Communications at Yale: Continued University growth has formed a complex media atmosphere
The office's stringent media policies stand in stark contrast to those that existed a decade ago, through which reporters had significant access to the University president, administrators and trustees.
Amay Tewari, Senior Photographer
Last November, after an email from a Yale Law School student sparked national discussion on racism and free speech, Yale Daily News reporters attempted to enter the Law School to speak to students on the matter, but were soon met with an email barring them from entering the Law School without pre-approval.
The email was from Yale Law School Associate Dean and Chief of Staff Debra Kroszner, who formerly served as managing director at the Office of Public Affairs at the Law School. Kroszner wrote in her email that the Law School had received complaints about News reporters being in the Law School building. She stated that it has “long been the policy” that members of the press receive approval from Kroszner’s office to enter the premises.
Although the Law School’s OPAC operates independently from the broader University OPAC, the policies of the two offices are largely aligned — both require that internal and external media outlets receive approval before visiting campus. Since Yale College students already have access to most campus buildings, the University OPAC policy is less easily enforced among Yale publications.
Although this instance was specific to the Law School, numerous accounts to the News from reporters and students illustrate a tangle of similarly restrictive policies — which are prone to change on a whim — set forward by Yale’s communications officials.
University communications policies include well-developed plans by individual units as to how to deal with reporters from the News specifically, as well as protocols to funnel communications through OPAC and restrict who reporters can talk to, particularly in times of crisis. The policies stand in stark contrast to those that existed a decade ago, through which reporters had significant access to the University president, administrators and trustees.
And they have tightened at a time when Yale’s administration is growing, suggesting to some there may be heightened control over information as the University has become more protective over its brand.
Yale’s communication strategy is determined by the Office of Public Affairs and Communications, or OPAC. The office is led by Vice President for Communications Nate Nickerson, who recently announced his decision to leave the University for a venture capital firm. He will be replaced in the interim by former Director of University Media Relations Karen Peart at the end of September.
With Nickerson stepping down on Sept. 23, the future of communications is unclear — and some have expressed concern.
Longtime University administrator Sam Chauncey ’57 told the News that OPAC has followed the tendency, caused by the growth of the University’s “administrative bureaucracy,” to want to control what people are saying. He said that this trend “raises the issue” of censorship within the University.
“We now are at a point where the University believes that it’s a good idea to have everybody go through a central office so that if there is a University party line, the faculty member knows what it is,” Chauncey told the News.
Chauncey emphasized the role of Yale as an educational institution where policy matters should be discussed openly, and said the only issues that should be restricted in terms of sharing information with the media should be personnel and legal matters.
“From an academic point of view and educational point of view, if a university is a place where the truth is thought to be found, you wonder why it wouldn’t be okay for anybody to call anybody and ask them what they think,” Chauncey told the News, “The university is a place in which people should be always allowed to speak their mind and say anything they want. So it raises the question of whether [OPAC] is something that actually helps people or something that tries to control what is said.”
OPAC’s growth over the past 70 years
Chauncey told the News that when he started working at Yale in the 1950s, there was a News Bureau — a more primitive predecessor of OPAC. The News Bureau produced news releases to promote faculty work or University updates such as a speech given by the University president.
“Any external media could call up any professor or any administrator or anybody they wanted. Nothing to it,” Chauncey told the News.
According to Chauncey, in 1972, then-University President Kingman Brewster hired Stanley Flink ’45, a former Life magazine writer and television producer, as the founding director of the Office of Public Information. Fink created an archive of photos of faculty members and buildings, produced documentary films for recruiting and fundraising and a weekly show on public radio.
“He was there primarily to help people,” Chauncey told the News. “He didn’t stand in the way. In the 70s, you could still, if you were a New York Times reporter or a Yale Daily News reporter, you could call up anybody you wanted and talk to them.”
Chauncey said the modern OPAC started in the 1980s as a place for members of the media to find out information about Yale. But at the time, the norm for reporters was still to call up administrators and faculty by looking up their numbers in a Yale phone book.
In the 1990s, alongside the rise of online journalism, the Office of Public Affairs changed substantially.
Former University President Richard Levin GRD ’74, who served from 1993 to 2013, told the News that when he took office, the Office of Public Affairs was small. He compared the process for reporters to contact faculty and administrators to the “wild west.” When Levin started out, OPAC only issued press releases, because it was a “totally different communications world” due to the lack of nontraditional media outlets through the internet.
With the rise of the Internet, Levin said there was a need for expansion to create a webpage and social media presence. In his first year, Levin hired Gary Fryer, a former press secretary for former Governor of New York Mario Cuomo, to head the Office of Public Affairs.
After Fryer, most of the subsequent leaders of the office were from traditional media backgrounds from Washington D.C., Levin said. The office significantly developed under Helaine Klasky and her successor Elizabeth Stauderman ’83 LAW ’04, who helped develop Yale’s website and established a unified image for Yale’s online presence, including a new typeface.
Levin said that while much of OPAC’s job remained centered around publicizing research breakthroughs and other Yale accomplishments, there was also the “reactive side” of the office that was responsible for devising the University’s position on controversial issues.
While reporters could easily access faculty and administrators most of the time, Levin said there came to be “common sense” in crises, such as tragedies on campus, that the University needed to speak with one voice, and there was more control than before on the University’s relationship with the media.
However, Levin told the News that he made an effort to be more communicative with the press. The president developed close relationships with the News’ Woodbridge Hall reporters — those who traditionally report on the President’s office and cabinet — and talked to them an average of four times a week on the phone, which he felt was “part of the job.” Levin said he enjoyed watching Woodbridge beat reporters, such as journalist David Leonhardt ’94, go on to become famous in the industry. He added that he usually would not comment on every topic, but would often provide suggestions on who to talk to.
“I became for the journalists, not just someone who would give an opinion on some subject, but also kind of help them find the people in universities to talk to you about,” Levin told the News.
At the time, Stauderman, the head of the OPAC, reported to University Vice President and Secretary Linda Lorimer, but Levin said he would meet with Stauderman about every week or two weeks.
Stauderman left Yale in 2015, and Eileen O’Connor was hired in January 2016. With that shift, as well as with Levin’s departure, came significant changes in the culture of Yale’s press offices and strategy.
O’Connor was recruited in 2016 in the midst of a student protest over an email sent by former Silliman Head of College Nicholas Cristakas’ wife disapproving the censure of Halloween costumes deemed culturally offensive, but her resignation was announced only two and a half years into the job. She was discussing long-term projects days prior to her resignation and was known to be crying at an all-staff meeting for the Office of Public Affairs and Communications. O’Connor previously told the News she did not “necessarily want to deny” that she was fired.
In her role, O’Connor once called a reporter from the News to chastise him for publishing a story prior to an official University announcement and reporters from the News at the time said their conversations with O’Connor often involved the use of expletives and “shouting matches.”
Given her abrupt departure and treatment of reporters, three years ago, the News asked the question: at times of crisis, who protects Yale’s name?
Nickerson’s vision towards crisis management
In the News’ previous coverage of OPAC under O’Connor, Stauderman, who preceded O’Connor, told the News that there is a “war room” assembled in a conference room when crises arise. In this “war room,” individuals are assigned with various tasks such as communicating with the General Counsel, which oversees legal matters regarding the University, or gathering facts related to the crisis.
Nickerson replaced O’Connor in 2019, after serving in a similar role at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He told the News in March that his main philosophy when determining how to deal with “sensitive issues” is addressing the core principles of the matter first.
“I learned a long time ago that you start by asking ‘what are the principles at stake in this issue,’ because the environment that you receive this in can be a pretty tense environment where people are either upset or nervous, and where things are moving fast. It can just be a very high-strung environment,” Nickerson told the News. “So I learned to just sort of slow it down, calm down and kind of write down the one, two or three principles that are at stake.”
After deciding the principles at stake, Nickerson said his office decides what facts they want to “marshall” and what OPAC wants to say about a given issue. He said his version of the “war room” varies, as, when a big piece of news breaks, the office finds people who are related to the issues and quickly interviews them about the facts and principles. He said it never happens the same way twice, in that sometimes those sources have more power over the story, while at other times they do not.
In some cases, Nickerson said Peart and himself will have a “holding statement” where they will hold comments on a given matter that is not in the public eye until people ask about it. Nickerson said there are also cases where news is known publicly or “should be known,” in which case OPAC will help write a letter to the community from a relevant University leader.
Nickerson told the News that OPAC “does not presume to tell people what to say” in a crisis, and OPAC simply acts to “guide people.” He noted that unit leaders may decide that they want only one voice on an issue “where the facts and nuance matter,” and that in some cases, OPAC could be that voice.
“[Unit leaders] may set those rules for their unit, and that’s not really for Karen [Peart] and me,” Nickerson said. “What is for Karen and me though, is to the degree that people are saying to us, ‘we need help. We need guidance.’ We will give that guidance, but we never say you can not say this, you can say that. That’s not really our role.”
Despite that, Nickerson said OPAC sometimes works in reverse when there is a “dramatic” event that OPAC knows will lead to press inquiries that may lead relevant people to seek advice from OPAC. In those cases, Nickerson and Peart will provide a holding statement to relevant sources, and will tell them to inform Peart of any press inquiries. However, Nickerson said the latter is “a request, not a requirement.”
Nickerson said the main problem he and Peart face in crisis situations is how much they can say in terms of the ethical and legal limits of an issue. They consult the Office of the General Counsel on legal matters, he said.
“We are the ones pushing to put as much relevant and useful information out to the community as possible,” Nickerson told the News. “But there are often considerations, especially around crises, where people’s privacy really, really matters and where we have a real obligation, sometimes legal, sometimes simply ethical, to not share certain things that the administration would happen to know and that would be sensitive information and probably deemed by some especially an affected party as private information.”
Nickerson said his main vision for the office, in contrast to some of his predecessors, was to minimize outside help, because he thinks OPAC should function like a “creative agency” that is self-sufficient.
“One of my strong feelings going into this role here was, you want to be doing as much yourself as possible in an office like this,” Nickerson told the News.
OPAC does consult with Edelman, a public relations firm, in rare circumstances — Nickerson said about once per financial quarter.
Nickerson said there are three basic cases where it is appropriate to seek outside help: when OPAC wants to try something new or creative, when OPAC wants to do research or when OPAC is responding to sensitive issues and may need firms like Edelman with specialized knowledge in cases such as those involving global affairs.
Restructuring of OPAC in recent years
In addition to his desire to decrease reliance on advice from outsiders, Nickerson also wanted to create a differentiation between “earned media” — that which comes from non-Yale sources — and “owned media,” such as Yale Today and YaleNews.
To enhance the difference between the two, Nickerson redesigned Peart’s previous role as director of university media relations to allow her to manage earned media alongside a team, and divided staff into two categories: those dealing with the press and those producing internal media about Yale.
Nickerson specifically described Peart’s previous role working on “earned media” as a “beam of light shining out of Yale,” as she is responsible for Yale’s relationship with media outlets. In this capacity, Peart said her team manages 25 to 60 media inquiries each week, books experts and works with the editorial team to know what stories are coming up so that they can contact reporters to inform them of Yale experts who can talk about the given stories.
However, Nickerson said his primary focus when he took on his role was to improve Yale’s own media with Yale Today and YaleNews, which he said was a “pressing need” at the time. To do this, he identified OPAC Editorial Director Eric Gershon to improve the writing of Yale’s internal publications.
“One of my goals coming in here was to concentrate as much on how we communicate to the Yale community, inclusive of the alumni, as we do on Karen’s leadership of our interactions with the press,” Nickerson told the News.
Gershon had worked at OPAC in another capacity previously and knew Peart through past professional endeavors, so Peart said she has a “great partnership” with him. Gershon described his relationship with Karen as “symbiotic.”
Nickerson said that since Yale Today’s launch in January 2020, the daily emails providing a summary of recent news related to Yale have been opened over 27 million times, and the emails go out to 250,000 people six times per week.
Levin noted that the growth of Yale’s internal media has been a long time coming.
“I felt it was very important to publicize the accomplishments of Yale students and faculty, and I must say, underneath Nate Nickerson, I think we do it even more effectively than we used to,” Levin told the News.
OPAC’s dealings with the News
When beginning his role and considering earned media, Nickerson acknowledged that the Yale Daily News and the University’s administration have had a strained relationship in the past. But Nickerson told the News in March that at the start of his tenure, he told his colleagues to trust the News.
“When I came here, and it was probably just the benefit of being fresh and having no sort of experience or bias on the issue, I told everybody who wanted to talk to me about it, ‘I’m going to trust the News, period, and I’m going to push you guys to trust the News, and I think you’re going to like it,’” Nickerson told the News.
Today, many units within the University provide specific policies for the News’ reporters on how best to work with them on stories and schedule interviews. Some units, like the Office of Development and the Office of Undergraduate Admissions, only allow reporters to speak to the most senior staff members, while others, like the Provost’s Office, have documented media strategies specific to the News.
Peart told the News that the varying policies are a result of preferences within units, not policies from OPAC.
“Some unit leaders prefer to provide information directly to the media,” Peart told the News. “Staff members might not have access to all the information, and we want to be sure that any information reporters receive is accurate, and they have the whole view. And I think that’s typical across different units and different universities.”
Yale journalism professor Steven Brill told the News one student in his class was “condescended to and subject to abuse” by an administrator for their final project, and he said he believes this attitude “starts at the top” with OPAC.
The student, who requested anonymity due to fear of professional retribution from administrators, spoke to the News about the interaction, which occurred after the student asked “basic questions” to an administrator over email. The administrator was “very aggressive,” the student said, adding that the behavior “portrays an amount of panic.” The student also told the News that this experience with “hostile responses,” among others, has made student journalism more difficult.
“I’ve been told that I should feel free to say whatever I want and speak out about my opinions, but practically, like after explaining my position to people, I’ve been told by more than one journalism mentor that I might want to look into getting a lawyer,” the student told the News.
Nickerson said that often, units will ask OPAC for help because they are stressed about dealing with press inquiries, and that those unfamiliar with press inquiries will often not want to comment at all. In general, however, Nickerson said they encourage people to have “some sort of meaningful response” to reporters.
“We gently encourage communications people across Yale to not be too afraid of it and to use Karen and her team as people who can train them about how to think about press inquiries,” Nickerson told the News.
Nickerson explained that faculty tend to be more open to meeting with the press because of their role, and he emphasized that OPAC does not play a role in controlling what faculty tell the media.
“We’re here as a resource and here to give guidance, but never presume to tell a faculty member what they can or can’t say,” Nickerson told the News.
Peart told the News that OPAC also provides media training to faculty who have expressed interest in engaging with members of the media or are anticipating media coverage of their work.
Different divisions lean on OPAC in different ways. The Office of Alumni Affairs and Development policy, which was provided from Vice President for Alumni Affairs and Development Joan O’Neil, says that OPAC is the “primary resource for local, national, and international media” and “most inquiries from the media go directly to OPAC.” The policy outlines that the vice president for Alumni Affairs and Development — currently O’Neil — is the sole person responsible for communications with media outlets, though they may authorize others to respond on their behalf. Media inquiries to staff should go directly to the Senior Director of Communications, who will consult with the vice president for alumni affairs and development.
The office’s policy includes specific directions related to the News in that the reporter assigned to cover the office will have the vice president of alumni affairs and development as their point person, and staff should “never contact or respond to Yale Daily News inquiries without first receiving authorization from the Vice President for Alumni Affairs and Development.”
Similarly, the Office of the Provost has specific policies for News reporters that have been further developed in recent years. The policy states that the Provost will meet with a reporter from the News twice a semester for a scheduled interview. The reporter must submit questions five business days beforehand, and if they fail to do so, the meeting will be rescheduled based on the Provost’s availability. Additionally, the meetings “should not be recorded unless the Provost has explicitly agreed to have the conversation recorded at the beginning of the interview.” The policy also states that even with the Provost’s explicit consent, “any quotes or statements” should be vetted in writing before they are published.
For breaking stories, the Provost’s policy states that questions can be emailed a minimum of two business days before the deadline, and all questions submitted via email should have Peart along with the associate provost and director of communications at the Office of the Provost copied.
Reporters today frequently communicate with Peart and Nickerson, who often act as a go-between when contacting administrators. Oftentimes, Peart asks reporters to delay stories to give her the time to respond — an ask that Peart attributed to the time it takes to acquire information.
“We try to gather as much information as possible so that when we do respond to the Yale Daily News or any other media outlet, we’re providing accurate information, and that takes time,” Peart told the News. “Sometimes when [the News] comes to us with a same day deadline, we try to ask for more time so that we can try to provide more information that’s accurate and will not exacerbate a particular situation involving faculty or staff.”
Peart added that they strive for “access and transparency,” and the News is viewed as one of the most important media outlets she deals with. However, she emphasized that accuracy in the News’ reporting is vital because other outlets may pick up the coverage from the News, so she said it is important to get the correct information to the News.
“If the administration is ready to announce a major development, we feel it’s important that the student paper have access to that information in a timely manner, but we do acknowledge that the administrators are busy so we try to arrange a time that’s conducive for them to sit down at once and give [the News] all of that information,” Peart told the News.
Peart said when reporters from the News reach out to multiple people, she will often work with faculty to understand the background of the story, get the questions the reporter has and bring together responses from multiple people to “pull together everyone on the same page” because the group of faculty or administrators News reporters might reach out to may not have “the right answer.”
“Karen and her small team in OPAC spend a great deal of time carefully managing the high number of inquiries that come into our office from the Yale Daily News, or that are sent to us from outside offices and people seeking our guidance,” Nickerson wrote to the News recently. “Our goal is to give the News the access and responses it requests, while protecting people’s time after hours and on weekends. I am very proud of Karen’s thoughtful approach, and am thrilled by her appointment as interim VP for communications.”
In doing this, Peart often provides the News with written responses to their questions from numerous sources combined. Administrators have often also limited reporters to written responses to questions, rather than agreeing to speak with them in person or over the phone. This phenomenon occurs to nearly all of the News’ beat reporters. In one instance, a reporter for the News was told by Shonda Winters, administrative assistant at the School of Public Health, that all questions for then-Dean of the School of Public Health Sten Vermund should be sent by email. Winters later told the reporter to go through Michael Greenwood, communications director at the School of Public Health, for all interview requests, and Greenwood requested a paragraph summary of what they planned to discuss.
Nickerson told the News that it is difficult to respond to all of the inquiries from the News, especially when they have tight deadlines, as he said they spend more time dealing with the News than any other outlet.
“You guys are just burying us in inquiries,” Nickerson told the News. “You guys are aggressive. You’ve got a big paper, you’re doing great work. I have no problem with that fact. But just in terms of the management of people’s time. It’s tough.”
Nickerson said OPAC “gently encourages” staff and faculty to respond directly to media inquiries because of the “unbelievable volume” of inquiries that come into OPAC. Nickerson said if they did not “push back” to University units, OPAC would spend all of their time responding to inquiries from the News. He said it is often easier for them to have a quick call to help give advice on what to tell reporters than for OPAC to respond directly to press inquiries.
Reporters at the News are often given embargoed interviews before announcements are released, which Nickerson said he and Peart have especially encouraged. Yet, the terms of these embargoes sometimes include sending quotes ahead of time to sources to have them approved.
Reporters in the past have gotten in trouble with OPAC for publishing stories before the University releases a statement or announcement. Nickerson said he would never “begrudge the News” for getting a story before there is an official announcement, but embargoes are a “different matter.”
“When it comes to something that we think is important for the community to know, we don’t want them to read it in the press first,” Nickerson told the News. “If it’s really important university news, we would hope not to be beat by the press.”
Woodbridge Hall beat reporters regularly meet with Salovey, but report that he often read from a sheet of paper with pre-written responses for the questions at these meetings. Nickerson said these meetings are an opportunity to learn about Yale Corporation meetings — which are completely closed to the press.
“I like to think of [cabinet meetings and Yale Corporation meetings] as sort of problem solving seminars trying to come together on various issues and brainstorm, and we wanted the freest possible conversations,” Levin told the News. “To the extent possible people didn’t come to represent constituencies, they came as comrades trying to find the best answer to a problem.”
Student newspapers at peer institutions told the News they face similar bureaucratic environments where questions must be submitted in advance and administration meetings are largely confidential.
In 2013, The Crimson reported on the Harvard Office of Public Affairs and Communications’s similar policies to OPAC. In meetings with top-level administrators, reporters at The Crimson often face press representatives who join the meetings, and calls to administrators are often redirected to HPAC. Additionally, at Harvard, low-level administrators are told not to respond to press inquiries, but these messages are usually sent by human resources.
The Office of Public Affairs and Communications is located in Suite 330 on 2 Whitney Ave.
Update, Sept. 21: An earlier version of the story named the beat reporter attempting to contact then-Dean of the Yale School of Public Health Sten Vermund. The reporter has since asked to remain anonymous due to professional concerns.
Correction, Sept. 22: A previous version of this article stated that the policy of requiring members of the press to obtain approval before entering Yale buildings was unique to Yale Law School. In fact, the Yale University OPAC also requires media outlets to obtain approval. Additionally, Kroszner is the associate dean of the law school, not the assistant dean. The article has been updated to reflect these changes.