College publications do not (usually) uncover political misdeeds or sex scandals. They report on topics that to most Americans seem relatively mundane: endowment returns, hiring initiatives, library renovations. It is rare that they shape national consciousness: They concentrate for the most part, on issues particular to their institutions. We student journalists occupy ourselves with a small sphere of reality, of which few outside of our institution take notice.
Last week at Mount St. Mary’s University in Maryland, this spirit of salutary neglect came to a grinding halt.
In January, reporters at The Mountain Echo, Mount St. Mary’s student-run paper, published a story claiming that the university’s president, Simon Newman, had compared struggling students to drowning bunny rabbits. The paper quoted Newman as saying: “This is hard for you because you think of the students as cuddly bunnies, but you can’t. You just have to drown the bunnies.” According to The Mountain Echo, Newman planned to dismiss 20–25 struggling freshmen before the end of September in order to improve the university’s retention numbers — a major factor in college rankings.
Last week, the university informed Ed Egan, the newspaper’s faculty adviser, that he had been fired. Two other professors who had voiced objections to Newman’s policies were also dismissed.
On Saturday Newman announced that the professors would be reinstated. The reversal comes after widespread condemnation of the firings by academics and free-speech monitors — a petition protesting the firings gathered over 5,000 signatures in 24 hours. National media outlets, including the Washington Post and The New York Times, also covered the story. We are happy to hear that the Mount St. Mary’s administration has taken steps to rectify its unjustifiable suppression of the free press. Nevertheless, in moments like these it is important to reflect upon the value of student-run newspapers — and of freedom of expression more generally.
It is impossible to divorce the practice of journalism from that practice’s societal context. True, political exigencies and public opinion can and do influence what the media reports on, and college newspapers are not exempt from this law. But the dynamic goes in the opposite direction as well. In a free society, journalists play a pivotal role in holding those in positions of power accountable. Perhaps the most famous example is the Watergate scandal, when Bob Woodward ’65 and Carl Bernstein exposed the corruption of the Nixon administration. Such flashy cases can, however, obscure the primary mechanisms by which investigative journalism serves to check cronyism and systemic abuses of power. Woodward and Bernstein did more than humiliate a dishonest president. They reminded America’s political class that, when you do something wrong, sooner or later somebody finds out. Journalism is as much about deterring misbehavior as it is about punishing transgression.
Newman is no President Nixon, and Mount St. Mary’s University is not the United States of America. Yet the student reporters at Mount St. Mary’s still deserve praise for their willingness to challenge bureaucratic authority. They refused to acquiesce to the status quo, plunging, instead, into the thick of controversy. That Newman went to such great lengths to stifle dissent is all the more reason to applaud their efforts. The marketplace of ideas, after all, cannot function without the open circulation of ideas.
Free speech is more than an abstract principle; it is a project. Institutions cannot grow and progress without tolerating constructive and at times unflattering criticism. This has proven especially true at Yale, where widely publicized complaints about the University’s mental health infrastructure has led to substantial, albeit incomplete, improvements to funding and design. By reporting candidly on the policies and administrators responsible for their well-being, student journalists promote institutional accountability. The value of student journalism thus hinges on administrators’ willingness to face and accept criticism as a necessary driver of reform, not a nuisance to be eliminated.
It should also be emphasized that the suppression of controversial statements and ideas is antithetical to the goals of a liberal arts education. A spirit of intellectual discovery and the pursuit of truth cannot thrive under the threat of censorship. Restricting freedom of the press does not merely evince a disregard for institutional development. It fundamentally undermines the premise and purpose of a liberal education. That is inexcusable.
We sincerely hope that Mount St. Mary’s will respect The Mountain Echo’s autonomy going forward. But more than that, we hope that student journalists everywhere recognize and embrace their duty to hold administrators accountable for their actions.