Letter to the Faculty

Chris Hankin, News Editor

Every year during staff training there is one point on which I always harp. As journalists writing for a collegiate newspaper in small-town southeastern Washington, our most valuable local resource is the roughly 170 brilliant faculty members living and working in our midst. Just as we depend on the faculty to guide our intellectual growth in the classroom, we depend on the faculty to contribute to critical articles to our publication.

Though our readership is small, and our budget tight, The Wire serves an invaluable role in the Whitman community. We are the sole locus of free press in this mini-society on campus. Keeping the community informed and engaged, providing an outlet for free and critical speech, and perhaps most importantly, acting as a check on administration are all within our purview. As the editor of the news section, I tell beginning writers to turn to the faculty in that effort because I know how insightful, eloquent and gracious they are.

I worry that my advice may not be heeded. Increasingly as both a writer and an editor, I find faculty unwilling or unresponsive when approached for on-the-record comments, particularly on controversial topics regarding the direction in which College is moving and high-impact policies created by the Administration. The same figures who guide us in the classroom turn their backs when approached for interviews.

Whitman teaches its students to be critical thinkers. My professors have taught me to be, above all else, skeptical. They have taught me to never take anything at face value, and to refuse to accept simple explanations to complex questions. It is baffling that the faculty who push me to embody this philosophy in the classroom are so reticent to work with me in that endeavor when it is applied to the college.

Writing in the news section, I don’t have the liberty to editorialize. If I am writing about the Strategic Priorities document, and I interview the President and Treasurer, without any faculty willing to go on record, I will inevitably publish a one-sided article. It only adds insult to injury when I then read comments online critiquing The Wire for “regurgitating PR points from Memorial.” Most disheartening is that this critique is far too often valid. Without sources willing to oppose the views of the administration, it is simply inevitable that articles will be one-sided.

I see a number of potential explanations to account for faculty reticence about on-the-record comments. These include the fear of retaliation, apprehension about being misquoted or otherwise misrepresented, or an unwillingness to take seriously the enterprise of student journalism. Let me briefly address these obstacles.

In response to the first – I cannot claim to understand the intricacies of the tenure-track system. I do, however, understand that students and faculty cannot critique with equal abandon. While my tuition is logged under “revenue,” faculty salary falls into “expenditure.” My speech is protected by the small fortune that my parents will have shelled out by the time I graduate. As the College works to return to a 10-1 student-to-faculty ratio, it is inevitable that professors who lack job security will be hesitant to go on the record with provocative statements. The possibility that faculty censor themselves for fear of retribution from the administration is frankly terrifying, especially at an institution of education dedicated to fostering open dialogue. But the unwillingness to comment is not confined to untenured or contingent faculty. Some of the most established professors on campus also refuse to go on record.

In response to misquoting. Publications of every type occasionally misrepresent or misquote their sources. We are students first and journalists second, and mistakes are inevitable. Perhaps some faculty are unaware that all of our reporters are required to record conversations and submit quote checks for the purpose of increasing accuracy. We are more than willing to reword a grammatically incorrect quote, or update a factually inaccurate one, but barring a reporter’s failure to record an interview or a blatant violation of the correct context, we reserve the right to publish all quotes. It would be unfair to hold administrators to this standard but not faculty. Everyone makes mistakes, journalists and sources alike. The editorial board at The Wire has no agenda other than practicing the craft of journalism and engaging with the community. To faculty who feel that they are routinely misunderstood, all I can say is that we are your students. We have nothing but the utmost respect for the work and opinions of every professor on campus, and we let that respect guide our journalism.

Finally, and in my opinion most significantly, is the possibility that faculty on campus don’t take their students seriously. When I hear that professors critique policy in their classes or in meetings, but then find those same faculty members unwilling to bring that conversation into the public sphere, it is hard not to conclude that journalists for The Wire are not taken seriously by faculty. In my view, it is incumbent on all of us, students and faculty alike, to be engaged citizens in our common goal of keeping Whitman College accountable to the high academic standards of which we are justly proud.

If nothing else, I urge all faculty, but especially the tenured ones, to rethink their positions on The Wire. Without you, we are doomed to act as a mouthpiece for Memorial Hall. Without us, the community risks finding itself voiceless. I think faculty should speak out because dissent is the critical element of a healthy democratic society. Colleges and Universities are crucibles of democracy and can instill in their students the confidence to speak out against injustice and inequity in wider society. By not speaking out at Whitman, we risk participating in a campus where the sole voices are those of the board of trustees and administration. I urge you to take seriously your students, and to practice what you preach.