Opinion: I’ve seen this movie before, and it’s up to us townsfolk to write the ending

Lee Watters

 

I have to give UNF President John Delaney props. Our archetypal Southern politician with a prosecutor’s pedigree and a gift for glad-handing benefactors who happily write checks to UNF is very good at what he does. Very good. William Faulkner would be impressed. And in the finest Southern political tradition, the former Jacksonville mayor has surrounded himself with a handful of cronies plucked out of city government for their very specific skill sets. Nicely played, sir. Seriously.

I also have to commend Joanna Norris and Sharon Ashton, UNF’s good cop-bad cop public relations duo. They have quickly and quietly consolidated sole power to grant media access to virtually anyone on UNF’s faculty and staff, who unexpectedly seem afraid to utter a word without PR’s blessing.

Never mind that stifling communication is not fair to the student body and UNF community.

In addition, Ashton and Norris have perfected the art of both shouting and whispering different sides of carefully-planned and packaged messaging designed to Photoshop a Utopian UNF that simply does not exist. We’re not an ivy-covered, deeply-revered destination institution with a tradition-laden campus life.

We’re a competent Kudzu-wrapped commuter college with several exceptional programs, and copious geese. We have a Student Government that deals in succession by high-five because no one else is interested enough to run for office. We have a campus with no epicenter, a broken aquatic center pool, and an unstable stadium built on marshland. And by my estimation, only a third of the 16,000-member student body is actively engaged in student life: members of Student Government and Greek life, freshmen who have to live on campus, Spinnaker Media folks, and students active in clubs and the international community. The rest of us head home to our lives right after class. But I digress.

I’ve been in journalism and in the business world for 35 years. I’ve seen, committed, and exposed virtually every kind of obfuscation and misdirection possible – as a journalist, a PR pro, a screenwriter, a pop culture editor for major internet portals, and as a rabid consumer of media.

Folks, I’ve seen this movie before. The ending depends on whether the townsfolk (that’s all of us who pay tuition to be here) are willing to rise up against the Boss Hogg/Mr. Potter/political boss character and his henchpeople. If the townsfolk go blindly on their way, they become Stepford Wives, mindlessly agreeing to whatever their husbands decide and desire. I apologize for mixing movie metaphors, but stay with me.

This is gut-check time for the UNF student body.

You may not have noticed, but there’s been a frightening and foreboding shift in the past two months to an Us-versus-Them mentality by UNF administration. Both Spinnaker Media and the tuition-paying student body have become something to be feared and controlled by limited or no messaging. I am a grad student, so I pay about $500 a credit hour to be here. You know what you or your parents pay. So you have every right to join me in shouting: “Hey, administration, you work for us. NOT the other way around!”

What brought on this rant? For most of its history, Spinnaker could pretty much contact any campus source directly for comments, background, or other information for stories. We would call UPD for police matters. Conduct for conduct matters. Athletics for athletic stories. Health Services for student health trends. We developed beats, nurtured contacts, and relationships, and brought you the information you wanted.

That all changed last month, after the Sigma Chi fraternity came to the attention of Student Conduct. JSO was called to a Sigma Chi-sponsored party off campus, where the frat has admitted they provided alcohol to minors. There were also public-record allegations of a sexual assault that was never verified.

Spinnaker received an anonymous tip about the bust via a Post-It note complete with JSO case number stuck to my Spinnaker office door. Spinnaker Content Chief Jacob Rodriguez and his staff diligently pursued the story and made an official records request on June 17 for all documents pertaining to the case. They received a heavily-redacted copy of the Student Conduct report about the incident.

As they dug further, all roads detoured Spinnaker staff back to University PR. UPD couldn’t talk to us. Student Conduct couldn’t talk to us. It was days before we could get to the only person PR allowed to speak with us about the incident.

Who was the lone spokesperson? Wait for it… President Delaney.

Really? The incredibly busy president of a state university is the only authorized source for a story about an out-of-control frat party? About a common occurrence on most campuses? About a fairly normal part of the college experience? Apparently he is, so reporter Alex Wilson sat down with him on June 20 for a lengthy videotaped interview about the case. At that moment in time, no official decisions had been made about disciplinary action against Sigma Chi. In fact, sources on the Sigma Chi side of the investigation said they expected sanctions to be handed down on June 26.

Fast forward to this week. UNF sanctioned Sigma Chi, and Reporter Saphara Harrell began the arduous process of trying to talk to someone in administration to update the story to include the sanctions. PR maven Norris agreed to put Harrell in touch with UNF Conduct Officer Andrea Adams-Manning. But then, in a whiplash move, Norris sent Harrell the following email on Tuesday: “I forgot that the Spinnaker recently interviewed President Delaney about Sigma Chi and had the opportunity to get all your questions answered at that time, so I think at this point, UNF is done commenting on this issue, which is why we had the Spinnaker sit down with one person to answer all your questions. Let me know if you need me to set you up for any other stories in the future and thanks for understanding!”

Understanding what? That university administration believes that our on-campus media outlet gets one interview about a topic? Period? And that if something significant – like sanctions against a fraternity – happens after that interview and requires follow up, the proper UNF PR response is “too bad, so sad?” I guess we should have traveled ahead in time to find out what would happen to Sigma Chi, and asked Delaney about the sanctions before they were made. We’ll get the physics department right on that time travel thing to keep you informed and UNF PR happy.

Spinnaker emailed Norris again yesterday about talking to someone and received the same response – but this time from Ashton. Her contention was that Wilson should have asked Delaney about the sanctions in his June 20 interview. If you’ve been following along, you can see that the laws of space and time made that impossible. There were no official sanctions on June 20, and Spinnaker did not receive any document about sanctions in our June 17 records request. And as a bonus, the UNF official who would have to sign off on those sanctions had not yet returned from an overseas trip when Wilson was interviewing Delaney on June 20.

This is not the first time Spinnaker has fought with the administration while trying to do our job for you this semester, but that’s for another story. Let’s just say that at one point, we had to get the State Attorney’s office involved to get you the information you deserve and have every right to have.

Here’s the bottom line: You are not being served by the high-ranking folks whose first-rate salaries and eventual pensions are paid by your tuition and fees. They have decided to claim to know what’s best for you to know in a “These are not the Droids you’re looking for” style. The administration’s modus operandi is to stymie any investigation into or illumination of anything going on behind the scenes that might tarnish the idyll. The idyll that doesn’t exist in the first place.

The new normal is to bottleneck all media requests through Ashton and Norris, who ignore them or play games with the requests – and with time and space – hoping our interest and yours will die from sheer exhaustion. We at Spinnaker don’t brave this PR gantlet to amuse ourselves. We do it to inform, educate, and entertain you all. That’s what news organizations do. I did my undergrad in the 1970s, just after the turbulent 1960s, when people like you took to the streets to demand answers. I reported, edited, and published community newspapers in a series of small Kentucky, Missouri, and Tennessee towns with Delaney-esque mayors or county judges, and the deputies who do their dirty work. I also taught news writing at one of the South’s top journalism schools.

Back then, we didn’t take “no” for an answer. We didn’t meekly wander off when someone in power said, “We are the Mighty Oz – now go away until we deign to throw you a few crumbs.” We had no problem with pissing people off, speaking truth to power, or even risking arrest. We demanded accountability. If we didn’t get them, we kept pounding on the door until someone had to respond in complete sentences and coherent thoughts. Not with “So I think at this point, UNF is done commenting on this issue.” No. We are UNF, too, and we say you’re not done.

Thankfully, that persistence and doggedness hasn’t changed in journalism land, although so much else has. Spinnaker carries on the time-honored journalistic tradition and obligation of being relentless in the pursuit of truth because you – us – the UNF community deserve answers. But it is up to all of us to tell administration that this kind of bottlenecking behavior and lack of transparency is simply not acceptable. If Delany et al won’t talk about Sigma Chi’s punishment, what else are they hiding from you?

Spinnaker and UNF have sparred many times over the years. But this new Delaney/Ashton/Norris “We’ll decide what you need to know and believe” beast is one that must be defanged now for the sake of all of us who pay tuition to this fine institution. Silence is the perfect cover for bad behavior. For ignoring the will of the people and making undesirable choices on our behalf.

It’s time to take to the streets, figuratively and literally. It is time for all of us to give a damn about what’s happening with our tuition dollars. It is time to demand the transparency, responsiveness, and accountability – that is our right.

 

Lee Watters is Managing Editor – Digital for Spinnaker Media, and is a graduate student in UNF’s Clinical Mental Health Counseling program. He will graduate in August 2015.