Newspaper Woes at Chicago State
By George Providence II
Since September of 2008 there have been only a few days when I did not stop and laugh out loud at my predicament, even more so since I became a plaintiff in a federal lawsuit against a university president and his executive director of university relations. I am the last person I would have ever thought would be in federal court for the protection of the First Amendment for, at best, I am an accidental journalist. I got into the game just to sharpen my razor, get my skills tight. Taking on the administration of a university was the farthest thing from my mind.
Last spring, when I transferred to Chicago State University from Oakton Community College, I was through with student journalism. At Oakton, I had the privilege of serving as both managing editor and editor of The OCCurrence, the school’s student newspaper. I had returned to school after a long hiatus to pursue my avocation, writing short stories, and after a few English classes one of my professors suggested that I apply for a job with school paper. An encouraging spirit, she assured me that I had a good shot at securing one of the top posts. She was right. Despite having almost no journalism experience and, in my opinion, still lacking the rudiments of basic writing, I was selected as managing editor. It was a Pyrrhic appointment, I discovered later.
The paper’s adviser had been formerly employed by the Chicago Tribune, and still did freelance writing in addition to adjunct teaching and advising the paper. Though he and I had what was initially a good relationship, he was tough on the editor. Even though the editor was extraordinarily accomplished, her psyche was fragile. Our adviser broke her down daily. Many times she would openly weep, unaccustomed as she was to being left vulnerable to naked displays of jealousy from one she should have been able to trust. At the beginning of the spring semester she walked away from the paper, thrusting me into the lion’s maw.
My relationship with the OCC adviser was decidedly different. Though I did not have warm feelings for him, it was undeniable that I could learn something from him, and there was no lesson that he taught more passionately than the paper’s role on a college campus. We were to report all that was newsworthy on campus and make relevant to our community that which was occurring in the world. And we were to keep those in power honest, keeping them accountable at all times.
I took that last commandment to heart, and the semester that I spent as editor of The OCCurrence found me challenging our reporters and myself to ask the hard questions of administrators, faculty, and our student leaders. While it was fun stepping into those who were unfamiliar with the charms of a vigorous and active press, I began to tire of the role and its responsibilities. I just wanted to write, not serve as a lightning rod for controversy, so when the end of the spring semester came, I went, turning over my job to a trusted assistant.
Arriving at Chicago State I looked forward to attending school and focusing on learning how to write. I was also excited about attending a school whose student population was largely African-American. Having attended schools or classes where I was almost always amongst the minority, I hungered for a reversal of that circumstance.
It was several weeks into classes that I was shocked by the appearance of a school newspaper. Shocked, because until I saw that first issue I hadn’t realized that there had been no paper on campus, and shocked at the poor quality of that first issue. CSU had been without a newspaper, literary magazine, and class yearbook for several semesters and the accrediting board had cited that lack as a concern. Outgoing President Elnora Daniel decided that the paper needed to be reestablished.
That first issue was rough, pitiable in truth, and when I saw the number asking for writers, I called. Because I held a full-time job and took evening classes I thought that I could do little more write a column, if they would have me. I began to write a weekly column for Tempo. Unbeknownst to me, the editor and managing editor were having troubles balancing their course load, and both resigned suddenly. In desperate straits, the adviser and the paper’s business manager came to me to see if I would shepherd the paper until the end of the semester. Though I demurred initially, I eventually agreed, and proceeded to do as I had done at Oakton: Move the paper to accurately reflect the life of the campus community and to demand accountability from those in power. At Oakton, that approach had been irritating to some.
At CSU, after a succession of front page stories reporting on a baseball coach’s assault against one of his players, the university’s refusal to address the situation, and an administrator describing students in racially explosive ways with no response from the administration, it was downright threatening to the powers that be. So, when I began working on a story that I hoped would reveal the source of funding for a lavish student event, I inadvertently set in motion the events that would eventually lead to the firing of the paper’s adviser and a series of personal attacks through emails and a whispering campaign, all done to silence dissent.
From late October 2008 until a few weeks ago, Tempo operated without a permanent adviser, that post filled by the executive director of student affairs so that we could continue to publish. We have operated without full knowledge of our budget, and those staff members of the paper working in positions due a stipend have not been paid since the beginning of this spring semester. Our office is one room within the office space of student activities. Initially, we did not have free access to this room as we have been denied a key; now the office is left unlocked and vulnerable to theft and entry by whosoever would try the door handle. Our wireless router has been stolen as a consequence, so currently we do not have internet access. The latest indignity was visited on us by the new adviser who insisted that he be given prior review, engaged in the editing of stories, and made a unilateral decision to shut the paper down for lack of enough original content.
The president has implied that I have slit his throat; the executive director has claimed that I just don’t get it. Administrators avert their eyes when they see me and refuse to speak to me when I call. To coin a phrase, I am legend, or at least notorious. And at least once a day I laugh, because I am an accidental journalist. All I wanted to do was write.
George Providence II is a student at Chicago State University and editor of Tempo.