Editors weary of administrators' proposal

New recommendations could lead to censorship, newspaper staff contends

UTAH -- It happened over a year ago, but student editors at the University of Utah's Daily Chronicle believe the so-called 'Huntsman affair' is still impacting their newspaper in significant ways.

In August of 1999, former Chronicle editor Dave Hancock wrote a column criticizing the appointment of Karen Huntsman to the state's board of regents because of her lack of a college degree.

Huntsman's husband, Jon, a multi-millionaire and one of the university's major donors, was outraged by the column and threatened to withhold all future funding unless Hancock printed an apology, said current Chronicle editor Shane McCammon.

With over $400 million hanging in the balance, and after extreme pressure from the school's administration, the editor was persuaded.

Hancock published an apology for any personal offense the column caused but stuck by the view shared by he and his staff that there were flaws in the appointment of Mrs. Huntsman. After the apology, Mr. Huntsman's anger -- as well the controversy -- appeared to have subsided.

But a letter to the editor Mr. Huntsman wrote after the incident chastising the school's board of trustees for having "exercised no accountability or responsibility over a periodical which bears the institution's name" may have led to another dispute.

Vice President for University Relations Fred Esplin said he was asked by the board to look into two issues raised by the incident. Esplin said he first examined the editorial independence of the Chronicle and quickly determined that "they have full editorial independence and they have all of the First Amendment rights that any publication does."

Secondly, he said the board -- unsure about the exact nature of its relationship with the school's publications council, which acts as the paper's publisher, and the connection between the council and the student newspaper -- wanted to clarify what those relationships were.

Esplin then developed a proposal that he submitted to the council, which he said, among other things, calls for reaffirmation of the newspaper's editorial independence and the right of the trustees to select members of the publications council. It also makes several recommendations to "enhance the educational experience" of working for the paper, Esplin said.

These recommendations include hiring a full-time working journalist who would serve as a mentor/adviser for the paper and teach a course in the communication department that would be required for all newspaper staff members.

McCammon said one of his objections to the proposal is that the paper already has a mentor and a class for staff members, both on an informal basis. He also said he fears the vagueness of the proposal could leave the door open for administrators to exercise more control over the paper. Both the editor and the publications council are also concerned about the timing and motives of the proposal.

"They say it's to make the Chronicle more educational, but to me it seems that it's really to make sure that incidents like what happened [last] August don't happen again," McCammon said.

Although Esplin denied that the proposal stemmed directly from the Huntsman affair, McCammon and others disagree.

"It came out of a high level of hysteria and concern that derived directly from the relationship between the Chronicle and Mr. Huntsman and Huntsman's threats to cut off funding to the university," said Howard Lehman, a faculty member who chaired the publications council at the time the proposal was presented. "The concern was, 'Let's do something so that this won't happen again.'"

Shortly after the proposal was presented to the council in a meeting that McCammon described as "contentious," the trustees voted to change the makeup of the council by removing Lehman as chair.

Lehman, who had served on the council for three years, said the explanation given for his removal was that the trustees -- who every year have the right to appoint new members -- were looking to get "new blood" on the council. He recognized this as a legitimate explanation, but said his resistance to the proposal could have been a factor in the board's decision.

"That's difficult to prove," Lehman said. "They deny it, but certainly I think it may have shaped the decision-making climate. Whether or not it explicitly was an issue, I don't know."

In addition to five student members of the council who were replaced, two new faculty members joined the board, and the former alumni representative replaced Lehman as chair.

McCammon and his staff are concerned about the new makeup of the council-which makes decisions about funding for student publications and selects the newspaper's editor -- and its relationship to the incident involving Mr. Huntsman and the ensuing proposal. He said they fear the trustees appointed the new members based on whether they would support the administration's proposal.

Esplin said the administration had no involvement with selecting the new council members and in no way wants to infringe upon the paper's free speech or exercise control over its content.

"This is paranoia run amok," Esplin said. "There is no story here."

Fall 2000, reports