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.