Journalists are committed to being honest and fair in reporting. Journalism is a service and news is written with the public’s interest in mind. But seeking truth and reporting it becomes more difficult when dealing with institutions that attempt to silence student journalists.
University of Idaho President M. Duane Nellis announced Friday he is the sole finalist for the presidency at Texas Tech University. Questions about UI’s future are unavoidable after such an announcement, but they are questions that could go unanswered for almost a month, as UI media relations have not made any UI faculty or staff available for comment.
UI spokeswoman Karen Hunt released a statement to The Argonaut Monday that said “Texas law requires a 21-day waiting period before the Texas State Board of Education votes to officially name President M. Duane Nellis as their new president. Until the waiting period is over, Nellis has neither been hired by Texas Tech University nor resigned from the University of Idaho. At this point, asking people how they feel about whether or not the president will leave is speculation. Once the 21-day waiting period is over, the university will make people available for comment.”
Idaho isn’t Texas, though, and Nellis has a responsibility to address the questions and concerns generated by his announcement. “Speculating” about the future of UI, pending an almost certain decision by Nellis to accept the presidency at Texas Tech, seems like a valid inquiry. Still, it’s not surprising Nellis and other individuals are not being made available for comment by media relations. Hunt is only the mouthpiece of a longstanding policy of UI to avoid transparency when it comes to almost any topic.
It’s ironic that a university, which should be a champion of student expression and free speech, is so tight-lipped when it comes to its own publicity. It seems many of UI’s negative media images could be averted with a little honesty and an attempt at transparency.
When graduate student Katy Benoit was shot and killed by former UI Assistant Professor Ernesto A. Bustamante in August 2011, it was not Nellis — the president of UI — who addressed a grieving university community. Instead, Dean of Students Bruce Pitman spoke during a press conference the next morning. Nellis didn’t speak publicly about the murder-suicide until a press conference four days later, and only after days of the media essentially demanding a public statement.
University records detailing Bustamante’s employment at UI, his emails and student evaluations were not released to the public until almost two months after Benoit’s death — once again, after being pressured by the media to release the documents.
When The Argonaut started reporting on the murder-suicide, media relations said certain administrators, such as Vice Provost of Academic Affairs Doug Baker, were not available for comment.
Although Hunt said media relations is not making any individuals available for comment on Nellis leaving UI, she said individuals are free to say yes or no if asked by a reporter to comment on Nellis’ announcement. However, it’s not likely they will say yes if they have been advised by the university’s spokeswoman not to speak on the subject.
The role of media relations in ensuring UI maintains an esteemed reputation is understood. What’s not understood is why top-level administrators are silenced during a time when it is most crucial for them to speak and quell rumors. If UI truly is the great institution we believe it to be, then surely they have nothing to hide.
Elisa Eiguren can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org