As the Texas Student Media Board of Trustees meets this morning to discuss specific issues regarding the circumstances surrounding the recent resignation of director Gary Borders, the organization also faces ongoing repercussions of financial and staffing problems that have accumulated over the past few years.
A budget deficit, falling advertising revenue and recurrent vacancies in critical leadership roles are affecting TSM’s ability to operate. While budget deficits and falling advertising revenue are problems that plague college media nationwide, some problems may have arisen from TSM’s unique structure.
“No other collegiate media entity that I am aware of has a governing board and University reporting [requirement],” said Jennifer Hammat, assistant vice president of student affairs and a former interim director of TSM.
A board of operating trustees governs TSM, which is not independent of UT. Its entities include The Daily Texan, TSTV, KVRX 91.7 FM, The Cactus Yearbook and The Texas Travesty, a humor publication. The director of TSM reports to both the vice president of student affairs and the TSM board of trustees. The Declaration of Trust for the organization states an endowment of $5 million would allow TSM to become an independent entity, but unless such an endowment is made, TSM employees are considered employees of the University.
The involvement of the Office of Student Affairs in employment matters has become a source of conflict at TSM in recent days. Borders told the Texan that Juan Gonzalez, the outgoing vice president of student affairs, forced his Feb. 8 resignation after Borders raised the ideas of selling TSM’s television and radio licenses. Gonzalez said he followed policy involving university personnel performance with regard to Borders’ resignation.
Wanda Cash, associate director of the School of Journalism and former TSM board member, said personnel performance issues were previously handled much differently, including when she was on the board.
“If there were performance issues, the vice president of student affairs contacted me, and then in consultation with the president of the board we worked out what had arisen,” Cash said. “This time that did not happen and that’s what is very troubling. The vice president of student affairs acted alone in terminating the director.”
Board member Tim Lott, vice president of audience strategy for the Cox Media Group, said the board was unaware there was a problem with Borders’ performance.
“I literally had no idea there was any sort of problem that could potentially end in a termination,” Lott said.
Borders was the third director TSM had seen in as many years. Kathy McCarty departed TSM in 2009 after serving 15 years. Hammat served as the interim director for nearly two years and participated in one failed search for a replacement until Borders was hired in summer 2011 after a second search. The board will discuss the possibility of appointing a an interim TSM director this morning.
Meanwhile, the search has not yet begun for a replacement for Jennifer Rubin, former multimedia adviser who departed in October 2011 after six months on the job.
Board member Mark Morrison, a lecturer in the journalism school, said it’s imperative a replacement is found quickly.
“We need to establish leadership,” Morrison said.
While facing absent leadership, TSM has a March 19 budget deadline looming. The organization is already facing the effects of a budget deficit.
The 2011-2012 annual budget has a projected $175,252 deficit that draws from the organization’s reserve fund that fell to $723,665.55 in November. Advertising revenue for TSM has declined from $2,326,411 four years ago, to $1,509,839 last year.
Texas Student Television is the only TSM entity budgeted for a profit this year.
The Daily Texan, which accounts for 89 percent of TSM advertising revenue, has seen changes in the three years since it last posted profit.
Since 2009, The Daily Texan has sold its press, outsourced printing and distribution, which resulted in staff layoffs and is making plans to reduce summer print production to once weekly. A second round of layoffs among TSM professional staff followed a reorganization in 2011.
Borders’ claim that he was dismissed because of budget-cutting proposals has led Cash to question the vice president’s role.
“The issue here is: is it right for the Office of Student Affairs to continue oversight as the president’s designee of Texas Student Media?” asked Cash.
Cash said she believes revising the Declaration of Trust to make the dean of the College of Communication the University’s designee to oversee TSM, instead of the office of student affairs, would be a better arrangement than the current one.
“In the College of Communication we have an understanding of journalism,” Cash said. “We have the right sensibility of journalism — of first amendment rights, of freedom of the press and our common disdain for prior restraint and censorship. I’m not sure the office of student affairs shares that sensibility.”
Regardless of who is the university’s designee for oversight of TSM, board president and third-year law student Lindsey Powers said the University needs to remember common courtesy when communicating with the board of trustees.
“I think a lot of people have forgotten how important it is to consult a board,” Powers said.
Kevin Hegarty, vice president and chief financial officer for the University, was recently appointed by President William Powers Jr. to investigate the circumstances of Borders’ termination.
Although Hegarty said the board should be granted the courtesy of consultation before terminating employees, he said because the University is the employer of TSM’s employees, Borders was subject to termination by the University. He said the University had more say in TSM’s operations than a yearly performance review.
“The role of the University is to counsel, to coach and to do what it can to support the board of trustees,” Hegarty said.
Hegarty said he hopes University and TSM relations improve after today’s meeting.
“The intent is to be very consultative and to come to solutions that are collaborative and cooperative,” Hegarty said. “Hopefully we can move forward.”