Committee Bars Q&A Coverage for Dean’s Search

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

The second candidate for Dean of Students will be speaking at Swarthmore tonight. We encourage you to attend, because you will not be able to read our coverage of the event.

The administration has forbidden the student press, including the Gazette and the Phoenix, from reporting on the candidates for Dean of Student’s chats with students. Their decision denies those students who will not be able to attend tomorrow night’s event any chance at having a say in, or having a clear idea of, which Dean they would like to represent them. We are writing this piece to register our profound disappointment at the administration’s decision, to demonstrate our disagreement with the logic of their position, and to explain to our readers why we have decided to honor the request in the first place.

The Dean’s Search Committee contacted the Gazette (and the Phoenix) over winter break to discuss coverage of the candidates’ visits. The Gazette immediately worked to negotiate an agreement with the Search Committee in order to allow for reporting. For most events, the Gazette simply reports without regards to the administrators’ preference. But the Dean’s search was slightly different. The administration was making an attempt to provide transparency by allowing students to converse with potential Deans, and there were good reasons for the Gazette to approach on the issue with caution. Some of the candidates had not made their candidacy public at their home institution, and it would certainly be unfair if, by reporting on the event, the Gazette jeopardized any of these candidate’s jobs. Further, the administration was worried that later candidates might gain an advantage over earlier ones by reading press reports, and, presumably, learning more about the ins and outs of the process, and the types of the things the Swarthmore student body liked to hear. Luckily, the Gazette and the administration came to a seemingly satisfactory solution to the problem: we would report on the event, but restrict access to the article to anyone on Swarthmore’s network or who had registered an account with a verified Swarthmore e-mail address, as well as closing comments.

Then, we screwed it up. In a stupid error of miscommunication, the Gazette published the article while neglecting to restrict access to the article headline. Thus, the article’s headline, which unfortunately included the name of the first candidate, her home institution, and the position she was trying for, was picked up on Google and potentially broadcast to all, though the actual content of the article was still off-limits. One of the candidate’s colleagues discovered the glitch; as soon as we heard of it, we removed the article and took the headline off of Google as soon as possible. The Gazette issued a sincere apology to the candidate and the administration, corrected the problem to ensure that it would never happen again, and planned on continuing to report on the candidate meetings.

But this time, the administration said no. This would perhaps be understandable given that a mistake was made the first time, but the administration went out of its way to assure us that our blunder had nothing to do with their decision to deny us access to the events. There is good reason to believe the administration on the matter, as the administration has also forbid the Phoenix from reporting on the Dean’s search, even though the Phoenix promised to only publish their article on the Dean’s search in its print version, eliminating the danger that a glitch could intervene and the Internet at large could pick up any part of the article.

Instead, the administration gave a host of different reasons why it was in nobody’s best interest to have the press attend the event. These will be briefly summarized and rebutted. (We feel that it is appropriate to do so because although the meeting in question was limited to a representative from the Search Committee and editors from both the Gazette and the Phoenix, its official decisions resulted in a public action which has significant effects on the student body; furthermore, the arguments are not related to the — very small — amount of private information revealed in that meeting explicitly asked to be held confidential.)

The administration argued that the press’s coverage of the event would not contribute to the search process, as students would be unable to get a complete sense of the event just from reading an article. But not everyone can attend these events: even disregarding interested students who happen to be abroad, some have class at those times, and most are simply busy. While it’s undoubtedly true that students wouldn’t be fully informed simply from reading the article, it’s also true that well over 600 people on campus — well over ten times as many as went to the event — attempted to access said article even after it was removed, which would seem to indicate that students seem to have quite an interest in reading as much as they can about the candidates, and that they tend to find this type of reportage quite helpful. Given that the question we are debating is whether or not to allow reporters to cover an event designed to give the student body access to their potential Dean, it would seem that students would be in a better position than the administration to determine whether this type of reporting is helpful to them.

The administration further argued that, if reporters covered the event, the candidates’ remarks would be on record. This was a concern, they said, because remarks candidates made could get them in trouble with current or future employers, and because candidates might not feel free to speak their minds knowing that what they said was being recorded. The first concern, that candidates’ remarks could get them in trouble with employers present and future, only makes sense if their employers would have access to Swarthmore’s media. To be clear, even if we hadn’t successfully corrected the glitch that allowed the headline of the article on the Dean’s Search to be picked up by Google, the headline alone would not contain any controversial remarks made by the potential deans; access to reportage by either the Gazette or the Phoenix would require physical access to Swarthmore or a valid Swarthmore email account.

The second concern, that candidates would feel less likely to speak freely knowing that the press was around, is even more absurd. The candidate would surely know that if they said something particularly inane, that this would count against them in the process regardless. And seeing as the Dean of Student’s primary role is to deal with student concerns, many of which often end up involving the student media, it seems important that we choose a Dean who is comfortable speaking with the press. Furthermore, the first Dean candidate — who was made explicitly aware of press present at the Q&A; — in fact spoke on a number of potentially controversial topics ranging from the handling of hate-speech on campus, to disconnects between administrative initiatives and actual effects in the community, to violence (sexual and not) on campus.

The administration fails to understand the relevance of student journalism and the important role that organizations like the Gazette and Phoenix play on campus. The purpose of student journalism is not to serve the interests of the Dean’s Search Committee, or those of the administration more generally, but to report news that is critical and relevant to the student body. This is one such news story. It is imperative that students learn as much information, from as many sources as possible, about the candidates in contention to represent them as Dean of Students.

Nevertheless, we are concerned that if the Gazette or Phoenix decide to cover the event, the administration may eliminate the public Q&As; and limit access to Dean candidates to a few hand-picked students, as with the Presidential search. It is critical that students have as much access to the candidates as is possible, and we would not wish to further limit student involvement in the process by provoking the administration. It is thus with regret that we have decided to accede to the administration’s demands, and to not report on tonight’s event.

But we would like to make one final thing clear. The administration seems to think that they are making a uniquely bold and transparent move by simply allowing students a chance to meet their potential Dean. They are wrong. Many other colleges, from Haverford and Bryn Mawr, to Amherst, Carleton and the University of Michigan have allowed the press to attend and report on events where candidates for Dean positions have met with students.

So we encourage you to meet the next Dean candidate this evening. It’s the only chance you’ll get.

Urooj Khan ’10, the Gazette’s Features Editor, is a member of the Dean’s Search Committee. She played no role in the writing of this editorial.

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The Phoenix