The Struggle for Student Media

A look back at various Vanderbilt Student Publications throughout history which have long been an integral part of sustaining student voices despite facing strong resistance.

Graphic+of+a+megaphone+with+free+speech+rhetoric+coming+out+and+a+black+chainlink+fence+in+the+background.

Graphic depicting megaphone and different protest rhetoric. (Hustler Multimedia/ Vanessa Schor-Guerrero)

Shunnar Virani, Staff Writer

The current Vanderbilt student probably relies on The Hustler as a source of information when they want to verify campus rumors, catch up on dining updates or follow what’s going on in different student organizations and around Nashville. What they might not know, however, is that The Hustler is run by Vanderbilt Student Communications, a non-profit separate from the university. The Hustler separated from the university in 1967, and has thus been provided more journalistic liberty in the years following.

However, along with The Hustler there have been many other student publications in Vanderbilt’s 150-year history.

The Vanderbilt Austral

The journey of Vanderbilt student publications started with The Vanderbilt Austral, Vanderbilt’s first student newspaper. The Austral was a monthly publication, first established in the spring of 1879 by students in the law school (known then as the Law Department).

The paper consisted of Editorial, Communications, Local, Personal, Exchanges, General College News and Excerpta—brief passages on random topics, often literary—sections. The Editorial section provided key insights into student life on campus, with pieces ranging from an explanation of why the staff started the Austral and the general importance of student publications, to commentary on fraternities and social life throughout campus, to logistical information on commencement proceedings.

The Austral only lasted four editions for reasons that were never specified. The fourth edition declared that a new board of editors had been selected for the following school year, but a fifth edition was never published. 

Per the first issue of the Austral, faculty were largely against the establishment of any student publications during this time period. All previous attempts to create papers and magazines had failed, and when the Austral was proposed, the faculty voted unanimously against it. Students in the law school decided to establish the paper anyway, publishing it anonymously and writing about the faculty opposition. Thus, the identities of the students that contributed to the first four editions and the students that were selected to carry on the paper in the next year were never disclosed. 

While a reason was never stated for why the paper did not continue, administrative opposition likely played a part. The Fourth Annual Report of the Chancellor of Vanderbilt University to the Board of Trustees, made on May 28, 1879, demonstrates their disapproval of the Austral.

“It is very demoralizing to students to believe that violations of law may be committed with impunity if they are done in secrecy,” the Chancellor’s statement read in response to students forming the paper despite faculty opposition. “It is of great importance for them to know that the trustees have it in their power to purge out any disorganizing element, although the individuals may be undiscovered.”

The Hustler’s Origins

Eventually student media resisted opposition and was here to stay. The Vanderbilt Hustler was established by undergraduates in 1888 and runs to this day. In 1898, The Hustler was overseen by the Vanderbilt Athletic Association where it remained until 1917, when the Vanderbilt Publications Board took over the role of the supervisor of the Hustler. The idea to establish a Publications Board arose from other Universities establishing them. Thus, Chancellor Kirkland and three professors submitted a plan for the board that was approved by the faculty and Student Council granting the board (which consisted of faculty and student representatives) supervision over student publications.  

In the 1960s, The Hustler became a prominent voice on campus calling for reform given the charged political atmosphere. Administrators and The Board of Trust thus fostered resentment towards The Hustler. In an effort to protect the publication and grant them greater autonomy The Publications Board shifted into a cooperation, independent from the university, in 1967.

Before 1968, the Hustler was published weekly. After 1968, the Hustler became a biweekly paper, with issues coming out every Tuesday and Friday. In 2015 the Hustler shifted from print media to a completely digital format. It currently includes six sections: News, Life, Opinion, Sports, Podcasts and Magazine (The Side Hustle). The Hustler currently remains the longest running student publication at Vanderbilt and the oldest newspaper in Tennessee.

The Austral and Hustler proved that there was a need for free expression within the student body that could only be addressed through student publications.

Student Christian Association Newspaper

SCAN, as photographed October 4, 2022. (Hustler Staff/Shunnar Virani)

Throughout Vanderbilt’s history, identity-based student groups have also created their own publications, in order to express their opinions to the broader Vanderbilt community. One such example is The Student Christian Association Newspaper.

SCAN published actively from 1946-54 and then again from 1960-61. SCAN advertised the Student Christian Association’s service projects and programs, such as their annual musical production of the “SCAmpers,” per the Vanderbilt Student Publications bibliography.

The larger purpose of the SCA was to cultivate its members’ identity as Christians and develop their faith in God. 

“[The SCA’s] purpose is not just an awareness of personal morality, but also a personal relationship with God,” the SCA membership card reads.

Regardless of their greater purpose, the SCA advertised its various initiatives in SCAN. Through these initiatives, SCAN demonstrated the power of student groups and the systematic changes students were able to attain by making their voices heard.

One such initiative was the creation of a Foreign Students Committee. The SCA felt passionate about giving international students opportunities that would help them adapt into a new environment. Through this committee, and by working alongside the Vanderbilt University Student Association, the SCA established an orientation program for international students, per Volume 1 Issue 1 of SCAN. Vanderbilt currently holds an orientation program to help international students get adequately situated into a new environment, although it is no longer affiliated with SCA.

Another one of their initiatives, that was advertised in the newspaper, was mental health work. The SCA firmly believed that students should volunteer at mental health institutes to provide human interaction to patients. Members visited Central State Hospital weekly and organized games, parties and holiday programs for the hospital’s patients. 

“Students are given the opportunity to provide for patients a greatly needed, but seldom provided, type of communication,” issue one of SCAN reads.

Political Publications

Vanderbilt Spectator, as photographed October 4, 2022. (Hustler Staff/Shunnar Virani)

The Vanderbilt Spectator was a short-lived paper, published weekly for six weeks in the summer of 1946. The newspaper took a conservative point of view and covered important events on campus as well as global news. 

“[The Spectator] concerns itself with the events happening in Nashville, in Tennessee, in the United States and in the world,” an editorial in the Spectator’s first issue read.

The Spectator brought a unique power to student voices. In one of their opinion editorials, members of the publication addressed a case involving arrests due to racial bias that lead to wrongful arrests and legal misconduct. 

They also used student media to endorse political candidates. In a one-page advertisement, the staff endorsed Democrat Gordon Browning for governor and Democrat Edward Carmack for the Senate. This practice extended The Spectator’s realm of influence to electoral matters. 

Another paper that often endorsed political candidates was the political paper The Freedom Writer which ran from 1974-76. Vanderbilt’s chapter of Young Americans for Freedom, a conservative organization, published this paper. 

The first issue of the first volume of The Freedom Writer stated their intention to “voice responsible, well-tempered conservative opinions on subjects of interest” to the student body.  it discussed issues such as politics and campus activities, while also endorsing political candidates like Ronald Raegan, Lamar Alexander and Howard Baker for their respective offices.

The Freedom Writer even published an issue (Volume 3 Issue 6) on the day Ronald Reagan declared his candidacy for President. The article was titled “Reagan’s In!!” As the two exclamation points suggest, the article communicated great enthusiasm and joy regarding this announcement, while also containing facts regarding Reagan’s favorability and performance in national polling.

Freedom Writer Volume 3 Issue 6, as photographed October 4, 2022. (Hustler Staff/Shunnar Virani)

Writers presented their views and criticism of national political issues. For example, they stated that then-President Richard Nixon should resign from office, that government intervention in the market economy had caused a national energy crisis and that rationing gas could be considered a crime against the poor. 

They claimed that government intervention in economic matters would soon lead to a totalitarian government. Reflected in these claims and editorials is students’ freedom of expression. The Freedom Writer sought to express opinions of their writers. In this way it also worked as a source of political awareness and education for the general Vanderbilt student body.

Another paper providing opinions on the political atmosphere of its time was The West End Journal. The West End Journal ran from 1972-74, providing analyses of political and philosophical issues.

“We hold that man exists for his own sake and not for the sake of the state, ‘society,’ or any other arbitrary group,” the first issue read.

Administrative Critiques

While expression of political opinions was a big step for student publications at Vanderbilt, an even more radical step was commenting on administrative decisions. The West Face Magazine is an excellent example of such a publication. Started in 1976, West Face never shied away from critiquing people in power.

The staff criticized the Vanderbilt administration for allegedly instituting high tuition costs and low faculty salaries. They further called out inadequate temperature control for summers and winters and the building of fancy parking lots and buildings like the Sarratt Center when students were in a dire need of classrooms and libraries. They blamed the administration for not challenging government regulations protecting sales of alcoholic beverages near classrooms. And they also criticized the administration’s excessive support of Greek life while having an alleged disregard of the rest of the student body.

West Face Magazine’s overall complaint was that students were paying higher fees each year while the quality of campus life remained the same. 

“Perhaps Chancellor Heard should not spend his time fundraising but should spend some energy figuring out ways to use existing funds more efficiently,” West Face, Volume 1 Issue 2 read. 

West Face did not only publish articles about the administration; they also wrote about other topics related to on- and off-campus issues, such as the honor council, the death penalty and even Mao Tse-Tung. 

The Gadfly and The Guardian

The Gadfly was a literary and satirical magazine that ran from 1966-68. Issues featured discussions of campus activities and literary pieces. In an effort to eliminate the Gadfly, Vanderbilt cut subsidies to the paper from the Student Union Board and approved a new magazine, called Pursuit, to replace the Gadfly for unknown reasons.

The Pursuit did eventually replace the Gadfly; however, the Gadfly did their best to last. The Gadfly decided to up their advertisements and subscriptions and continue to publish. Ultimately, the paper did not have the means to continue and shut down after a total of two years. 

The Guardian, published in 1976, was another newspaper that actively discussed administrative problems and their inexcusable attempts to control student publications. The first issue criticized Chancellor Alexander Heard’s alleged attempt to control Vanderbilt Student Communications. Writers also vocalized their support for including students in Vanderbilt Board of Trust meetings. This publication also faced issues from the administration for their critiques of the university.  

The Guardian’s first issue also contained a cartoon depicting a king standing in his castle, saying that everyone must follow the golden rule. When his constituents ask what the golden rule is, he replies, “Whoever has the gold makes the rules.” The cartoon implied the Guardian’s deep frustration with Heard’s abuse of power over VSC.

Per an article published on April 23, 1976 in The Guardian titled “Free the Press,” Chancellor Heard threatened and attempted to limit the power of student publications in many instances.

Guardian cartoon, as photographed October 4, 2022. (Hustler Staff/Shunnar Virani)

“‘The university not only has the power, if it chose to exercise it, to change the composition and selection process of the Board of Directors [of VSC], but also to abolish the board entirely,’” Heard said in a memorandum on April 19, 1976, per The Guardian.

The Guardian not only harshly attacked Heard, but also highlighted student struggles for the right to expression across campus. In the same article, the publication mentioned that Heard’s speech motivated protests from many different student groups across campus. According to the Guardian, Kurt Schmalz, then-Editor of the Hustler, immediately resigned after hearing the speech.

“The future of student communications is not bright at Vanderbilt,” Schmalz’s final editorial in the Hustler read. “Challenging the Editors and Station Manager to either accept the watered down shell of editorial freedom, now being offered on campus, or pack up and find freedom elsewhere.”

In this sense, the publication lived up to its name by acting as a guardian of Vanderbilt student voices.

Modern publications

Today, VSC continues its long legacy of giving students the power to express their voices freely through a wide variety of student publications and media, including the Hustler.

The Slant is a student publication that produces humorous and satirical content. While the history of the Slant dates back to 1886, it was granted associate division status in the spring of 2000 by the VSC Board of Directors. 

Publications that cover Vanderbilt student life include  My Commons Life, which releases news and media regarding first-year life on the Ingram Commons, and My Vanderbilt Life, another student media group that releases student-produced media about general undergraduate life at Vanderbilt. VSC also oversees the Commodore Yearbook, a yearbook for Vanderbilt students.

VSC also sponsors journals and magazines of various subject matters. These include Synesis, a publication from a Christian perspective, The Vanderbilt Review, a literary journal, Vanderbilt Business Review, a business journal, Vanderbilt Lives, a publication of creative nonfiction pieces and Vanderbilt Political Review, a nonpartisan political journal. 

Other media under VSC includes Vanderbilt Vanguard, a STEM newspaper, Vanderbilt Video Productions, a publication producing visual media, VandyFlix, a group that publishes student-created films, VandyRadio, a campus radio service, WRVU, a radio streaming service for students and Vanderbilt Recording Studio, a student-run recording studio. 

While Vanderbilt student media has come a long way in its relationship with the administration and its ability to exist as an independent entity, communication issues continue to challenge student reporters. In 2020, The Hustler’s editorial board sat down and wrote an editorial titled “Vanderbilt, Talk to Us. Please,” that urged more open communication from administrators. Editors were frustrated by their lack of access to university officials, stating that they received constant referrals to the communications department when seeking timely answers about reporting questions. 

“Consistent disregard for transparency from the university’s administration is preventing us from doing our job as a student newspaper,” the editorial reads.

This modern-day editorial once again demonstrates the importance of student media in holding administrators accountable. From the founders of the Astral to staffers across VSC publications today, students have constantly been working to make their voices heard—then and now.