Managing Editor Ryan Golden, On Behalf of the Editors of the Mountain Echo
“The time is always right to do what is right.”
-Martin Luther King, Jr. (1965)
To the Students, Staff, Faculty, Administrators, and Alumni of the Mount:
I will be the first to admit that this week’s news article has been the most ambitious, challenging, and detailed assignment that I have ever witnessed a student reporter at this university undertake.
Many will read our special edition issue from Jan. 19 and wonder: why would a student newspaper at a small, close-knit Catholic university dare to publish this report? Why place the spotlight on the words and deeds of the highest officials within the university?
Each member of a university newspaper is called to balance the dual ethical responsibilities of student and journalist. As students at the Mount, we are called to respect the leaders of our community and to uphold the four pillars of community, faith, leadership, and discovery. We are called to seek truth both within our campus community and in the larger world through rigorous inquiry. We are called, in short, to be capable, responsible human beings who work to impact this university in a positive manner within the short span of four years.
In his or her craft however, the student journalist must seek information about current events on campus and convey them accurately to the public. While most of the time these events are much less serious than those covered in professional journalism (like talent shows, concerts, and sporting events) it is impossible for any respectable journalist to neglect the fact that university leaders make important and often divisive decisions that affect the lives of students, faculty, staff, and other community members for better or worse.
It is not hard to understand the conflict these roles create. Not all truths are easy to swallow, especially for student journalists who may have good relationships with the sources and persons they report on. But in order to facilitate meaningful public discussion about these issues—to give those who are impacted by such decisions the opportunity to read and reflect—we must exercise our role as reporters with the utmost concern for accuracy, fairness, and objectivity.
Having said all of this, I have done my best in the next few paragraphs to give our readers an account of The Mountain Echo’s efforts in publishing this week’s article.
After our staff became aware of the story idea, we followed several leads in order to gather more information about the issue of freshman surveys and retention rates, but only heard back from a few sources.
During the course of the investigation, the Echo obtained a copy of the email conversation cited in the article from one of the individuals who was part of the conversation. The transcript’s contents were deemed relevant to the investigation because the transcript revealed further detail of the culling plan. It also highlighted opposition from those involved in the president’s retention efforts concerning the efforts’ execution and overall purpose.
December 1, 2015– By the first day of December, nearly a week before the Mountain Echo’s last scheduled publication of the semester, a first draft of the article had been completed. The Echo’s editorial board decided that, in the interest of fairness and balance, the article should be sent to the Office of the President and the Board of Trustees for comment that evening.
Less than 25 minutes after the Echo sent the article, Chairman of the Board of Trustees John E. Coyne III responded in an email directed to the Board and The Mountain Echo’s faculty advisor, Professor Ed Egan. Mr. Coyne wrote that the story was “the product of a disgruntled employee and the creative and destructive imagination of a student being spoon fed his information.”
This assertion is highly inaccurate. The reporter in question spent nearly two weeks verifying the claims made by each source, confirming the timing of events and investigating the issue itself thoroughly. The reporter did so while taking into account the advice of the Echo’s university-appointed faculty advisor and the advice of outside journalists. In short, the reporter’s methods were found by several people to be thorough and exhaustive—highly professional. And by sending this report directly to the Board and President’s Office, the Echo left a clear channel of communication open for both parties to comment.
The Echo practiced fairness by sending this draft before it was published. Mr. Coyne responded, initially, by shooting the messenger.
December 2, 2015– Perhaps not coincidentally, at 9:12 PM of the next day, Provost David Rehm sent an email to the entire campus community titled “fairness and civility”. I will not reiterate the points made in my previous editorial letter written in December. It should be noted, however, that the provost’s email addressed the Echo’s report on faculty and staff healthcare and retirement benefits. The provost’s email was sent over two weeks after that report’s publication (Nov. 18).
December 3, 2015– Having received no direct comment from either the president or board concerning the retention rate story, I once again emailed both parties at 5:13 PM on Dec. 3 with a notice that the Echo had set a deadline on commentary for Friday, Dec. 4 at 12:00 PM.
As explained in a later email sent by myself to Ms. Pauline Engelstätter, Vice President of University Affairs, the deadline was set so that the author of the story would have time to receive timely additional comment, make revisions, and re-confirm with administrative sources while preparing for final exams over the weekend.
At 10:06 PM on Dec. 3, Mr. Egan and I received a lengthy response from Mr. Coyne. Among Mr. Coyne’s objections was that the Echo had “become privy to confidential email communications among faculty a violation of Code of Conduct at the Mount and the ‘fair use’ policy of our electronic email system.” The Echo has published Mr. Coyne’s statement in its entirety on the Echo’s official website.
Mr. Coyne is mistaken. The Mountain Echo consulted with outside journalists as well as the Student Press Law Center (SPLC), a non-profit organization specializing in student journalism law in Washington, DC. An attorney with the SPLC spoke with the Echo over a period of five weeks (after the article’s publication had been delayed) and, offering a response similar to that of outside journalists who viewed the report, concluded that the Echo was operating on solid legal and journalistic ground.
In a Dec. 3 email, Mr. Paul Palmieri, on behalf of President Newman, requested that the author of the story sit down for an interview with the president on Dec. 4. The Mountain Echo denied this request, however, after taking three factors into consideration: a) the feasibility of scheduling such a meeting before the newspaper’s deadline; b) the nature of the response from Mr. Coyne; and c) the professional advice of a third-party journalist. Despite this, the Echo left open the possibility of comment on the situation via email.
The article was originally scheduled to publish on Wednesday, Dec. 9. The Echo delayed the article, and the President’s Office was notified that the article would not be published on the previously planned date.
Given a period of five weeks after Dec. 9 to offer direct comment, the President’s Office has not done so. Instead, on Dec. 22, President Newman took space in an otherwise jovial holiday email to university faculty and staff in order to address the issue of freshman retention rates and other issues in what he termed, “the Mercurial Clairvoyance of the Rumor Mill.”
This remark did not explicitly refer to The Mountain Echo, but I would like to cast away all such allusions regardless. The culling plan report, as I have stated repeatedly in this piece, is based on fact, documentation, and reliable sources, including those who risked their livelihoods and reputations in order to make this information available to you, the reader.
With staff members at home for winter break in various regions of the country coordinating as closely as possible, we have managed to create what we believe to be the best possible version of this story. We hope our readers will weigh all available evidence and enter the upcoming academic year with a renewed commitment to discourse about the state of our university community and the policies by which it is governed.
We at the Echo are proud to produce the Mount’s student newspaper. We will continue to serve the truth, and we aim to continue promoting the excellence of the university we call home.
Managing Editor of The Mountain Echo
Class of 2016