Speak for yourselves, TCNJ

By John A. MacDonald

I was shocked to read The Signal‘s Editor-in-Chief Brianna Gunter’s Feb. 1 editorial exposing the unwillingness of many, perhaps most, TCNJ faculty and employees to exercise their free speech rights and speak to Signal, reporters, instead referring the reporters to College Relations.

I say shocked because my own experience as the news editor of the Bucks County Community College, only a relatively few miles and months away, was so completely different. Never was I, in the course of dozens of interviews of faculty, staff or students referred to a college relations or other administrative office.

Gunter suggests that the College’s administration permits few employees (including faculty) to speak freely and “does not seem to trust its own employees.”  I would need more facts before judging that to be the case, but the fact that Gunter found that there is a widespread unwillingness for members of the College community to speak freely clearly strikes at the very heart of that for which the College professes to stand: 

“The College of New Jersey affirms the following Core Beliefs as fundamental to its Mission: … the College provides a seamless, engaging educational environment characterized by academic freedom, creative expressions, critical thinking, intellectual inquiry, and service learning.”

One would be hard put to describe a campus atmosphere where faculty and staff are afraid to talk to the student press and where “All Roads Lead to College Relations,’” as Gunter puts it, as being characterized by academic freedom, creative expressions, critical thinking or intellectual inquiry. 

Appropriately and as freely admitted on its webpage, the priority of the Department of College Relations is “the potential impact on the College’s institutional image.” Its job is marketing and image control. It is completely unsuited to meeting the needs of inquiring student minds, most particularly on the controversial issues of the day.

We seek to be a world-class academic institution. World-class journalism students aren’t created by denying them the opportunity to conduct first-party interview and restricting their reporting to public relations department press releases.

If it truly was the intent of the administration to have all information about campus life as perceived by faculty and staff managed through College Relations, then it would be more honest to give up the pretense of having a free student press and replace it with the latest press releases extolling the College’s virtues, of which there are many.

I, for one, am not convinced that the administration is engaged in a cynical attempt to suppress the student press and, along with it, the free flow of information on the campus.  Yet Gunter’s experiences suggest that for some reason a significant number of faculty and other employees are unwilling or afraid to speak freely to the student body. 

President R. Barbara Gitenstein has a proven record of fostering the involvement of the entire college community in the governance and planned direction of the College.  I know from own personal experience her willingness and ability to quickly tackle and solve problems.

On October 31, 2007 Gitenstein issued a major address, “An Exceptional Path:  Five Strategies to Support The College of New Jersey in its Integrated Transformation,” in which she discussed  the ongoing transformation of the College and stressed the College’s mission of “courageously addressing the tough issues of the day.”  These issues included, as she so eloquently phrased it, “the rights and responsibilities of free speech and academic freedom, the valuing of democratic principles which require our hearing what we do not like.”

Sadly, Gunter’s experience is that in many instances there is a lack of courageousness to address issues raised by students, a failure to exercise the responsibilities of free speech and avoidance of articulating anything that the administration might not like. What she has encountered, and what her student body readership has suffered, is no less than the very problem that President Gitenstein was addressing 2007, “higher education’s perceived lack of flexibility and transparency.” 

As a student journalist, I would have relished the role of discovering the source of the problem that Gunter has exposed; but, as a mental health-counselor-in-training, I am more interested in finding a solution.

I humbly suggest that the administration must once again affirm its Core Belief of providing “a seamless, engaging educational environment characterized by academic freedom, creative expressions, critical thinking, intellectual inquiry, and service learning” by making it clear that faculty and staff can speak candidly to the student press without fear of retribution and that requests from the student press are no longer to be referred to College Relations.  

John A. MacDonald is a graduate student in the Department of Counselor Education and graduate student member of the Committee on Faculty Affairs, as well as a former N.J. Deputy Attorney General and an Assistant Director of the NJDEP. Any statements or opinions expressed herein are solely his own.