Daily Texan Editor Willie Morris once wrote, “The Daily Texan is bigger than any one man.”
But it took only one man, President William Powers Jr., to make a major decision about the future of this University’s 113-year-old independent student newspaper, which he did when he asked Roderick Hart, the Dean of the Moody College of Communication, to absorb the administration of The Daily Texan and its parent organization, Texas Student Media, known as TSM, into the Moody college. Prior to this decision, TSM was housed in the Division of Student Affairs, where a Board of Trustees ensured its independence.
Not a single student manager in any of TSM’s five media properties, which include The Daily Texan, KVRX radio station, the Cactus Yearbook, Texas Student Television and the Texas Travesty, were consulted about the change or even made aware of it, outside of a brief conversation with Hart and Gage Paine, vice president for Student Affairs, at a September meeting of the TSM Board of Trustees. During that discussion, student managers expressed concerns about moving to the communications school, including the potential for censorship and limiting the paper’s independence.
In response, Hart repeatedly reassured students that he had no interest in interfering with the workings of the paper, and, honestly, didn’t much want it in the first place. As he told a Daily Texan reporter on Wednesday, “[TSM] is not something that I lusted for.”
The Moody college, however, has the fundraising resources that the Texan lacks. Whether or not Hart “lusted” after TSM, he will now be tasked with providing TSM the funds it needs, assuaging President Power’s fears about the paper struggling financially in the Division of Student Affairs.
“President Powers has spoken many times about his commitment to The Daily Texan, to [TSM] and to student journalism. [TSM’s move into the college] is another way to show support and help maintain the excellence of the student journalists we have on campus,” Gary Susswein, a University spokesman, said on Wednesday.
This editorial board believes in the good intentions of both Hart and Powers. Financially troubled media entities, after all, aren’t the most attractive business acquisitions, and the dean has better business to take care of than nit-picking at the Texan’s articles. Powers has, as Susswein said, consistently stood up for the independence of student journalism on the UT campus.
But that doesn’t change the fact that neither of them has adequately confronted the potential challenges to the Texan’s independence that come with a move to the Moody college. And, though we trust Hart’s promise to refrain from interfering with the paper, it’s possible to imagine a college’s dean who feels differently, and it’s this worst-case scenario that has to be discussed. If a dean is able to limit the content printed in the Texan, hire and fire the TSM director, or challenge editors who defy him by threatening to tighten the paper’s purse strings, the core values of The Daily Texan — independence and student control — may be under fire. Worse yet, control of The Daily Texan could be granted to professors, who may feel more comfortable with a paper that conforms to their idea of perfection than one that fails — and learns — at the hands of students.
Which is why we are so distressed that no one involved in the decision, as yet, has adequately explained how TSM will maintain its independence under the Moody college’s umbrella.
As Dean Hart himself said Wednesday, “There’s just a lot of unknowns …. It’s in a very sort of still-working-it-out stage.”
In regard to why the student members of the Board of Trustees were not alerted of the move, Hart said, “All I can say is the president called me over to his office. That was it. I don’t know anything about the TSM board, or what its procedures are.”
We’re happy that President Powers saw fit to turn his eyes on our beloved, and financially floundering, newspaper. We’re happy he saw fit to order a drastic action to save it. But we’re shocked and concerned that questions about preserving the Texan’s independence were answered briefly, poorly and unconvincingly by administrators at all levels. The editorial independence of one of the nation’s greatest college newspapers is not something with which to play fast and loose.
Before TSM makes its move to the communications school, students should demand to know how the TSM trust, which protects the paper’s independence, will be amended and when.
Students should demand to know whether, as Dean Hart put it, “solidifying the management structure” includes strengthening or weakening elected student leadership.
Most importantly, students should demand a concrete answer to the question of how the communications school will absorb the paper without squelching its independence. That members of the UT administration have repeatedly promised not to meddle with TSM properties is not enough: It is easy to make promises when there is nothing holding you to them.