Thursday, December 18, 2008

The First Amendment is Campbell's Last Priority

Most musings in this blog will be about Campbell University, my beloved but flawed (like any human-run institution) mini-universe until May 10, 2010. This post is one of those musings.

"The grass is always greener on the other side," which is why students of a given university or employees of a given company always gripe about their own situation and long for membership to another school or job. Perhaps the plight of student journalists is much worse at another private Christian school. Regardless, I'm not at any other school, and improvement is not a spawn of complacency.

Being in college is like getting to know a person-- you start off on a high, spend a lot of time together, then slowly realize each others flaws. Campbell, my friend...that time has come.

That time actually arrived a year ago when I became editor-in-chief of The Campbell Times, but obviously at that point ethical obligations prevented me from publicly venting my frustrations with the second largest Baptist university in the world (first is Baylor University in Texas).

This post is not a list of everything wrong with Campbell. Such a list would be highly subjective and would serve no edifying purpose. The post is a methodical and thought-out evaluation of what I've found the university's opinion to be on 1) the role of the press, and 2) freedom of the press.

Free speech and anything else to do with the good ol' First Amendment carries heavy baggage and often opens up a huge can of worms. Although I prefer to open cans of whoop-ass, this post won't be overly complicated or intricate in political thought. As usual, just my spell-checked ramblings on problems I see in certain situations and what I believe potential solutions are.

Why should non-news geeks care about what Campbell thinks of the press? To begin a sentence like Sen. McCain, "my friends," because "freedom of the press" isn't just protection of the nosey guys with cameras and notepads. It's the protection of the intellectual representation of the people-- the last line of defense against "the man," as hippies and other iconoclasts like to say. It's no coincidence the only successful democracies involve some sort of free press. If the press doesn't have rights, then neither do the people.

So, finally, to begin my cyber-monologue: My first memory of Campbell coming down on our school newspaper takes place first semester freshman year, a couple weeks into my stint with the paper. The editor created a "Rants and Raves" section designed to harvest likes and dislikes about Campbell, more or less sparking a printed conversation. While garnering likes took some work, the dislikes came more easily. The editor made sure she printed an equal amount of both opinions.

The particular "rant" lighting a fire under the administration's bottom was a letter from a recent graduate saying the religion department didn't do enough to help him get a job. After the issue came out, the editor received a letter from a member of the administration saying the newspaper should be "salt and light," implying that printing so-called negative information was a poor Christian witness on our Christian campus. Translation: printing information putting Campbell in a bad light makes you a bad Christian.

As far as I know The Campbell Times flew under the radar until I became editor in the spring of 2007. I headed up a strong, young staff of freshmen and sophomores, most of whom I had known since my first day in Buies Creek. As young adults tend to do, we decided to buck the status quo and give The Campbell Times a face lift. A few cosmetic updates in the layout made a huge difference, but what made a "blip blip" noise on the administration's Students Thinking for Themselves Radar was a result, naturally, of doing a relatively good job at what journalists are supposed to do-- printing the noble and almighty truth. Okay, Buies Creek isn't exactly a hotbed of hard crime, but secrets, scandals, and accompanying brick walls abound.

A Campbell professor recently analyzed the past year's issues of the newspaper and found 91% of its stories to be either positive or neutral in relation to Campbell. That's good when the newspaper staff needs to defend itself to the administration, but in the world of journalism, the newspaper was being way too nice. Frankly, it was 9% away from being a public relations publication.

We didn't publish more biting stories because Campbell sets up purposeful road blocks to prevent students, parents, and the press (student and professional) from discovering and obtaining certain information. By "road blocks" I mean it trains employees when to say "no comment" and when to spoon feed just the right info to journalists and other inquiring minds. Another great road block is flat out refusing to contact a student reporter.

Sometimes the school has the right to protect certain information. Other times, it's being a typical Christian university by promoting a gilded reputation of harmony and success, and in the process withholding potentially damaging information people should know.

Universities, like governments, are businesses at their core, Campbell included (despite its non-profit status while being the largest private employer in Harnett County). I understand it doesn't want negative information to become public. It needs to give incoming and returning students motive to fill out their checks every semester. At the end of the day, Campbell needs to be in the black, so its sugar daddies need to think the best of the university as possible.

The Campbell Times hasn't printed anything libelous or defamatory. It has, however, printed stories challenging some of the university's decisions. For example:

1. "Financially up the creek on campus" evaluates university housing costs against off-campus housing costs, proving off-campus living to be much more affordable.

2. "Campbell student faces theft, other charges" reports that a pre-pharmacy student was arrested for stealing and distributing prescription drugs from the Walgreens where he worked. A brilliant follow-up story, "Student claims unfair expulsion following drug charges," nailed Campbell for expelling the student before he had a trial and for its nonsensical alcohol and explosives penalties.

3. "Construction woes theme of fall semester." Campbell has several ongoing construction projects, all of which have interrupted normal foot and vehicle traffic.

4. An editorial entitled "Responsibility" quoted the student government vice president's slip of the tongue and challenged the student government and the administration to be proactive.

5. "Students cry injustice over Sauls renovation." The top floor of a three-floor male dorm became a posh female floor while the guys were left with the remaining 1950s horror hospital conditions.

There are a few others but I don't have them on my computer to reference. Anyway, you can see the type of stories we had weren't going to hit the AP wire and take the country by storm, but they weren't the usual warm fuzzy fluff The Campbell Times was accustomed to printing. They very subtly defied Campbell's ability to pull off a smile and wave with each passing day, no questions asked. Obviously a story here and there about parking problems and student government making an ill-calculated move wasn't going to bring Campbell down in flames. A few "higher-ups," as I dubbed a few people in my last and only editorial, strongly disagree.

In additon to that letter a couple years ago, the administration has communicated several times to professors its disapproval of the newspaper. Using the chain of command as its excuse, it never addresses issues with the editor or even the adviser-- just the white males who make the decisions.

The student newspaper has two purposes: 1) to be a learning experience for journalism students, and 2) be a source of information and to promote conversation among the student body. One member of the administration literally thinks the newspaper should serve to build up the university with stories putting the school in a favorable light. He believes all communication representing the school should convince readers it's the Wonka Land of higher education. The former dean of admissions banned one issue of the paper from the Admissions Office for its apparently inflammatory content that would, undoubtedly, convince every potential student to throw their Campbell brochure in the recycling.

To wrap up this song and dance, my conclusion is that Campbell doesn't think a free exchange of thought is necessary. A free press is an American value, and one every campus should embrace. Campbell also doesn't allow the newspaper to accrue its own advertising money, but that's another issue. It sees the press as an unnecessary sore spot and an obstacle to its objective of brainwashing its students and its Uncle Pennybags.

All of that sucks for The Campbell Times, but it means something greater to the student body. It means we should question what Campbell, or any other agenda-minded institution, says. What is it hoping to achieve by putting out certain information? Could there be another side? Who is this affecting? The paranoid phrase "question everything" applies to Campbell. Not all of its administrators are Grinching the First Amendment, but we need to be aware that the author of every sentence we ever read or every speech we ever hear crafts each word with an intent, and we shouldn't fell prey to that intent for the unforgivable reason of blindly and deafly following a wayward shepherd.

Despite all these paragraphs parading one single issue, I do enjoy Campbell and it definitely has a lot to offer. Its take on the press certainly doesn't make it a substandard school. I chose to go there for what its world class professors and small community atmosphere have to offer, not the decisions the administration makes.

I have no idea if anyone but my Facebook friends and Campbell students will read this, but regardless, I challenge Campbell to think outside of the box. Break free from the stereotype people hold over Christian schools and embrace criticism. If the criticism is true, learn from it and move on, having improved. If the criticism isn't true, ignore it and move on, knowing you're doing something right.

PS- Campbell, you're welcome-- I pitched your web site at the beginning. How about some more scholarship moola?

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Merry Capitalism

If you're one of my three avid readers, you know it's been a couple weeks since my last post. The excitement of Christmas along with no longer being at school slightly but temporarily diluted my (idealistic) zeal for changing the world with this blog.

It's a quiet night at home in Massachusetts. My five young Oklahoman cousins and their parents just left, so I now find myself with time to think and form complete sentences without cute smiles or a candy request interrupting my synapses.

As I recently admitted to a friend, my economic knowledge is very limited. Numbers are not my medium of thought, and the only money I manage is my checking account and the occasional game of Monopoly. Nothing fancy. That being said, I'm one of the many Joe/Josephine Shmoe Americans with an opinion about the recent auto industry crisis.

I see capitalism as an economic expression of Darwin's theory of "survival of the fittest." If your business appeals to the people and profits, it survives. If the people don't need your business, you go broke. A failed business, however, means more than a disappointed owner and a notch in Darwin's belt. It means layoffs for employees and consequently less spending money in the regional and national pot. Bad news bear for a consumption-based economy.

So, the big question: should the government back up the auto industry in order to prevent massive job loss and further exacerbation of the already bruised economy, or should the auto industry stick it out and take one below the belt?

The U.S. needs to decide what it wants to do-- be capitalist through and through or wean itself on to a planned economy, which is what the bailout would do in my opinion. I think the country needs to see beyond the current problems and consider the potential consequences down the road. The long-term consequence of skipping the bailout is sustained capitalism with jobs lost and then recovered. That situation heavily outweighs the short-term consequence of job loss and discontent. The market always bounces back. People just need to be patient, which of course is easier said then done.

Furthermore, the auto industry big wigs are aware that our economy is rooted in the market and isn't guaranteed. It's no secret the economy isn't always a 5-star deal. The auto guys are whining and crying because the market isn't putting them in the black-- are you kidding me? That's what they signed up for. Their goal was to succeed in capitalism, and they failed. They shouldn't use the government as a crutch. They should accept defeat and either join the winners or go up for bat again...on their own dime.

That can sound like a cold analysis from a college student not even old enough to buy a drink. I'm not forgetting the auto part suppliers, manufacturers, and assembly line workers, nor the sly salesman. But they wouldn't be the first Americans to lose their jobs, and the auto industry isn't the only place to work in this country.

Finally, to restate my disclaimer, that's just my perspective as an average young American relatively unfamiliar with the inner-workings of economics and finances...and whose generation is next up in line to take over. Light a candle at Mass and rub your lucky rabbit foot, because in 15 years my college classmates will be old enough to run for president.