The Vanderbilt Student Communications newsroom is located in the downstairs of Sarratt Center, near the Vanderbilt Recording Studio, VandyRadio and WRVU. (Emily Gonçalves)
The Vanderbilt Student Communications newsroom is located in the downstairs of Sarratt Center, near the Vanderbilt Recording Studio, VandyRadio and WRVU.

Emily Gonçalves

STAFF EDITORIAL: Vanderbilt, talk to us. Please.

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

April 11, 2020

On March 9, a Vanderbilt student returning from a spring break visit to Spain tested positive for COVID-19. Hustler editors went to the Dean of Students office for information on the university’s response from Deputy Dean of Students G.L. Black, a point person for Vanderbilt’s coronavirus response. We were told to reach out to Black via email instead. A communications staff member responded to our email to Black, saying he would get back to us. Our questions were never answered, and the next we heard from communications staff was an email with a link to the official news that in-person classes were suspended.

As the student newspaper, it is our mission to provide objective news to the Vanderbilt community. In covering the COVID-19 outbreak on campus, we’ve tried to provide transparency to cut through the chaos. Unfortunately, this crisis has served to highlight an uncomfortable new reality: Vanderbilt, through obfuscation, vague communication and sometimes outright stonewalling, has made journalism tougher than it needs to be.

In reporting on the university and its operations, it’s critical for us to talk to Vanderbilt administrators and staff—the people calling the shots. However, The Hustler has seen a significant drop-off in direct access to university officials. Former Hustler editorial boards have been privy to direct access with administration (which, for a time, even included weekly meetings with the Chancellor). Administrators who were receptive to The Hustler as recently as the beginning of this academic year have begun referring us to the university communications team.

To walk you through some of the instances we are referring to, let’s go back to our story on legacy admissions. We initially were able to schedule a Nov. 13 in-person interview with Dean of Admissions Douglas Christiansen. However, on Nov. 11, we received an email from a communications employee stating that the interview would not be able to happen. Instead, we were instructed to send our questions over email. The eventual response from the communications staff, attributable to the Dean, failed to address several of our questions.

Fast forward to February; we were working on COVID-19 coverage. On Feb. 3, an email to Dean of Students Mark Bandas, a figure formerly regularly available to The Hustler, requesting an interview was rerouted to communications. We were never able to speak to Bandas for the story.

Later in February, Senior Director of Housing Operations Jim Kramka, another official who we had interviewed earlier in the year, denied us an interview about how the university would balance safety concerns regarding housing students in the under-construction Nicholas S. Zeppos residential college. 

“My understanding is that The Hustler is supposed to work with Vanderbilt’s office of communications when seeking information about the University,” his email said.

On March 16, we emailed the Director of the Student Health Center Dr. Louise Hanson, who we had previously interviewed for our coronavirus coverage. We sent a list of questions regarding COVID-19 testing at student health. In response to our emailed questions, we received a short statement from a communications staff member. None of our questions were addressed in the statement; we also were told to stop sending emails to Hanson and to directly email communications staff, a reminder we’d receive numerous times in the coming weeks as we attempted to bring clarity about the impacts of coronavirus. 

And finally, on April 5, we reached out to Dean of Blair School of Music Mark Wait to check in on the transition to online learning for his school. We were rerouted to the communications team, and after we requested a time to talk on the phone with the communications staff member, we were ignored.

This is a small sample of instances reflecting a larger trend: Vanderbilt keeps rejecting us. More than hurting our feelings, it prevents us from informing you—the student body, faculty, staff, parents and alumni alike—about what you need to know to make safe and informed choices. If this pattern continues, the Vanderbilt community will no longer have unfiltered information on important stories like Ph.D. program cuts, the spread of the coronavirus or the removal of the Stevenson greenhouse.

The Hustler reached out to the Student Press Law Center (SPLC), an organization that works to protect press rights for student journalists, for guidance on the situation. “There is a precedent for reigning in full-blown gag orders like this at a public university—but Vandy gets to play by different rules,” Mike Hiestand, Senior Legal Counsel at the SPLC, said to The Hustler. 

In February, we reached out to communications staff to set up a meeting to discuss this issue. After following up on this request for a meeting on March 17, we were told that they would get it on the calendar and that “the meeting is still a priority for us.” We never had that meeting.

As this year comes to a close, it’s too late for this staff to start seeing things turn around in regard to our relationship with administration and transparency from the university. We’re asking university leadership to rethink their decision to close their doors on us and let us do our job.

View Comments (24)
24

Comments (24)

The Vanderbilt Hustler welcomes and encourages readers to engage with content and express opinions through the comments section on our website and social media platforms. However, The Hustler reserves the right to remove comments that violate the outlined policy. Comments which contain vulgarity, hate speech, personal attacks or appear to be spam or commercial promotion will be blocked or removed by The Hustler. The comments section, both on the website and social media, is moderated by the Editor in Chief.
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D
2 years ago

all institutions are vulnerable to misguided staff and leadership. Vanderbilt seems to be suffering from a lack of judgment lately. Perhaps it needs a chancellor who graduated from Vandy in the 70s or 80s?

C
Chris Fletcher
2 years ago

One professional VU individual stands above all others, known or unknown. An extraordinary teacher with a burning curiosity for evermore learning, a deep sense of patriotism, and an enduring commitment to any students, or alumni, fortunate to have shared part of their college experience with him. A recent article in my alma mater’s Law Review was provocative : “In loco parentis has moved from being primarily a right of restraint and coercion used to discipline students to being a duty of school officials to protect those same students. School personnel have authority over students by virtue of in loco parentis and a concomitant duty to protect those students.”

Tim Corbin is our head baseball coach. His graduates do not fret about misspent donations: they remember why they are the exceptional human beings Coach Corbin (and his wife) have helped them to become and give back to the source of their good fortune. Not balls and strikes, not ERA or home runs; concerned citizens to lead us in the future. Recognized not only by his players, but elected as President of the American Baseball Coaches Association by his peers. He also manages to coach his way to a few victories along the way.

Watching Dr. Mark Emmert, the president of a 14 billion dollar a year enterprise entitled the NCAA testify before Congress pleading for more years of the status quo on the name – likeness – image debacle, it was on something much simpler when he demonstrated tone deafness beyond all understanding. Male college basketball players are now permitted to use licensed sports agents as advisors before entering the NBA draft, and if they then do not declare eligible for the draft and if no money can be proven to change hands said students may retain their amateur status and return to college.

After 30 minutes of vacuous nonsense, one of the female legislators asked Dr. Emmert to please explain why the benefit of sports agent advisors remained prohibited for women college athletes, which she followed in machine gun staccato speech with a question as to his familiarity with any section of law that comes after Title VIII.

Once a clear view of the moral compass is lost, the future becomes perilous if left in the same hands. Politics, business, education, sports, and interpersonal relations all demand knowledge of which way is true north. And an unwavering determination to tread the road less travelled.

A
Anon Vandy Student '22
2 years ago

As a current student at Vanderbilt, I am disgusted. This is not the Vandy experience I was promised. Every student has a different experience but all of them should expect transparency and engagement from faculty for the amount of money we have to shell out. My family and I only had a day to drive back to my dorm and pack up after they emailed us just to get a partial refund for living there. They don’t tell us anything unless they’re worried about their money. Yet they push their happiness tests on us and we all know that we’re supposed to say we’re happy even if we aren’t because that’s what the university wants us to say. It’s easy to forget at Vanderbilt that the onus is not on us alone to make Vanderbilt a good university, but that’s how the administration make us feel. Alumni, please, hold onto your money. It isn’t going to the right people. When you’re concerned about putting your name to a comment that addresses the issues with your own university, something is wrong.

S
Steve
2 years ago

This is terrible to read as a parent of a student attending the university. I’d really like to know what’s going on at a place my child spends four years of their life. In my opinion, it does not, as some have suggested, have so much to do with politics as it does with the increasingly “cover your ass” culture we live in. No one wants to take responsibility for anything and they, in many ways, correctly, fear for their jobs if they speak truth or share their opinion. So it’s fear of retribution as well as the seeming spinelessness of those delivering the retribution as opposed to their supporting those who they’ve chosen to work for and represent the university. And really, it’s just a university. What could possibly be so dire that a university would rather have it remain covered up? Oh wait…

C
Cathy 2011
2 years ago

Having graduated and work at university for a while this is what you see when people are afraid for their jobs. They shut down and protect themselves and their jobs. The same thing happened when Gee came it. Everyone crawled in their hole and did not draw attention to themselves. Vandy has a lot to hide. Age Discrimination is showing it ugly head in all department and long time employees are being forced out to hire younger employees. It makes me sick and ashamed that this my school. I would not look to new Chancellor but more go Wente and her staff. They will be ones shutting down communications. If you really want to get their attention. Fight against Residential Colleges. They are sucking the alumni dry for this. Contact Board of Trust. Express your feelings and make sure to send what you printed is sent to the new chancellor and every member of Board. Cut the money for Residential colleges and then you will get their attention. They know when new Chancellor gets to campus all administrators have a target on their back that is not any good reason to shut off information. Best of luck

A
Alex Korsunsky
2 years ago

As a 5th year PhD student, I can say that grad students have had to deal with this attitude from admins throughout my time on campus. In the removal of the grad student carrels from Buttrick (to be replaced by – what else – expanded admin offices) in the big overhaul of mental health services a few years back, and in other situations big and small there’s a consistent pattern: 1) admins make a decision, 2) news of the decision leaks out in rumor but is never properly announced or fully explained, 3) Grad Workers United (the grad student union organizing committee) starts making a bunch of noise, 4) admins announce that they’re deeply committed to transparency and set up a sham process to get input, 5) they eventually ghost the grad student reps, stop answering emails, and just do what they were going to do anyways.

It’s disrespectful, wastes everybody’s time (we just want to do our reading and not have to get jerked around by overpaid sub-deans!), and leads to a lot of stupid decisions being made. Admins think they own the place and forget that they’re here to serve students and faculty.

M
Mike
2 years ago

Take a look at Vanderbilts
endowment fund as of 2019

Ask yourself why Administration would chose this moment to financially capture revenue from their students and families who could use this money during the covid crisis, while this much much larger pile of resources remains untouched

What is an endowment for but to protect and perpetuate the mission of this university ?

Buildings and projects in the future are more important the current students and their financial plight

Pro rate all the students.

It’s the right thing to do

T
Tristan Irvin
2 years ago

It’s things like this that make me never want to donate to this university. I’ll be working on convincing all of my fellow alum friends to do the same if things don’t change. Vanderbilt does not deserve our money; it’s not a question of pandemic response and feeling sorry about moving classes online, it’s a question about the lack of accountability in administration and systemically wrong ways that they treat their students.

Alum can help make a change by stopping donations to the university. I know I will.

G
Geoffrey hicks
2 years ago

Why are you surprised???

Read in Wikepedia how Vandy handled the payback of $50,000 in 2,500 us Double Eagle Gold coins worth then $20 each given to name a building Confederate Memorial Hall when the name caused PC problems. At the time of payback the 2,500 coins in standard condition were each worth between $1,500 to $2,000 or $3,750,000 to $5,000,000.

Vandy paid $1,200,000. Go figure.

D
Dale Pacetti
2 years ago

Assuming that the instances described are not isolated and, instead, representative of the current climate and policy, I am sad and disappointed. As editor of my high school newspaper, I was strongly encouraged to discover and report the truth even when it was uncomfortable to do so. At Vanderbilt in the 1970s, professors were not always as encouraging at discovering truth as my HS teachers had been– particularly when subjective viewpoints challenged their own. But, Chancellor Heard made truth, transparency, and open access to administration a hallmark of his tenure–even when it was uncomfortable and even when it meant that impressionable minds might hear viewpoints that challenged (in either direction) the mainstream liberalism of 1970s academia.

I suspect that this move to funnel all communication through a central group is born out of fear (of being contradicted, reprimanded, overruled, or even sued) and uncertainty. But, that doesn’t make it right…and certainly not transparent.

I had to chuckle about the overtly (and IMHO decidedly wrong) political comment above that begins by asking commenters to leave politics out of this discussion. Leaving politics out of any discussion these days is extremely difficult to do. I am now, and have always been, a conservative. Sadly, this term has lately become synonymous with hypocrisy, constantly shifting statements, torturing of facts and statistics, and a general avoidance of truth. Liberalism, similarly, has often– and for a longer time–turned a blind eye to truth through its embrace of political correctness and wishful thinking. Truth, regardless of ideological persuasion, still exists, and we should always seek it out. To that end, I applaud the current Hustler staff and wish future staff better access in the coming years.

J
Joe Murray
2 years ago

This is not the same University I remember with great pride. I have watched with great sadness it’s metamorphosis into just another politically correct campus bastion of left wing liberalism.

B
Bill Hurst
2 years ago

I applaud your efforts to do your job and I am concerned (maybe outraged is actually the more appropriate term) by the administration’s reactions. I am a proud alum of the Divinity School, but I am not proud today! I hope the students will stick together and continue to push!

T
Todd Smith
2 years ago

I want to thank Vanderbilt for putting their Coronavirus Testing Station in the middle of my residential neighborhood, 300 feet from my house in their Life Flight building at the corner of Dayton and Glenrose. Wouldn’t want it by your campus or your neighborhood. Also,, thank you for letting us know by following the trail of masks and gloves on my street. I cannot wait to get my next notification that you want me to donate. Great folks you are!

M
Mary Smith
2 years ago

It’s not just one case….slot of employees that can work from home are made to come to work!!!!!

F
Frank Menefee
2 years ago

It is simple. Liberal university. Liberal control. No more money!

T
Tj
2 years ago

Vanderbilt has a truly terrible and despicable transparency policy where they claim to be transparent, offer the best financial aid, and have the happiest students. Their “transparency” is reminiscent of muddy water (not at all). Their financial aid office turns students away and instead of helping, advisors are “advising” students to be “grateful for what they did get,” further stigmatizing FGLI students like myself. I don’t know who they interviewed for having the happiest students but I think it’s appropriate for me to reiterate, I, and the hundreds of my peers in our FGLI and multicultural GroupMe’s are not happy.

A
Andy Rayburn
2 years ago

This story compounds a very troubling pattern being set by the new Chancellor, Daniel Diermeier, and I’m very disappointed as an alum in the direction the school is heading at this juncture in history. This is in addition to a previous article I read about Vanderbilt requiring students to take summer courses only at Vanderbilt, thus putting much more financial strain on these students during an already EXTREMELY stressful and unprecedented time in our world history. Transparency, faculty openness, and student-faculty synergies were never a problem when I attended the school, and never seemed to be an issue under Nicholas Zeppos’ watch, and I hope when students do return to school they can band together and demand that Diermeier explains why these two big changes have taken place (i.e. the lack of transparency with school faculty and nixing the ability to take classes elsewhere during the summer–and probably year round if they have their way).

And, for the individual above (Bill Livingston) who said this censoring behavior that’s apparently taking place right now at Vanderbilt is “Trump stuff”, please leave politics out of this. That diverts from the main focus of this article, it’s totally untrue (because the opposite is actually happening to Trump right now with the left-wing media trying to trip up Trump or censor him at literally every turn–even during a pandemic), and it makes Vanderbilt appear to be just like many of the other unapologetic liberal hot head universities across the country (and that was never my experience while attending the school in the 2000s).

Keep up the good fight, all ye Vanderbilt Hustler writers!!! The truth shall set you free.

T
Thomas Huynh
2 years ago

Courage during trying times in history wasn’t easy. And we are starting to see why it wasn’t easy in the present.

W
WILLIAM R BENDEL
2 years ago

What do you expect from a left wing liberal institution.

J
Jennifer Ogilvie
2 years ago

This saddens me deeply to read. As a former editor-in-chief who had a great working relationship with one of two Chancellors during my time at Vanderbilt, I am saddened to hear of the lack of direct and open communication between the independent student newspaper and university administration. Thank you for your reporting.

T
Trey Tompkins
2 years ago

The good news is that you are getting a pretty accurate sneak peak as to how you the administration will value you throughout your time as an alum. Keep sending checks and quit asking questions.

B
Bill Livingston
2 years ago

There is a reason I put the part of the First Amendment that pertains to freedom of the press on my Facebook page. It is an essential part of a democracy.
I was able to attend Vanderbilt in the 1960s only because of the Grantland Rice Scholarship. It changed my life I enjoy every day the benefits of the world-class education I received.
I am ashamed of my school for trying to smother reaction to legitimate inquiries by aspiring journalists. That’s Trump stuff. I can think of no worse slur on my school.

H
Henry Hecht (former Hustler Sports Editor)
2 years ago

Shame on Vanderbilt. It’s appalling in the extreme.

Makes me re-think my yearly donations to the school

E
Emily Hugan
2 years ago

It needed to be said and I applaud the Hustler.