COLUMN: Ransdell’s underrated support of student media

Brandon Carter is the editor-in-chief of the College Heights Herald during the spring 2016 and fall 2016 semesters.

Brandon Carter

In the 19 years President Ransdell has spent in WKU’s top office, he’s worn many hats: fundraising guru, champion for athletics and forger of international partnerships. Perhaps his most underrated action, though, has been his support of student media.

There are plenty of college campuses across the country that aren’t as lucky as WKU when it comes to freedom of the student press. Take Bryan College in Denton, Tennessee, as an example. The small Christian university unveiled new policies in the fall 2015 semester for its campus newspaper The Triangle without consulting the students or the faculty advisor, according to the Chattanooga Times Free Press.

The new policies instituted a 48-hour review process for every article prior to publication by the department chairperson; they also ordered all Triangle archive materials older than six months to be “removed from hard copies or online versions of all student publication, in order to preserve the timeliness and value of the publication.” Only after repeated complaints did an administrator send an email reversing the decision.

Florida A&M University’s president took a different approach in September 2015. Instead of trying to silence the student newspaper The Famuan, President Elmira Magnum and administrators attempted to discredit it. Magnum said the university would launch its own news source and that it “wouldn’t be the Famuan. It’ll be a real newspaper, like the Wall Street Journal,” according to a Famuan article on the subject.

These are only two examples of the many instances universities have tried to block student media from doing its job: reporting.

Our own state once fell victim to this same overbearing reach by college administrators. In 1997, administrators at Kentucky State University prohibited members of the yearbook staff from distributing the yearbook, deeming it “of poor quality,” according to a story in the Dec. 4 issue of the Herald.

The yearbook staff sued, and the case went to court. During the legal proceedings, a newly-hired Ransdell was asked by a Herald reporter for his opinions on the case.

“That’s not very good training for those students who need to gain experience and autonomy to publish,” Ransdell said. “The Herald should have the responsibility to independently report the news and the freedom to report the news and reflect opinion.”

Since then, Ransdell has made good on his word. I asked Bob Adams, the former director of Student Publications, if he could recall any instances when the relationship between the Herald and Ransdell stood out.

Mr. A, as he’s affectionately known around here, told me Ransdell’s relationship with student media has almost always been positive. Mr. A said Ransdell made it very clear students oversee decisions regarding the paper’s contents.

On page 4 of the lengthy Student Publications Policy Manual is a statement signed by Ransdell in 2009. Written by the Society of Professional Journalists, the statement designates student media “as public forums … free from censorship and advance approval of content.” According to the SPJ blog, Ransdell was the first university president in the country to sign the statement and return it to SPJ.

All of these examples are marks of a president serious about ensuring the role of college media. Ransdell is by no means a perfect president. He and his administration have faced their fair share of criticism from the Herald editorial board over the past 19 years on a variety of important issues. The next 17 months will prove no different.

As the university begins the long process of selecting its 10th president in the midst of potentially drastic budget cuts, the Herald will continue to ask the questions and demand the answers our readers deserve. But Ransdell’s commitment to student media allows us to ask those questions and do that reporting, and it’s that commitment to which I tip my hat.

I challenge the Board of Regents to take this into consideration during the upcoming presidential search. While you look for candidates with outstanding fundraising capabilities and the ability to ensure academic excellence amidst budgetary woes, one thing needs to be very clear: a candidate who doesn’t respect the freedom of the student press is not a candidate WKU needs and is not a candidate who merits even the slightest consideration.