Fairfield Academic Council: Divorce The Mirror From Student Affairs

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Fairfield’s top faculty body, the Academic Council, sent a strong message of support of The Mirror’s freedom of expression this week and voted to recommend moving the paper out of Student Affairs and into the Academic Affairs division.

In adding up the votes on five different issues surrounding The Mirror and the issue of free expression, there were 67 faculty votes on motions supporting the paper, one opposed and one abstention on the five motions.

The council’s deliberations focused on The Mirror’s role on campus, not on the content of the He Said satirical column on the ”walk of shame.”  One of the council members supporting all five motions was politics professor Jocelyn Boryczka, adviser to the Just Us Residential College, which had helped organize protests against the column.

The Academic Council did not consider the actual content of the “He Said” column in question or The Mirror in general, but instead voted in defense of free expression. The Council was clear in its vote that it supported the protesters right to protest, but did think that the harassment charges were the wrong way to approach a settlement. Most of the Academic Council were excited to see students protesting a topic that affected them and the bravery they showed in taking action against free speech they found offensive.

“The Academic Council sent a strong message to support of faculty rights to manage the curriculum on campus and to recognize the value of an independent student paper that can be a forum for student opinion on campus,” said Dr. James Simon, English chair and long-term adviser to the Mirror, who presented the motions to the Council.

The near unanimous votes came on five issues:

1. In recognition of the academic value of a student newspaper to a university, the Academic Council asked President von Arx to transfer administrative control of The Mirror from Student Affairs to Academic Affairs.

2. Given a free and independent student newspaper is an essential component to student’s learning and provides a voice for students and a place where issues can be debated, the Academic Council asked President von Arx to assure that the funding agreement reflects the independent nature of The Fairfield Mirror.

3. The Academic Council considered the filing of harassment charges against The Fairfield Mirror to be in error since, according to the University’s harassment policy, charges can only be brought against individuals. (The charges have since been dropped.)

4. The Academic Council recommended that student news-gathering operations be specifically exempted from the current Fairfield harassment policy in recognition of the watchdog role they can play in protecting the rights and the voice of students. Such news gathering operations shall be bound by their own published codes of conduct, by ethical standards in their field, and by all state and federal laws regarding libel/slander, hate speech and harassment.

5. The Academic Council recommended that a new ad hoc committee of faculty and administrators be convened to examine the current harassment policy on campus because of demonstrated problems with its broad prohibitions against any verbal or written communication that could cause “embarrassment” or be seen as “demeaning.”

The Student Affairs office had declared its annual contract with The Mirror, supplying $30,000 a year to print the newspaper, to be “null and void” due to problems stemming from a He Said satirical column on the ”walk of shame.”  The column prompted a protest outside the newspaper; four of the protesters filed complaints that the column was a form of sexual harassment and generated a hostile environment for women on campus.

Fairfield’s English Department voted Dec. 4 to authorize Simon to take whatever action was necessary, including a possible severing of the department from any oversight of the paper, to protect the faculty’s role in setting curriculum.  English offers academic credit to some staff members for supervised work on the newspaper, ties work in some classes to the newspaper as a practicum experience, and schedules faculty members to advise the paper. All such efforts would be jeopardized if Student Affairs ended funding.

National journalism groups like College Media Advisers, Society of Professional Journalists and FIRE (Foundation for Individual Rights in Education) wrote to President Jeffrey von Arx, saying Fairfield’s crackdown on The Mirror was out of step with best practices in managing college newspapers.

Hours before the Academic Council vote, Dean of Students Tom Pellegrino, who has supervised prosecution of The Mirror on harassment charges, issued a conciliatory letter that endorsed the idea of a new ad hoc committee to look at the current harassment policy and see how it intersects with guarantees of free speech on campus.

Pellegrino also said that with a fresh look “into our system design for advising and supporting the paper, we will be able to better demarcate the role that student affairs, academics, and the advisory board play in responding to the many and varied claims/concerns/questions that may be raised towards the paper in the future.”

“The Mirror was one of the first examples of a living and learning initiative on our campus with cross-divisional involvement. That is a positive feature and should be maintained. However, there is a counterbalancing need to have a candid assessment of the roles that individuals and departments play with respect to the paper and the impact those are having on the experience,” he wrote. He also asked for a chance to address the Academic Council in January on these issues.

(Compiled from varied sources, including participants at the faculty meeting)

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