The Secret to Avoiding a Mess? No Secrets

The announcement of a new structure for Auburn’s student media has created an outcry, particularly among staff and readers, current and former, of The Auburn Plainsman student newspaper.

Rather than talk this through 140 characters at a time, I’ll address the situation through my blog.  It’s not sports, but as a former Plainsman editor (1977-78), it’s close to my heart.

Two broad points to make: 1) The new plan is not a disastrous structure for The Plainsman or any student medium. 2) The Division of Student Affairs should have been more open and inclusive in the process that arrived at this new structure.

First point.  Auburn student media should be merged under one umbrella.  It has been talked about for years, even before an external review recommended it in 2010.

Universities across the country organized student media this way.  It recognizes the media’s move toward multi-platform reporting, it unifies advertising sales strategies, it eliminates redundancy of role, and it has the potential to save equipment money and better utilize office space.

That all student media would be under Student Affairs authority is again, neither unique nor dangerous.  Student media operate under a variety of administrative situations: student affairs, journalism academic units and (probably the worst) a university’s public relations office.  Some are totally independent and operate off-campus.

My one strong recommendation for Auburn’s structure, however, is that the four advisers to be hired (editorial, broadcast, technical and sales) not all report to the Office of Communication and Marketing within the Division of Student Affairs.  That creates an inefficient horizontal organizational structure and concentrates authority in the wrong position.

I strongly recommend that one of the four advisers be designated the director of student media, with day-to-day authority over his/her specific area, and be placed directly under the vice president for student affairs, Dr. Bobby Woodard.

Nothing against anyone who works under Dr. Woodard, but Student Media needs its own strong voice and it needs to be someone who works on the Student Center first floor, with student media.  That would give all student media the leadership and protection it needs and deserves.

Now, on to point 2.  The way this restructure was devised and planned was as bad as everyone is saying it is.  That Student Affairs devised it with no input from the students involved created the majority of the problems you see here.

Woodard claimed that the students were excluded because it involved private personnel decisions.  But students have served on personnel search committees in the past, and have observed the confidentiality of the situation.  I believe that Student Affairs, ironically, sold students short in this process.

But why not take it further? Why not openly discuss and devise this new structure?  Why all the secrecy anyway?  It always mystifies me that universities, with all of their theories of academic freedom and open discussion, revert to secrecy in practice, whenever an important decision looms.

I realize that personnel changes would occur, and that individuals could face drastic job changes.  These people are my friends too, and I respect what they bring to their work.  But as we’ve seen, the pain created was only made worse by the process used.

I honestly feel that the Division of Student Affairs leadership, including Dr. Woodard, owes the students an apology because of the mess that their approach created.  They can pledge more openness in the future, but whether they follow through on that pledge remains to be seen.

If the Division of Student Affairs claims to have such faith in the quality of students at Auburn, and such a commitment to their growth, maybe they should demonstrate it by including them in such important decisions.  It is counter-intuitive that they chose not to, in this case.

In closing, I recognize that Auburn student media will survive this, and with wise personnel decisions for the four advisers (including student participation in the search process), I think that all of the projects — The Plainsman, the Glom, Eagle Eye, WEGL and the Circle — will turn out the better for it.  And some loyalty toward the people who have served these projects faithfully is definitely appropriate and honorable.

As a result, all of the students who participate, whether School of Communication and Journalism majors or not, will have an experience that will help them, whatever profession they enter.

Update, April 3, 6:20 p.m.: I have accepted an offer to serve on the search committee for the editorial student media adviser.  I have been assured that students will serve on all search committees.  I would not have accepted if that were not the case.

But for goodness sake, Student Affairs: If you’re going to continue to oversee any kind of media project, do it in a way that respects the openness that the First Amendment protects, and under which our students will learn and work best.

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