Sewanee’s problem with transparency

Amelia Leaphart   
Editor-in-Chief

Correction: The original version of this op-ed piece incorrectly recounted an interaction between a former Purple editor and former Vice-Chancellor Brigety. The piece should not have said that Brigety turned off the editor’s recording device without her permission; he asked permission, saying he wanted to share his opinion about the newspaper’s coverage, and she agreed to allow him to do so and make comments off the record.The piece also incorrectly stated the number of interviews that Vice-Chancellor Brigety granted; it should have stated that he gave four interviews. The information about this came from the author’s recollection. The online version has been revised for accuracy. The Purple regrets these errors.

Sewanee faces a transparency crisis. The administration’s lack of disclosure regarding institutional decisions has become a growing concern for many on the Mountain, and some view it as an existential threat for the University. The administration’s opaque decisionmaking about hiring, student life, housing, and strategic planning has engendered low faculty morale and has left students feeling unsupported. 

We student journalists at The Sewanee Purple have seen first-hand the University’s issues with transparency.  

Toward the end of an interview in the spring of 2021, Vice Chancellor Reuben Brigety told the then-Purple editor that he was unhappy with the newspaper’s coverage the previous semester. He asked to go off the record, and the editor agreed. The editor subsequently told The Purple staff that we needed to back off covering sensitive topics. Though we had previously done extensive reporting on Sewanee’s labor issues and the lack of a guaranteed livable wage, we ceased our coverage. 

But such negative impacts on transparency go beyond a single exchange with an administrator or a former Vice-Chancellor, or one interview, or people declining to comment on issues facing students, faculty, and staff because they just “don’t have the time.”

Almost every current student I’ve spoken with is unaware of the current draft strategic plan, which the faculty will be asked to vote on later this month. Sewanee’s college faculty passed a resolution earlier this fall asking the administration to pause the strategic planning process until a new vice-chancellor could be chosen. The administration has sought a vote by the faculty and the governing board of trustees less than a month prior to the scheduled selection of a new vice-chancellor. Also,  many students have heard about the threat of a new business major, which is being discussed in the current planning process. Because students do not have the same institutional knowledge as longtime staff members, they do not know that this insulated approach to strategic planning is specific to the current administration. 

A longtime professor talked about the strategic plan with me and noted that in past planning processes included discussions between students, faculty and staff, and members of Sewanee’s governing boards – exchanges that have been largely absent in this plan. He and other faculty members have also voiced concern about the University administration’s rush to finalize a new strategic plan before we find a new vice-chancellor, because in the past, such planning efforts were led by each new vice-chancellor. There is also the elusive name change, when now the strategic plan is called a foundational document, suggesting a means to divert attention in the wake of faculty criticism. While bullet points about the strategic plan are available on Sewanee’s website, the faculty member and I were unable to find any public source for any draft of the full document. 

In contrast, the first few sentences from the University’s strategic plan from 2012 signifies a far more open and inclusive approach: “The twenty-six member Strategic Planning Committee agreed that its work would be conducted transparently, posting minutes, ideas received, and documents collected on a website accessible to everyone on campus.” 

I write this not only as a student journalist and an advocate for a free press, but also as a member of the Sewanee community who has heard deep concerns from faculty members and staff. Faculty members are still wondering about why there was not a freeze on administrative positions, and more importantly, why there is still no plan to fill more open, tenured positions in suffering departments. The replacement of tenured professors with visiting ones is an easy decision to hide from students, but department chairs and tenured staff are now overloaded and damage to the institution’s academic program could be long term. Currently, most faculty believe the administration plans to never fill many open, tenured positions. In a presentation to the Board of Regents on June 14, Professor of International Affairs and Chair of the Politics department Amy Patterson and Associate Professor and Chair of the Biology Department Elise Kikis said the administration’s explanation that the continuing partial freeze is necessary for their new strategic plan “has undermined trust in the strategic planning process.”    

As a student journalist for my entire time on the Mountain, I have had first-hand experiences with administrative resistance.  My investigation into the labor conditions of Sewanee’s student post office in the fall of 2020 was one of the most indicative experiences of why Sewanee’s lack of transparency can impact everyone’s emotional and professional health. When I contacted staff members at the SPO, they told me that they needed to get approval from higher level administrators before speaking to me. I had an emotional phone interview with one full-time SPO employee, who said they were so fed up that they did not care about repercussions. I then contacted others, including SPO manager Johnny Hughes and Treasurer Doug Williams, Hughes’ boss. The employee who had granted me an interview soon contacted me; they apologetically told me that they feared they would be fired if The Purple printed anything they said in our interview. They noted being especially scared of Williams, a theme echoing concerns expressed in a New York Times write-up on Sewanee’s Socially Conscious club a few years ago. 

 An awareness of retaliation is embedded within Sewanee’s lower-level staff. People did not want to go on the record about the evictions over the summer, and it’s rumored among staff members that the person who spoke about her struggles with her hourly wage in McClurg faced sanctions as well. 

We also face challenges in getting information from any higher-level administrators, who typically require our questions for interviews to be emailed ahead of time or, what’s more problematic, only respond to us via email. I recognize that there are often understandable reasons for this, but almost every time I have emailed someone questions beforehand they backed out of the interview or referred me to someone else. Emailing questions can also compromise the candor and authenticity of responses. I also do not email questions beforehand when interviewing professors, students, or lower-level staff members, therefore they never get the advantage of planning out responses.

For my most recent article about University spending on administration versus faculty posts, the interview with acting Vice Chancellor Nancy Berner and acting Provost Scott Wilson was conditional on submitting my questions beforehand. They initially canceled the scheduled interview the mid-afternoon before because I had not sent in the questions fast enough, despite not giving me any deadline beforehand. They then rescheduled the interview for the following week, after The Purple’s deadline, only to change their minds. When they met with me, they spent much of the interview criticizing our most recent graphics about faculty versus administrative pay, and the Vice Chancellor told me she was troubled about my tone when I asked about the strategic goal of investing in administration rather than faculty resources.

Jerking around the timing and method of interviews is a way of controlling the story. Every time we’ve recently approached Treasurer Williams, whose perspective on University finances is often needed, he has only agreed to respond to questions in writing. Emailing protects a person from having to answer follow-up questions. What’s more, students do not get to look at the exact questions before an exam, so why should our highest-ranked employees have an easier time when they are questioned? Because they know we need their input, administrators know they can make demands such as getting questions in advance or responding only by email or changing the timing of our encounters, and that can feel manipulative or dismissive and can discourage student journalists from pursuing important stories involving University leaders. 

Earlier this semester, I was thrown out of a meeting between members of the Board of Trustees’ community relations committee and local community representatives, a gathering called to discuss and address community concerns. I’ve always understood the need to keep some decision-making processes confidential. I also know that people can be hesitant to speak frankly when media is present because they do not want to get in trouble, unnecessarily start rumors, or look dumb. But if this meeting was meant to ensure community voices were heard by governing boards, why couldn’t members of the community participate?

If an issue is especially contentious– like the lacrosse game where Sewanee students shouted racial epithets at the opposing team– officials at the University too often refuse to talk to us. After the lacrosse incident, we contacted every administrator possible to explore what happened, and they all declined to comment. When I tried to write about the administration’s subsequent investigation and its inconclusive findings, I got no cooperation from University leaders. The incident and its fallout had a profound impact on our student body, and as with many controversial or complex issues facing Sewanee, the official resistance made it impossible to do our work as journalists and inform our community. 

The Admissions office, under two different deans, has declined to provide information to our reporters. We have attempted stories about diversity numbers and goals, and they have declined to give us data. They declined to talk to us about the March 2021 lacrosse game and the effects on matriculation. Meg Butler (C’24)  struggled the most when it came to reporting about the new business major this fall. She emailed Dean Alan Ramirez four times to try to obtain data his office was said to have on how a business major might attract new students. When she went to Fulford Hall to try to see him in person, Butler was told to email for an interview. Considering that attracting more prospective students comprises the bulk of the argument for proponents of the business major, it’s strange that no one in the admissions office is willing to give even a 15 minute interview on the subject.

I’m not saying The Purple does everything right. The best journalistic pieces are relationship-driven, which requires building trust between a journalist and their sources. In our current model, we jump from story to story with each issue. This means our reporters must rely on quick emails to set up an interview with a source who may not know us well rather than, for example, having one writer focus on faculty, one focus on student government, one on the police, etcetera. Many publications have working relationships with their local police, and while we have attempted to write articles involving the police, which can often involve challenging issues, much of the reticence to speak with us may stem from not knowing us very well. We’re students, and building source relationships on top of our academics, work-study jobs, and other extracurriculars takes time and effort. It’s even harder when there is an outright refusal to open doors to us, no matter the subject matter. When we attempted to write a light story about the life of a student firefighter, we heard from students in the department that Police Chief Chip Schane had instructed firefighters not to speak with us. We would love to build relationships with sources from every part of the community but too often we hit a brick wall. 

We’ve faced other challenges with official transparency beyond our dealings with administrators or staff. Some seniors and community residents may recall that Sewanee no longer has a beloved radio station due to losing its federal operating license. I wrote an article about the loss of the station my freshman year, my first article as a staff member. In my interview with a student leader of the WUTS station, she explained the license was lost due to a failure by a faculty advisor to keep up with the paperwork required by the Federal Communications Commission. While I now recognize I should have contacted the faculty advisor for comment, I was a freshman writer for The Purple, and I was unaware that student organizations had faculty advisors. After seeing my article about the loss of the station license published online, the advisor, visiting assistant professor of Music Hilary Dow Ward, called my former editor-in-chief to complain. They told me that Professor Ward was angry that I had not contacted her before writing my article, and she complained that the story had inaccuracies. She was also upset about social media comments posted about my article. The editor told me that she said I lacked journalistic integrity– a devastating critique for me as a struggling first-year student. She pressed them until they took the article offline and pulled the piece out of the printed edition. That wrecked the edition’s layout because it had to be done after the issue had been sent to our printer. The editor then told me I couldn’t do any more followup reporting and was off the story. They were shaken by the experience, and other staff on the newspaper were confused and troubled about why the story was pulled. Ward refused our offers to publish a correction–which we offered because The Purple does have integrity–and forced their hand to take the story down by involving senior-level administrators. After attempts to interview Ward for an explanation about the loss of our radio station, she declined to comment, according to the former editor. Thus, this entire controversy and our loss of an important college experience, the student-radio station, was swept under the rug. There were levels of failure to this– a failure on my part, an editing and publishing failure, and a failure of faculty and administrators’ understanding of how to deal with us as members of Sewanee’s independent student media publication. 

For me, as a freshman then struggling with self-confidence at Sewanee and anxious to fit in with The Purple crowd, this experience of feeling that a professor had basically called me journalistically stupid and dishonest was shattering; I still feel emotional talking about it. I lost confidence in every other aspect of my life: I stopped turning in assignments and articles, and was silent during class. I went from being a student with straight A’s in the beginning of that semester to to Bs and B-’s for my final grades. I’m still recovering academically. In high school, I was active in theater, gave numerous class presentations, and gave a speech to the entire school without a problem. I never had a problem with panic attacks or public speaking before, but after this experience I would start crying in the middle of McClurg and stuttering during presentations. I still struggle with breathlessness, stuttering, and voice-shaking during presentations. I pledged the sorority I wanted to join, but after my article was pulled, I stopped participating in almost every pledge activity. I filled out transfer applications. I was actually happy when COVID sent us home that semester. Had that not happened, I’m certain I would’ve left for good and would not be looking forward to graduating from Sewanee next May. 

Sewanee’s 2012 strategic plan states: “The University of the South has long been distinguished by a tradition of unusually strong relationships between students and University faculty and staff.” Because I was a first year student, I did not have a relationship with a professor in which I could confide. Now, because tenured and tenured-track professors appear so busy to students, I would not feel comfortable developing relationships outside of the classroom with them. 

The Purple, like everything else that draws us to Sewanee, is driven by our desire to learn and sharpen our critical thinking skills, in addition to understanding the craft of journalism. Because we’re learning, we may not get everything right every time. But it’s hard to learn when there is no transparency or support from the community–particularly from University leaders. No one has been clear about why Sewanee needs to maintain a certain faculty-student ratio, or why, if Sewanee plans to depend on VAPs, there still has not been a plan for appropriate, higher-density housing for them. Like Professor Pradip Malde said in a recent interview, trust is lacking within the faculty and students in one group against the higher administration. I spoke with Ivana Porashka (C’21) who was the SGA president during the stringent COVID rules of the 2020-2021 academic year. She said she wanted to help reinstate trust between students and the administration. This administration has not restored the trust lost somewhere along the way between our leadership and the rest of the community. 

In a section entitled “Commitment,” Sewanee’s 2012 Strategic plan stated: “We will make informed judgments and proceed on the basis of those judgments, modeling for our students how inquiry and action are most effective when they are not separate but united.” 

Transparency is necessary for uniting Sewanee. It is crucial if Sewanee is to improve its national rankings and maintain its historic reputation as a leading liberal arts college. Real transparency will improve morale and relationships among faculty and staff and make students feel supported. Over the past few years, University administrators seem to have forgotten that their success depends on their relationships with students and faculty. Renewing relationships and restoring openness and trust will be key for a sustainable future for Sewanee.

Correction: The original version of this article stated that Max Saltman graduated in 2022. Saltman graduated in 2021.

12 comments

  1. There are many other administrative secrets, discrepancies, and Blatant attempts to cover up information yet with emails reflecting all of the above very clearly one must wonder if Deans or Administrators know what the other is saying. You would think that opening the school up to liabilities would be demanding of utmost discretion and on serious issues there would be a more cohesive meeting of minds in dealing with serious issues that could affect a student or faculty member in very dramatic and life changing ways.
    LP

  2. This article is courageous and truthful. I am an alumna and a parent and I have experienced the outright lies and malevolence of the previous and current administration. We support you, the students, who are good, intelligent young people. I am sickened by the corruption and bullying you have suffered at the hands of those entrusted with your education. You have our full support.

  3. Bravo Amelia. We are the better for your courage in coming back from the traumatic freshman year experience to become an excellent journalist

  4. The number of grammatical errors in the article is surprising for a Sewanee student and kills any credibility the author might have wanted.

    1. How can you read this opinion piece and your first instinct be to criticize the author’s grammar? This is both mean-spirited and small-minded.

    2. How is this article full of grammatical errors? It reads well and journalism isn’t supposed to be like academic writing

  5. Great work. Keep it up. It is basic knowledge that sunlight is the best disinfectant and that when someone refuses transparency they are usually hiding something. What isn’t well understood is that between Covid and the Brigety administration, a lot was lost at Sewanee, much of it the historically student-led aspects of the University. Whether the Order of the Gown, the Honor Council, the Purple, or WUTS, these are all critical elements of what makes Sewanee distinctive and they all need to be forcibly re-empowered through student pro-activity, interest, and energy as well as support from the administration. Infantilizing the student body by assuming responsibility for all decisions through an administrative land-grab and cutting students out of their rightful place in the process is unacceptable.

  6. My perspective as a reader of Ms. Leaphart’s courageous, thoughtful, and well written editorial is a bit unique. I did not attend Sewanee but I love it deeply just the same for reasons I am not certain I fully understand. My family and I have spent many long weekends, holidays, and, summer weeks on the Mountain, and on campus. We’ve run the trails together. We’ve hiked together. We feel at home here.

    I subscribe to the Sewanee Review. I follow the Sewanee Writers Conference, All Saints’ Chapel, and most of the athletic teams on social media. I was baptized in the Episcopal Church, so occasionally attending services at All Saints Chapel has been special to me.

    In some ways, my sons (14 and 10), have grown up with trips to Sewanee as an important part of their lives. As a parent, I’ve always appreciated the openness of the campus and the innumerable kindnesses students and staff have extended to us, on campus, during our visits. My boys have frequented the baseball field, the soccer field, McGee Field, and the Fowler Center more times than I can count, and we have felt welcome at those places and other on campus. Always.

    Part of me, I think, has dreamed of a life in years to come where one or both of my sons attended Sewanee and, perhaps, played one sport or another. For me, it would be the best of both worlds to have a son attending a university I have grown to love that is near enough to home that I could visit on occasion.

    It saddens me to learn of the divide between the administration on one side and the faculty/students on the other side. It also saddens me to learn about the obvious heavy handedness with which the administration has treated, and continued to treat, journalists at the Sewanee Purple, like Ms. Leaphart.
    Reuben Brigety’s treatment of the former editor of the Purple is simply unacceptable.

    That being said, it’s completely natural for there to be a certain amount of tension on a college campus between students – and student/journalists – and the administration. Students are, often for the first time, finding their voice, discovering who they are, and learning the important of testing limits and boundaries set by others. Administrators are charged with the sometimes difficult and challenging task of providing a safe and open environment in which students can grow, mature, and learn over a four year period that will impact – positively or negatively – the rest of their lives. No small task, to be sure.

    What seems to missing, to me, is a mutual respect between the administration at Sewanee and the students. Full transparency, particularly as it relates to the new Strategic Plan, and on openness to allowing student journalists to do their jobs would help solve this problem, or so it seems to me, and increase the level of respect between the administration and students. Sitting for interviews – without requiring questions to be e-mailed beforehand – would be a good start.

    Sewanee is a special place. I’m an optimist so I hope, and believe, that the search committee will find the right person to lead the university moving forward, so the current and future students will have a college experience that allows them to impact the world positively in the years to come.

  7. Very well-written article. I was a a student at Sewanee when Dean Hagi was there and we loved him. While he cared about us he still kept us in line. Things were so different then too. The administration seemed to care about us as students a lot more too. I was there when that 2012 Strategic Plan was being done and there was so much transparency as there was about so many things back then. The administration talked with us. Dean Hagi always talked with us and we talked with him. There was mutual trust for the good of the University and to move the community forward in a positive way. And while yes, the Purple was always trying to do “gotcha” journalism and catch people saying something wrong we knew that too and we were prepared for that as organizational leaders. I just hate to read that this is what Sewanee has gotten to and that y’all don’t get to experience those loving and trusting relationships that we had. I still text Hagi to this day. That dude saved so many of of and we would have graduated and be successful if it hadn’t been for him and the many administrators who helped us and I hate that students don’t have those relations at Sewanee anymore.

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