JEFF PEARLMAN

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I was a college newspaper advisor

I am not one who likes to carry his anger.

When I’m mad about something, I write about it. Cliche as that sounds, it almost always works. For some reason, putting anger to pen is my release. Does it backfire? Sometimes. Mostly, though, it relieves me; sets my angst free.

I am angry.

I have been angry for, oh, seven months now. The anger has hung with me; followed me; tied itself around my neck. I’ve tried ridding myself of it—through conversation, through exercise, through positive mental imagery. Nothing has worked. So I’m here, at my laptop, on this blog, writing.

I am an adjunct journalism professor at Manhattanville College in Purchase, N.Y. I’m in my third year, and make—I believe—$2,500 per semester. I don’t do this for (obviously) money or (obviously) glory. I do it because I’m genuinely passionate about journalism, and when I think back to the teachers I had at the University of Delaware (specifically, Bill Fleischman, Chuck Stone and Ted Spiker), I recall inspiring men who made me want to leap from my seat and report and write and express and expose and emote. Like those three fantastic professors, I see journalism as, potentially, something beautiful and great. Despite the doom and gloom of 2013, I encourage my students to enter the field. It has, after all, given me a blissful life.

Beginning in the fall of 2011, I took over as advisor to The Touchstone, the school’s student newspaper. As far as I could tell, Manhattanville had never had a regularly published paper. In my first year at the school, it came out, oh, three times. Maybe four. Having attended Delaware, where our paper came out twice per week, I knew (and loved) what a quality student newspaper brings to a campus. First, of course, information. Second, a priceless and invaluable outlet for aspiring journalists. Literally, college writers need college clips to land jobs. Third—and perhaps most important—a sense of community. Back at Delaware, the Review was like its own little ink-stained fraternity. We’d stay up in the office until 3 … 4 in the morning, eating cold pizza, blasting Ween and Nirvana, debating over headlines and jump spaces and ad placement. It became my home away from home; the ugly, soda-stained orange couch became my second bed.

I had been blessed with some wonderful students at Manhattanville, and it pained me—truly pained me—that they were not offered this. So I asked to take over as advisor (unpaid position). And the college agreed. They said they would provide office space and allow complete editorial independence. I told them the paper would, initially, rely on financial assistance from the school (for printing costs), with the long-term goal of generating enough advertising revenue to be self-sufficient. I also told them I would, for the first year or so, work close up with the students, in order to teach them not merely how to be student journalists—but how to be journalists. Everyone was on board.

The first new Touchstone came out in September 2011. It was (I believe) 12 pages. The editor in chief was a student named Marina, a wonderful Brazilian woman who came from a journalism family. The executive editor, Julie, was an aspiring teacher with a magnificent eye for newspaper design and layout. There was a staff of, oh, 15 or so students—strong for a new endeavor. That initial edition was filled with errors and blunders. Bad headlines, run-on sentences, misidentified photographs—and I was as proud as a new parent. The students worked hard. Really hard. On deadline night, they were up until 3 am, eating cold pizza, blasting Tupac. I sat alongside Marina and Julie, exhausted, but also thrilled that, potentially, they were getting a taste of the bliss. A couple of days later I drove out to the Long Island printing press and picked up the paper. I helped the students hand out copies; thrilled by the pride in their faces. This meant something to them and, of course, to me.

Over the ensuing year, the paper came out (almost without fail) every two weeks. There were highs and lows, ups and downs. One columnist wrote a line about, “eating like we’re in Ethiopia” (or something like that), and several Ethiopian students complained. There was an ugly college incident involving racial slurs and a school bus, and the reporters covered it well. Some of the columns were blistering—the food here sucks, this college doesn’t care about us—and I encouraged it. A college newspaper is supposed to be a vent; a place to tee off; to express oneself. It’s a learning tool; a very important one.

Come year’s end, three editors landed top-shelf internships: One at MSNBC and the Rachel Maddow Show, one at Sports Illustrated, one at a Wall Street investment newspaper. I was giddy. Beyond giddy. Another staffer, our sports editor, was hired by NBC Sports. Again—giddy.

I didn’t love 4 am deadline nights; I didn’t love driving 1 1/2 hours to get the newspaper; I didn’t love the exhaustion. But, really, things could not have gone better. It was a wonderful start.

Summer came

Summer went.

Two days into the Fall 2012 semester, I called Marina (the editor) to ask about the newspaper’s first meeting.

“Are you still the advisor?” she said.

“Of course,” I said.

“You may want to check,” she said. “That’s not what I heard.”

I told her she was, surely, wrong. I mean, who dumps a free newspaper advisor? Especially one who helped revive a dead newspaper? Especially one who works in the field and has lots of contacts and loves, loves, loves, loves, loves, loves journalism? I mean, who would do that?

I e-mailed the dean of students.

The dean of students e-mailed me back. He said I should come in for a talk.

Fuck.

I came in for a talk. He stammered and stuttered; lots of “uhhh” and “ehhh.” He said it wasn’t his decision and wasn’t his call, but that the college placed another professor in charge of the newspaper; a professor who has spent the majority of his career doing public relations and consulting. Not that anything’s wrong with public relations and consulting. It’s just not journalism.

The dean told me it wasn’t his call.

“Whose call was it?” I asked.

He didn’t know. Or wouldn’t say.

“So I’ve been fired from an unpaid position?” I asked.

“I’m not sure,” he said.

The editor, Marina, went to The Touchstone office. All the stuff belonging to the previous year’s staff was either removed or thrown out. Nobody told her about the change; nobody told any of the students about the change. A new editor was enlisted—without the new advisor ever telling the old editor she was, like me, dumped.

I was encouraged—by many—to quit the school. “To hell with them,” my mom said. “You don’t need it …”

“No,” the wife said. “You owe it to the students. And you love teaching.”

When I told the heads of my department about the happenings, they had no idea. We wound up having a meeting with the provost. She apologized, also said it wasn’t her call, but that the college was concerned about “the message.” What if prospective students, taking a campus tour, pick up the Touchstone and see a column about crappy food or bad policies? What then? I told her that journalism can’t be taught as public relations; that students must be able to voice their displeasure—and pleasure—in a free forum. A college newspaper is not a promotional pamphlet. A college newspaper is a newspaper.

To my great shock, I sat in front of her and my voice began to crack. Again, I told her, I made no money to do this; I certainly didn’t need to do this for my career. It was, 100 percent, about love, passion, developing journalists, seeing them published and, ultimately, hired. She nodded and smiled and empathized.

The meeting ended.

I was later told, by multiple college officials, that this came down to one thing, and one thing only: Image control.

I felt like I got over it. I really did. My class started its own online newspaper, The Pub Wrap, and that was fulfilling. I was told only my students could contribute; that it couldn’t compete with Touchstone. “Compete?” I said. “This isn’t a contest …”

I moved on; emotionally distanced myself from the college (I’m completing my final semester as we speak); tried to love my students without any of the lingering anger. I brought in some excellent guest speakers (Rick Jervis, a Pulitzer Prize winner; Amanda Sidman from the Today Show; Brian Mansfield of USA Today, Steve Cannella and Jon Wertheim of Sports Illustrated); had the students do a cool (well, I think it’s cool) final project; pushed the kids toward internships. My class evaluations were excellent. I am, I think, a good teacher.

I was fine.

Then the Touchstone came out. And it was brutal. A pamphlet. A PR pamphlet. Awful layout, no rhyme or reason; mugshots alongside every story. It looks like a bad high school newspaper, or a mediocre junior high school newspaper. (For the record, I don’t blame the students at all. At all. They’re new to this). I actually asked the provost for her take. “I thought it was quite good,” she said.

I was speechless.

And that’s when it hit me. The college doesn’t aspire to a quality student newspaper. It’s about safety. Easiness. Why have an established journalist advise students on journalism when you have a PR person advise students on journalism? Why aim for excellence when mediocrity is so comfortable? Hell, I could have helped my students put out a New York Times-quality product, and it wouldn’t have mattered. It was never about the journalism, per se, or the newspaper.

It was about mediocrity.

So now, Manhattanville’s student newspaper is back where it was two years ago. It’s come out two times thus far, with a dormant website, no Twitter presence, no sense of purpose. The clips are—from a career standpoint—relatively useless, because creativity and aggressiveness are clearly not encouraged. I read it and, literally, feel like crying. So much potential; so much opportunity.

So little interest.

What hurts most (and what, I suppose, inspires me to write this) is that this sort of stuff is going on everywhere. Journalism is, undeniably, under attack. Newspapers are closing. Corporate entities are stifling free press; colleges and universities are cracking down on student-generated publications. We, as a nation, are increasingly comfortable with the idea of limited voice.

It’s a dangerous path.

One, come semester’s end, I no longer want part of.