Remembering Jack Simms

img_0061In the summer of 2003, I was on a weekend visit to Auburn, preparing to move down and join the faculty.

Trapped in Comer Hall parking lot by a thunderstorm, I called Jack Simms.  As we talked, I told him, “Jack, my goal in coming to Auburn is to be to my students what you were to us.”

That would be a huge challenge, because of what Jack meant to Auburn journalism and its students over his 18 years as department head and the years that followed.

For those of us privileged to be his students, he was the ideal professor, mentor and friend, and he made sure that the faculty members he brought on used the same approach.

Jack’s first year was my freshman year, so I benefited from his classroom instruction and his mentorship as I worked on The Auburn Plainsman.  But it meant even more, these past 13 years, to be his friend.

As we Auburn journalism majors graduated, and so many of us went on to distinguished careers and syndicated columns and front pages and Pulitzer Prizes, Jack was our most treasured cheerleader.

Yet he never talked about himself much.  We had heard about Iwo Jima, but it wasn’t until he showed me an unpublished manuscript within the past few months that I realized what he had experienced.  The manuscript refers to a point during the battle where Jack and a fellow Marine had gotten separated from their company, the result of poor communication.  Amidst the smoke, grenades, mortars and rifles, they still managed to rejoin their company, and he survived.

In class, he never mentioned how, as an AP reporter in Tampa, he talked himself aboard a rescue ship that was heading toward the site of a private yacht fire in which young people from several prominent New York families died.  Or how he also got aboard the ship that had picked up the survivors and interviewed them.  Or how he tossed his film from the ship to a co-worker standing on the dock after the rescue ship returned, dodging quarantine rules.  This was heroic journalistic stuff.

Having returned to Auburn, I got to spend time with Jack, whether at our Friday morning breakfast group or at various journalism gatherings.  If we had driven together to Birmingham or Atlanta for an alumni meeting, it meant sitting patiently (often with his wife, Jo), waiting while he talked individually to each student.  They meant that much to each other.

His decline was noticeable and worrisome over the past few months, but it had its moments.

The first was his 90th birthday party, moved up to October to take advantage of the bye week.  (That’s where the picture above was taken.)  So many showed up, and Jack’s family did a great job of roasting him but also telling stories like the one above. And again he took the time to greet each guest and friend who approached.

The second was just three days ago, when Jack was brought to the field for the military appreciation halftime show.  He had told me earlier in the week that he didn’t know if he could make it, but he did, and accepted the crowd’s grateful cheers. And he still looked so darn rugged.

Those two, combined, would turn out to be our last chance to say goodbye to Jack.  We suspected as much, but it still made us glad and grateful that we were able to.

And now the torch has completely passed to those of us who learned from Jack.  Each of us fulfills his legacy in our own way — myself as director of the journalism program.

Intimidating?  A little, but not too much.  By his teaching, and by the example of his life, Jack prepared us well.

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.