Report of the Presidential Commission Responding to Issues Raised by the April 2004 P
History and Context
On April 1, 2004, the Carnegie Mellon student newspaper The Tartan published its annual April Fool?s Day satire issue, the ?Natrat.? This publication received immediate community attention (and, eventually, that of local, national and international media) for representations of non-whites, gays and women that many readers deemed offensive and obscene. Greatest community reaction focused on a cartoon that included the use of a racial epithet in a violent context; a misogynist image of a woman?s genitals being penetrated by an ice skate (superimposed by two poems that focused on rape and sexual violence); and a homophobic essay that associated lesbians with bestiality. In light of the level of immediate voiced displeasure from many members of the community, the Tartan leadership decided to remove all copies of the ?Natrat? from campus distribution sites within twenty-four hours of its release. Quickly thereafter, they publicly acknowledged making mistakes during the ?Natrat???s production process and issued a special one-sheet edition on April 5, 2004, apologizing to the community.
In response to the ?Natrat,? some community groups and individuals, including President Cohon, Faculty Senate, Staff Council, Student Senate, the Graduate Student Assembly and the Student Government, issued statements condemning the publication of such material by an organization whose primary ambition is to represent the student voice. Both among those who found the ?Natrat? profoundly offensive and those who did not, many argued that the First Amendment rights of the student press must be given consideration in calibrating any potential institutional response to the matter. The ensuing weeks saw a number of campus rallies and forums, organized both by students and the administration, that gave community members public venues in which they could share their opinions, feelings and recommendations.
In an April 5, 2004, letter to the campus, President Cohon called the ?Natrat? ?irresponsible and unconscionable? as well as ?an affront to all people of conscience and diametrically opposed to the firmly held values and beliefs of this community.? By way of response, he established this Presidential Commission to investigate the events surrounding the publication. Dr.?Cohon appointed Student Body President Daniel Gilman and Director of Student Development John Hannon as commission co-chairs. Professor of English and Human Computer Interaction Chris Neuwirth, Associate Professor of History Scott Sandage, University Ombudsman Everett Tademy, Student Body Vice President Gilbert Dussek, Student Senator Nicolette Louissaint, Mudge House Community Advisor Jeannie Choi, Graduate Student Assembly President Rob Reeder, and alumna Kathryn Warren rounded out our ten-member commission.
This commission received a three-part charge. First, we were asked to review the production and publication of the ?Natrat? and advise Dean of Student Affairs Michael Murphy as to whether any individual(s) should be brought before the University Disciplinary Committee for violation(s) of community standards. Second, we were to review the whole of the Tartan operations and recommend to the Tartan organization, university administration, and student government any actions or directions necessary to support the Tartan?s vision for itself as a representative voice of the student body. Last, we were invited to identify any broader curricular and metacurricular issues that the administration, faculty, staff, student government, student organizations, and students could address toward future achievement of Carnegie Mellon?s broadest vision for itself.
The commission convened in late April 2004 and immediately focused on developing a comprehensive, factual understanding of the events preceding and following the publication of the ?Natrat.? Toward that end, we conducted individual interviews with key members of the Tartan organization, including those most directly involved in creating the ?Natrat.?
Additionally, the commission held one open meeting during finals week, to hear directly from any member of the campus community who wanted to address us. The comments and suggestions offered there underscored what was discussed at the five previous community forums sponsored by Student Affairs, all of which were attended by members of the commission.
Moreover, we reached out to over forty community members who expressed an interest in serving as informal advisors to the commission. Many of them provided written comments, questions to consider, or recommendations for our review.
In all, this process has enabled us to collect information and opinions from a diverse group of students, faculty, staff, alumni, and community members who have informed what we believe to be our grounded understanding of (1) the facts surrounding the ?Natrat???s publication and (2) key issues facing the Tartan and the campus community.
Charge 1: Recommendation for Judicial Action
The commission?s first charge was to advise the Dean of Student Affairs whether any potential violations of University policies and/or community standards had occurred and whether any individual(s) should be referred to the University Disciplinary Committee.
To this end, we first reviewed all University policies that related in any way to this case, ranging from the policy on free speech and assembly to the harassment policy. We also met with the University?s legal counsel to better understand individual policies and the judicial process as a whole.
All of this work prepared us to interview Tartan members who had been most directly involved in creating the ?Natrat.? We then comprehensively evaluated the information gathered through these interviews, to assess whether any actions rose to a level meriting attention by a UDC for potential violations of University policy.
At Dean Murphy?s invitation, each member of our commission made an individual recommendation to him in response to this charge, consistent with the normal practice employed by the Dean when seeking counsel from select community members on potential judicial matters. As the university maintains a high commitment to conducting a confidential judicial process, those individual recommendations and the rationale informing each of them remain private; that said, a considerable majority of commission members, though not all, recommended against any individual judicial action.
Charge 2: Recommendations for the Tartan
The commission?s second charge was to make recommendations for the future of The Tartan. Given that some people called for abolishing The Tartan in the wake of the ?Natrat???s publication, the commission debated the question raised by some members of the University community as to whether The Tartan should have any future. An argument was made by some in the immediate wake of the incident that certain Natrat content was so egregious and suggested such deep-rooted problems in Tartan culture that it warranted the end of the student newspaper. The commission, however, decided that a much stronger argument was made by many ? and ultimately endorsed by student government ? that The Tartan has played an important historical role in campus life as an organized voice of the student body. Profound issues (outlined below) currently weaken the organization, but, consistent with Carnegie Mellon?s core commitments to problem solving and student learning, we agreed with the prevailing community sentiment that we should aid The Tartan in ?righting its ship? rather than abandoning it as a lost cause.
Based on our interviews and community conversations, we offer four broad categories of recommendations in response to challenges that we believe currently face The Tartan: (1) staffing, (2) training and advising, (3) operations, and (4) relationships. All of these areas directly contributed to the ?Natrat? incident, but they also seem to have compromised the Tartan organization?s ability to reach its fullest potential in publishing a weekly newspaper. Put more simply, the April 2004 Natrat exposed problems endemic to The Tartan as a whole. The past and current Tartan members whom we interviewed generally conceded that significant problems exist, and we are hopeful that Tartan members are ready to collaborate with Carnegie Mellon?s administration and student government to solve them.
A caveat before discussing the actual recommendations: we heard from many who voiced concerns regarding freedom of the press and the dangers inherent in university micromanagement of The Tartan. Some of these concerns may have stemmed from a proposal advanced by The Tartan itself immediately following the distribution of the ?Natrat? that a ?content review board? should be established. The recommendations which follow aim to solve fundamental problems in The Tartan?s operation; however, we emphasize that all decisions regarding the paper?s actual content need to be made by students, consistent with the University?s commitment to free speech and First Amendment rights.
We believe the Tartan leadership can do a better job in making those decisions appropriately, and we are confident that proper infrastructure, resources and support will empower them to do so. Editorial control, judiciously and rigorously exercised, can and must rest with students. Our recommendations offer substantive areas of focus for the Tartan organization with the aim of ensuring that end, but the recommendations themselves remain at a macro level.
Recommendation #1: The Tartan needs a plan for achieving ?critical mass? in its level of staffing and personnel in order to be able to produce a newspaper consistent with its stated vision.
When all is said and done, the ?Natrat? was ultimately compiled by three people working at a feverish pace to meet a 4 am printer?s deadline on the morning of its release. According to these individuals, understaffing contributed to normal roles? being abandoned and usual editorial processes? being disregarded. Our interviews with past and current Tartan staff members, however, clearly indicated that understaffing is not unique to the ?Natrat.? Marathon all-night production sessions consisting of small numbers of Tartan staff are the norm, not the exception. If The Tartan is to produce a newspaper of the quality and scope to which it aspires, its members must craft and implement a concrete plan for dramatically growing the size of the staff actively engaged in its production at all levels.
Recommendation #2: The Tartan needs a strategy to ensure diverse membership reflective of our diverse campus community.
The word ?diverse? not only means cultural diversity (though significant advances are needed specifically in that area) but also ideological and intellectual diversity in the breadth and depth of voices that make up the voice of The Tartan. In several public forums, many students expressed concerns that the editorial board did not embrace multiple viewpoints or represent the wide variety of communities on campus. The Tartan needs a plan for reaching out to and establishing ongoing relationships with a wide range of campus organizations and constituencies, toward recruiting a diverse array of members, writers, staffers and ultimately editorial staff and board members. Only when that goal is achieved can the newspaper truly claim to represent the voice of the student body.
Recommendation #3: The Tartan needs to identify and address those factors which have led to a high level of attrition in membership over the past several years.
When The Tartan transitioned leadership in January 2004, the staff was composed primarily of first-year students. A clear pattern has emerged wherein students join and leave the newspaper in a relatively short time, resulting in fewer and fewer people with the experience necessary to lead the paper. While some causes of this attrition are not immediately clear, efforts must be made to identify and alleviate them.
Recommendation #4: The Tartan needs to re-invest in its staffers (writers and copy editors), many of whom report feeling alienated from its leadership and having little sense of ownership for the direction and quality of the paper.
One source of attrition is in fact clear: we heard from some former Tartan staffers who left the newspaper out of a sense of frustration, disillusionment and dissatisfaction with the leadership. We are concerned that there has been a profound disconnect between the leaders and the staffers, leaving staffers feeling that they are not members of The Tartan, they ?just write for it.? A plan for organizing and developing the staff which cultivates ownership and investment in the newspaper?s direction will reduce attrition and help The Tartan fulfill its vision.
Training and Advising
Recommendation #5: The Tartan should provide comprehensive training for its members (particularly its new members) regarding journalistic best practices and ethics.
Even if it were true that no academic coursework is accessible in this area (a misperception shared by some Tartan members), little has been done by The Tartan to develop this type of training in-house. Current training for new Tartan staff (grounded primarily in operating policies and procedures) needs to be expanded to embrace broad topics and issues relevant to the field of journalism. Further, we recommend that The Tartan construct a professional development plan to meet the ongoing needs of members at all levels of the organization.
Recommendation #6: The Tartan needs support in establishing and maintaining connections to professional journalism resources (in forms such as mentors, associations and conferences).
Although The Tartan has in the past attempted to develop these types of resources, more support from student government and University administration is needed to achieve and sustain them. We acknowledge the recent redoubling of advisory support in this regard within the Student Activities Office and we urge the Dean of Student Affairs to provide whatever additional support they deem necessary toward this end.
Recommendation #7: The Tartan needs support from comprehensive, formalized advisorship of a type and scope to be determined by The Tartan membership, in conjunction with Student Activities and student government.
The Tartan needs thoughtful day-to-day advisorship in the areas of journalism, publication design and production, business management, and organizational development. What is of paramount importance, however, is that The Tartan, in concert with student government, adopt an advisory structure that they will willingly and actively engage in virtually every aspect of the life of the paper. We recommend that the University provide whatever support The Tartan needs toward recruiting advisors and achieving this goal.
Recommendation #8: The Tartan should develop and establish a formal set of contingency plans to govern situations when normal operating practices (such as issue length and timeline for publication) cannot be followed.
As noted, Tartan members periodically find themselves in circumstances wherein significant compromises of content and process occur haphazardly in order to meet production deadlines. While to some extent such may characterize the work cycle of any college newspaper, extreme contingencies can result in publication of material inconsistent with the vision for the paper. To prevent such mishaps from recurring, we recommend that The Tartan develop a proactive set of contingency plans, formalized in their constitution, to govern situations when normal operating practices need to be modified.
Recommendation #9: The Tartan should identify and adopt a journalistic code of ethics.
Unlike most newspapers, The Tartan does not subscribe to any code of ethics. We strongly believe that adopting one, such as that provided by the Society of Professional Journalists (http://www.spj.org/ethics_code.asp?), will materially guide the organization in producing a better publication, while simultaneously alleviating negative perceptions of The Tartan?s allegedly poor relationships with some members of the campus community.
Recommendation #10: The Tartan needs to articulate a clear operating vision for the paper which guides content creation, selection and publication.
The Tartan constitution outlines a reasonably specific process through which general and editorial content can ultimately come to be printed, but does little in the way of offering a clear operating vision that informs the actual decisions that are made regarding creation, development and selection of content. This situation (particularly when coupled with the aforementioned membership issues) leaves The Tartan open to serving merely as a vehicle for a small number of like-minded individuals to broadcast their viewpoint, as opposed to becoming a representative voice of the broader student body in all its diversity
Recommendation #11: The Tartan needs to create protocols and structures to preserve an institutional memory.
Our interviews with former and current Tartan members indicate that little has been done to record the history of the organization (particularly relative to operating procedures) and transition it from one administration to the next. In the absence of active advisory relationships, The Tartan is thus left largely unable to learn from the lessons of the past. We believe investment in this area will yield the organization significant dividends over time, particularly as the issues outlined in these recommendations are addressed in the coming weeks, months and years.
Recommendation #12: The Tartan would benefit from the formalized ongoing leadership and self-assessment afforded by a board of directors.
We encourage the Tartan leadership to revisit this possibility, which it has considered in the past. Other student organizations, notably radio station WRCT, have benefited immensely from the long-term strategic vision and organizational stability embodied in a board of directors. We reiterate our strong belief that content and editorial decisions must remain in the hands of students, but a thoughtfully composed board can ensure that sound infrastructures and frameworks exist within which those decisions can be made wisely.
Recommendation #13: The Tartan needs to recover its financial health and devise realistic plans for ensuring a stable financial future.
The sizeable debt accrued by The Tartan over the past several years threatens the organization. Any efforts to make The Tartan stronger in any area will ultimately be diminished as long as the paper continues to operate at a significant net annual deficit. We applaud the recent joint decision by The Tartan leadership and student government to restore The Tartan?s funded recognition status as the first step in resolving this situation. We now recommend that The Tartan, student government, and University administration work in concert to ensure that a realistic, balanced operating budget is developed and implemented.
Recommendation #14: Tartan culture needs to reassess the view that the ?Natrat? is a separate publication/entity that falls outside The Tartan?s normal operating procedures.
Interviews with many Tartan leadership and staff revealed an apparent consensus that the ?Natrat? is a publication, in the words of one staffer, ?where we throw out all the rules and do whatever we want, because it?s not The Tartan.? We believe this consensus implicitly and inappropriately abnegates the staff from their editorial responsibility relative to this satirical issue. We recommend that The Tartan either (a) formalize in its constitution the ?Natrat???s purpose and role in the context of normal organizational operating procedures, or (b) discontinue the satirical publication. Further, we recommend that student government make any future financial allocation or subsidy for the ?Natrat? contingent upon The Tartan?s meeting this criterion.
Recommendation #15: The Tartan and the community (particularly Carnegie Mellon University as an institution) need to articulate a jointly developed statement of the formal relationship between the newspaper and the University.
The Tartan?s masthead reads ?Carnegie Mellon?s Student Newspaper since 1906,? yet we found no documentation outlining the precise relationship between ?The Tartan? and ?Carnegie Mellon University.? We find this situation troubling, particularly as significant institutional resources (financial, facility, personnel, and even institutional identity and name) have been expended by the University in support of The Tartan. We recommend that Student Affairs, student government and The Tartan cooperatively generate an agreement outlining each party?s roles, rights, and responsibilities in the context of this relationship.
Once again, we hasten to emphasize that such a compact must not abridge First Amendment rights or student editorial control of the newspaper?s content. We are confident that a mutually beneficial clarification of this relationship can materially enhance The Tartan?s journalistic freedom.
Recommendation #16: The Tartan needs to consider and address reader concerns that the paper has been largely disengaged from other student organizations and, more broadly, from the student experience on campus.
We conclude our recommendations with one that may be the most imperative to The Tartan?s future success. We heard again and again from students who had stopped reading The Tartan long before its 2004 edition of the ?Natrat? appeared. Tartan leadership has acknowledged its organizational drift away from service to readers as a key issue for the paper and, to address this, has created two new leadership positions, Executive Officer and Ombudsman. While this is certainly a positive step, we recommend that The Tartan develop a plan for engaging the student body during the upcoming semester in a meaningful dialogue regarding exactly what students want ? and expect ? from their campus newspaper. We hope that The Tartan will thereby gain valuable information to better inform and reform its vision and begin to mend and enhance its relationship with its readers.
We acknowledge that, for Tartan members, the prospect of implementing all of these recommendations may seem daunting or overwhelming. That said, we are confident that they are eager to do whatever it takes to ensure the newspaper?s success. With adequate support from the University community, we believe the aims of our recommendations can, in time, be reasonably achieved, making The Tartan again a vibrant, stable and representative voice of the Carnegie Mellon student body.
Charge 3: Recommendations for the Broader Community
The commission?s third charge was to report on broader community issues suggested by the publication of and response to the ?Natrat.? Certainly, this incident served as a lightning rod for many people, bringing up issues that lay just below the surface of the community?s collective consciousness and just beyond the reach of its daily discourse. In addition to learning about community factors that contributed to the publication of the ?Natrat,? we heard from some people who described, in very personal terms, pervasive aspects of campus life that the ?Natrat? served merely to illustrate or aggravate.
Here, we summarize those themes and offer what recommendations our small group can toward addressing them. Many of the issues below are of a scope so extensive and a nature so amorphous that their resolution will ultimately require the work of many hands in many corners of the University. Our ambition here is merely to draw attention to those issues raised most vocally by some members of our community, and suggest potential directions for addressing their concerns.
Issue #1: Carnegie Mellon needs a stronger commitment to the broad-based education outlined in the University?s strategic plan in order to change the potentially self-fulfilling perception that Carnegie Mellon students are not well-rounded.
In the wake of the ?Natrat???s publication, a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette editorial cartoon asked, in effect, ?What else would you expect from a Carnegie Mellon student?? By contrast, the first of the seven goals in the University?s strategic plan endorses ?...?expanding intellectual and personal development [so that] our students will become broadly educated and humane leaders ....? This disconnect between perception and aspiration was underscored by those students, faculty and staff who shared their opinion that this fundamental goal of Carnegie Mellon?s strategic plan has not been substantively or universally embraced. If integrating broad-based education into our largely professional curriculum really is our foremost objective, then far-reaching efforts need to be made by academic and administrative units to ensure that it is achieved.
Toward that end, we recommend that President Cohon convene a university-wide task force aimed at identifying and formalizing those core elements of a broad-based education which we expect all Carnegie Mellon students, without regard to academic discipline, will receive. We recognize the magnitude of such an undertaking given the variety of individual academic programs and the need to preserve their integrity, but we believe that only through a centralized, unifying process, mandated by the President, will this particular goal ever be fully realized.
Issue #2: Issues relating to diversity and community are not intentionally integrated into the curriculum of every discipline, department and college at Carnegie Mellon.
This was probably the issue raised most vocally and most forcefully by the community members who communicated with us. Simply put, the University needs to continue to develop creative ways to weave themes of diversity and global citizenship into all existing curriculums. Meaningful efforts designed to ensure that all coursework is presented through an appropriately multifaceted lens will yield students who are better prepared to lead our increasingly diverse communities.
Issue #3: The campus community is largely unaware of the work of University task forces, committees and strategic groups around diversity issues.
Following the publication of the ?Natrat,? many community members offered thoughtful suggestions on how to improve the campus climate regarding diversity issues. Ironically, many of those suggestions reflected a lack of understanding of work that has already been initiated or completed by a number of University task forces, committees and strategic groups.
The net effect is a situation where some community members are left with the feeling that ?nothing is being done? at the same time that other community members (particularly those in leadership positions) are actively working to address those very issues ? and, very often, feeling that nobody is paying attention to their exertions. More formal, regular communication to the broader campus community by these groups may serve to address tensions stemming from a perceived inaction by the broader University community, while informing community members of direct vehicles through which they might share their voice and perspective should they choose to do so.
Issue #4: Students are not consistently pushed toward (and in some cases are actually deterred from) expanding their intellectual and interpersonal horizons beyond their curricular focus area. That said, some students do not know how, or are afraid, to make use of available curricular and social flexibility toward the same end.
While a university-wide mandate to engage in a broad-based education would be beneficial, the same result could be achieved if students were encouraged by faculty, staff and their peers to diversify their coursework and experiences on campus. In large measure, we heard from students that the opposite is more often the case. Discussions about exploring curricular or metacurricular arenas outside one?s academic major generally focus on barriers, challenges and trade-offs, diminishing the likelihood that students will engage in the genuine opportunities that exist within the community. A natural place to begin addressing this issue would be through the network of academic advisors across campus, by providing them with the information and resources necessary to assist students in engaging in experiences outside of their department, major, or college.
Issue #5: Students lack sufficient opportunities and incentives to engage socially across various intercultural and intracultural lines.
Despite the diversity reflected in the composition of our campus community, much less interpersonal interaction and engagement occurs between members of different cultural groups (and even subgroups) than one would expect in a community of our size. We heard from many students who expressed a perception that undue lines demarcate and separate cultural groups on campus. While we applaud recent efforts by academic departments, student affairs, and student government to bridge groups through an emphasis on cross-cultural leadership and teamwork, there is much that still could be done toward ensuring that ongoing, genuine relationships across cultural lines are the norm and not
Issue #6: Students need additional substantive experiences throughout the first year defining what it means to be an engaged member of this community.
Beyond the confines of Orientation Week programs, first-year students would benefit from receiving more orientation to the values of our community and the expectations incumbent upon them as members. In particular, first-year students would be well served by clearly defined experiences designed to cultivate their investment in the continuous improvement of the community on campus. Toward that end, we recommend that Student Affairs partner with academic units to create an environment in the first year that emphasizes further civic engagement and community investment.
Issue #7: Formal and informal vehicles for communication about campus opportunities and issues are missing.
While most would consider Carnegie Mellon a ?well-networked? campus, the decentralized nature of the University calls for an environment in which students, faculty and staff are better informed about current opportunities and issues that have the potential to enhance and/or challenge community development. This knowledge would ultimately lead to greater investment in the life of the community broadly-defined. Ongoing expansion of electronic initiatives such as the web portal will help address this issue, and we encourage the University to continue to create and deploy other mechanisms that ensure that all members of our community are well informed about the core ?issues of the day.?
Issue #8: The role of the Carnegie Mellon Code in informing and governing the life of the campus community is unclear.
The Code, printed in The Word, articulates the philosophy and application of University policies on student conduct. Some community members argued that the publication of the ?Natrat? violated the Code, and in exploring that position, we struggled to understand how, exactly, the Code is directly connected to specific University policies. We recommend that student affairs convene a task force to examine and review the Code, its role in judicial matters, and its relationship to the actual body of University policy.
Issue #9: Interactions between community members could better reflect the basic human values of civility and respect.
Carnegie Mellon can be a very task-oriented environment that places a high premium on hard work. This hallmark of our institution, though, contributes to a culture which at times undervalues interpersonal relationships founded on civility and respect. Some community members in public forums recounted personal stories reflecting that fact, and one need look no further than the campus electronic bulletin board system (e.g., cmu.misc.market?) to see examples of inappropriate and even hostile discourse.
In no way do we believe speech can or should be regulated, but as an institution we can and should do a better job educating community members about the values of civility and respect and their role in enhancing the work that we do. We recommend that faculty and staff find ways to emphasize these values in arenas ranging from curriculum development to individual interactions with students.
The above issues and recommendations broadly summarize what we heard from the campus community as our commission conducted its work. The degree to which these issues did or did not contribute to the publication of the ?Natrat? is open to interpretation. Clearly, however, this set of issues impressed us as meriting thoughtful consideration by our entire community. Addressing them will not necessarily prevent future incidents, but will hopefully have the net effect of advancing the University?s strategic goal of educating leaders who ?...?have courage to act, [are] sensitive to the needs and feelings of others, understand and value diversity, and honor the responsibilities that come with specialized knowledge and power.? In following a most unfortunate incident with this type of community investment by students, faculty and staff, we will once again show our mettle as a community, responding to difficulty by embracing the opportunities it highlights for further growth and development on our
path of excellence.