Circuit’s editor in chief. And as part of a larger effort to bring serious journalism back to our school, our most recent issue published an exposé on the dubious history of student publications at Seattle Central. You can read the full story at CentralCircuit.com, but the short version is this: unaccountable administrators killed a model student newspaper and (eventually) replaced it with a magazine so insubstantial that it amounted to a student-funded brochure for the college.

I should emphasize the “student-funded” part: the Collegian was, and the Circuit is, wholly funded by student fees. State taxpayers do not contribute a dime to our school’s student publications. So you’d think that students, being their sole funders, would be entitled to transparency and accountability in administrative oversight of those publications.

And you’d be right: state law requires that the Publications Board be transparent and accountable, making its meetings and records thereof available to the public. But Mansfield didn’t obey those laws, and has refused to discuss the Collegian with me (or with anyone else in a documentable way).

Evans, for her part, has been exceedingly vague about her involvement with the Collegian’s demise. She blames its termination on the adviser who resigned in protest, but has yet to give a plausible reason for why she took eight months to even begin looking for his replacement. And, as mentioned, Evans is now the chair of the Publications Board, not to mention adviser to the committee which controls the Circuit’s funding. She’s also in charge of Student Leadership personnel management, which includes the Circuit’s staff and adviser. In short, she holds sway over the magazine via regulatory authority, budgeting, and staff management. This level of concentrated authority over student press would be unacceptable with any administrator; that it is held by the very same administrator who helped to axe the Collegian reinforces just how unsupervised the supervisors of student press are.

I have called on Seattle Central’s president, Dr. Paul Killpatrick, to replace Evans as Publications Board chair with a neutral faculty member. “Neutral” means “acceptable to both the Circuit’s staff and to Student Leadership.” It needs to be faculty because their union effectively insulates them from administrative pressure, while administrators’ (like Evans) whole job description amounts to following administrative marching orders.

Seattle Central has historically been a bastion of grassroots democracy. A student publication which is effectively controlled by the administration is anathema to this identity. Readers of the Capitol Hill Times especially should be concerned by this kind of discrete repression, since it’s happening in the heart of your neighborhood, to students who are your coworkers and neighbors.

I urge you to join me in demanding an independent student press at Seattle Central. You can start by signing our petition at CentralCircuit.com.

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