Front Page
  Current Issue
  Back Issues
  About National CrossTalk

National CrossTalk
News Editorial Other Voices Interview

From Candor to Cheerios
College news bureaus grapple with a new emphasis on marketing

"CALLING A MAJOR research university's public relations office today is no different from calling a Fortune 500 firm."

That comment by a Wall Street Journal reporter stunned me as Stanford's news director in 1989. But it rings even more true today.

Many universities have shifted resources once devoted to reporting and editing to media relations, magazines and marketing. "The old focus was to tell it like it is," commented a veteran East Coast editor. "That's not in fashion anymore."

Independent interviews have identified three cases in the past year where respected news professionals at research universities were administratively shuffled, downgraded or transferred in favor of a more promotional approach. None of the principals involved in these situations returned repeated telephone calls.

Several other college public information staffers said they had been barred from writing features on tuition and college costs for their own house organs. Their bosses simply didn't want to "rock the boat."All demanded anonymity.

Over the years, at Stanford, Penn and elsewhere, award-winning, independent alumni magazine editors have departed quietly into the night. Loyal critics have no place on the management team.

"It's troubling to see universities move toward the Cheerios model," one west coast reporter lamented.

A 15-page UC Berkeley mission and goals statement proclaims, "The overarching goal is to become the acknowledged leader among professionals in the field of university public affairs/communication." The statement promised that Berkeley "will adhere to the principle of being open and honest with the press and public, and of making the university as transparent as possible to public scrutiny."

Independent observers don't see it that way. David Littlejohn, emeritus professor of journalism, said "Time and again in recent years, Cal ended up looking bad because the university did not respond honestly and candidly to public complaints or inquiries; or even go out of its way (as it did in the '60s and '70s) to make its problems known to the press and public on its own."

Dick Corten, who edited the independent Cal Monthly alumni magazine in the '60s and '70s, agreed. On his way out as director of creative services for the alumni association last fall, he told his colleagues:

"In the 'peacetime' era that recent years have finally brought to Cal and other colleges, the very calm that has allowed business to be conducted as usual has been accompanied by a fear of disturbing the calm, of alienating any source of the new prosperity, of rocking the boat in any way, no matter how minor.

"I'm no Eisenhower, politically or otherwise, but just as he left the presidency with a warning about potential harm from the military-industrial complex, I would caution this greatest of campuses not to feel it's safe to become as corporate as the world beyond these boundaries, because that will inevitably result in cover-ups, glossing-over, and 'PR' instead of accurate information. It's just human nature,"

Over the past five years, UC Berkeley cut its public affairs staff from 38 to 30. In what officials called a "deorganization" last summer, several remaining public information staffers were moved out of central administrative quarters in Sproul Hall to share quarters with campus publications four blocks away.

The transition came while Berkeley was at the center of a major national controversy over affirmative action. Reporters were frustrated. "No one even answers our calls," one complained.

Reporters were astonished when Northwestern University recently called a news conference to announce that its College of Arts and Sciences would be named in honor of a major donor family, but steadfastly refused to disclose the amount of the gift, at the donors' request.

Northwestern said both the Chicago Tribune and Sun-Times ran stories, but The Chronicle of Higher Education declined to do so without a dollar figure.

When Indiana University announced a major computer contract with Microsoft this spring, the university's chief negotiator declined to cite a dollar amount at the company's request. Reporters laughed, saying they'd file immediately for disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

Christopher Simpson, Indiana's vice president for public affairs, promptly disclosed the figure: $6 million. Microsoft told reporters it was negotiating similar deals with other academic institutions.

Reporters trying to systematically "follow the money" rarely find easy going on campus.
Erik Larson, who wrote a Time cover story on the University of Pennsylvania's finances last year, said corporate 10-K disclosures are easier to understand and more consistent than university accounts.

While Penn claimed a deficit in its own annual report, Larson found its tax returns showed a $182 million surplus. After his expose, a dozen college newspaper editors called to say they had been "stonewalled" on campus budget stories, he said.

Many education writers said they found public universities and their presidents far more accessible and attuned to public concerns over college costs than their private counterparts.

No other issue generates more widespread, sustained controversy between college publicists and education reporters.

Duke University proved an outstanding exception. With very strong high-level administrative support, it opened its books to Chronicle of Higher Education reporter Kit Lively last year for a major feature on how tuition is set. Both the university and the newspaper were pleased with the results.

Every year, Lively and her Chronicle colleagues request copies of IRS forms 990 from 500 colleges and universities. Required of all non-profits, these are public documents. They include the salaries and total compensation of the top five officers as well as the five highest paid individuals -- often medical deans and " star" faculty physicians. (This year $2 million was tops, with several above $1 million.)

In 1989, when the Chronicle first requested Stanford's form 990, university attorneys argued that the newspaper should be required to send a reporter to campus to copy the information by hand. (lt was photocopied and sent by overnight express.) Lawyers and the president's office forbade Campus Report, Stanford's internal weekly newspaper, from publishing individual salaries and perks of its vice presidents, even though The Stanford

Daily, the student newspaper, already had the information.

About three years ago, the Chronicle's disclosure of form 990 data for Adelphi University led to the president's resignation and a major reorganization.

In the most recent Chronicle survey, Lively said, about 200 institutions sent their 990s promptly. Another 200 required extensive telephone follow-up. Student stringers got the remaining 100 in person.

Some colleges initially tried to "white-out" individual names and compensation, Lively said. New federal law requires institutions to respond to written requests for copies of their form 990 within 30 days.

Another, less known law requires colleges receiving federal student aid funds to provide copies of their accreditation reports on request.

Larson and Lively have suggested tracking down indirect cost reports for more financial disclosure on research-related expenses. These public documents are filed with Health and Human Services, the Office of Naval Research, or other designated agencies responsible for auditing individual institutions.

"Universities don't want to give you this stuff," Larson said. " (At Penn), a very artful public relations guy put me off for months." Larson obtained the data through a Freedom of Information request backed by Time.

Stanford President Donald Kennedy resigned in 1992 after highly publicized allegations the university had included a yacht, flowers, antique furniture and wine in its indirect cost pool. (Indirect costs include heat, light, building maintenance and other overhead costs related to research.) Two years later, Stanford reimbursed the government $1.2 million.

By the time the crisis ended, Stanford had spent about $37 million for lawyers, accountants and related services, Jerrold K. Footlick reported in his book, Truth and Consequences: How Colleges and Universities Meet Public Crises.

Across the country, science and medical research remain relative strongholds for straight news reporting by campus public information officers. (In 1990, when England's venerable Oxford University started a public information program, the first person hired was a science writer.)

"Scientists not only have to do good research, they have to promote it," said Art Page, news service director at the State University of New York at Buffalo. "We still operate in a journalism mode. We put findings in context -- more than just Buffalo."

When New York Times national education editor Nancy Sharkey was asked to suggest an outstanding news bureau, Buffalo was her instant reply. Page had tipped her to the plight of Asian students in the U.S. after the economies of their home countries collapsed. The front page story made no mention of Buffalo. Page did not protest, and Sharkey did not forget.

In the San Francisco Bay Area, several reporters gave high marks to UC Davis as being very trustworthy and forthcoming, even with "negative" news.

Veteran Sacramento Bee reporter James Richardson called UC Davis Public Communications Director Maril Stratton "unbelievably helpful." He complimented her " very open, accessible" style which he said mirrors that of her chancellor with his faculty and staff.

In contrast, Richardson who now is studying to be an Episcopal minister at Berkeley Divinity School, said Stanford comes across as "a closed, elitist institution that doesn't want to deal with the press." He referred to its leaders as "arrogant" and "impossible."
At the opposite end of the prestige spectrum, the University of Phoenix, the University of Southern California's satellite center in Sacramento and several niche schools "market like crazy, and (reporters) fend them off like mad," Richardson said.

"Now big universities are looking over their shoulder and emulating them."

-- Bob Beyers



National Center logo
© 1998 The National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education

HOME | about us | center news | reports & papers | national crosstalk | search | links | contact

site managed by NETView Communications