University employees are afraid to speak to the press. I don’t blame them.

By Max Saltman
Executive Staff

In Amelia Leaphart’s fine article on the backlog of work and lack of space in the Student Post Office, she notes that some SPO staff “are uncomfortable talking to the Purple about these issues for fear of retribution.” 

Leaphart then quotes Sam McNair, director of business services, who notes that the staff were not specifically instructed to avoid Purple reporters, but rather to follow the “longstanding” University media policy. In place since July 2016, it reads that “all inquiries from the media should as a matter of course be directed or reported to Marketing and Communications.” 

However, last Tuesday, I received a copy of an email which McNair sent out to business managers, including those at the dining hall and Student Post Office. The email demanded that, “effective immediately,” all media requests, “including [from] the Sewanee Purple,” first obtain approval from Laurie Saxton, Sewanee’s director of news and public relations. 

“Do not proceed with, or agree to, and interview unless she (or Parker Oliver) explicitly instructs you to do so. This applies to all members of your staff as well.” The bold and italic emphases are not mine. 

“Remember,” McNair continued, “you and your team represent the University, and have an obligation to act in the best interest of the organization.”

At the Purple, much of our recent reporting on labor issues at Sewanee has relied on our uninhibited ability to speak with staff and managers without any kind of middleman, and it seemed clear that the hesitance of SPO sources to talk stems from a culture of fear regarding this policy, its implications, and the unclear messaging surrounding it.

Saxton confirmed to me via email that Marketing and Communications prefers to have employees contact them before talking to the media, but clarified that she doesn’t see her job as “giving permission (or not), though there is room for individual department managers to comply with the policy in various ways.”

“Our office would not prevent any employee from voicing an opinion, as long as they do not claim to speak for the university.” Saxton further wrote, “For example, they are free to write letters to the editor, etc. as individual employees or members of the Sewanee community.”

The idea that any employee would attempt to speak for the University makes little sense, especially considering the kinds of complaints staff have raised in articles for the Purple. And, while it’s clear that most employees are speaking for themselves, I see a dangerous opportunity here for criticism to be quashed when speculating on institutional motivations. For instance, in my article on Sewanee’s low wages, Chef Rick Wright is quoted as saying that “the University wants to do the right thing, but can’t figure out what that is.” Is Wright speaking for the University here, or is he giving his opinion on the University’s goals? I would argue the latter, but is it my opinion that counts here, or the University’s? The ultimate arbiters of which quotes to include in any article should be the journalist and their sources, not the employer. 

And even if Marketing and Communications doesn’t try to prevent employees from voicing opinions, it’s clear that some employees feel that they are unable to speak their minds. McNair’s email, which ostensibly is an official interpretation of the media policy, does not distinguish between employees “speaking for the University” and those speaking for themselves. I’ve personally spoken with at least six employees who believe the media policy is a blanket ban on interviews with the press, and most were unconvinced by both McNair and Saxton’s clarifications. I’ve even learned that some believed a “gag order” to be university policy even before McNair sent his email. 

In my opinion, this isn’t an entirely unreasonable thing to believe. The language of the policy includes none of the caveats about employee opinions offered by Saxton or McNair in later correspondence. The rule’s stipulation on notifying Marketing and Communications precludes the possibility of sources remaining anonymous. Furthermore, the reinforcement of the policy directly after the Purple published articles on wages and working conditions struck one employee I spoke with as particularly significant. 

“My opinion is that it should be put back on the University,” wrote Tanya Ingvolstad-Otero, a dining worker who contacted me over text soon after hearing about McNair’s email. “If they are worried about how Sewanee looks in the public eye then something should be done because the situation IS shameful.” 

In an email exchange, McNair wrote that he did not send out his original message in response to the Purple’s articles, but because “managers seem to be getting more requests for interviews this semester than in the past.” It’s a distinction without a difference, since the requests for interviews were for the Purple articles in question. 

This all points to a systemic culture of fear at Sewanee regarding workers, the press, and labor issues. I don’t think it will be remedied unless the language of the media policy is clarified and the messaging around it is significantly less hostile, especially after public complaints by workers. While the policy is understandably in place to maintain consistency in the University’s narrative, I see nothing but inconsistencies in the stated mechanics of the rules regarding media, its nuances, and the way employees feel they are being treated.