By Bill Cole
Last month, dozens of County College of Morris faculty and staff members swarmed the Board of Trustees meeting, publicly airing their grievances about inadequate working conditions and poor treatment from the administration at the college.
At the November board meeting this week, it was the students’ turn to express their own particular outrage.
Several members of the student-run campus newspaper, The Youngtown Edition, addressed board members and administrators during the public comments section of the meeting, making impassioned but poised claims of administrative intimidation and harassment, as well as potential First Amendment rights violations.
In her public comments, Youngtown editor-in-chief Alexa Wyszkowski shared several examples of occasions when she felt intimidated by various administrators at the college.
One such instance revolved around an uncomfortable interaction with Director of Campus Life Don Phelps, who she felt was pressuring her to figure out ways to reduce costs associated with the publication of the newspaper, including raising more revenue through increased advertising.
According to Wyszkowski, “upon speaking to previous advisors and editors, the focus on the newspaper making money or spending money was never an issue.” But this sudden financial concern brought up by Phelps seemed to be an “avenue to try to hamper the production of the paper.”
Adam Gentile, Youngtown managing editor, further affirmed during his comments: “It is not our job to save the school money. It’s our job to put out a newspaper that gives students proper real world publication experience.”
Another experience relayed by Wyszkowski involved Vice President of Student Development and Enrollment Management Bette Simmons.
Wyszkowski described Simmons’ tendency to have impromptu hallway conversations, personally pushing to have certain content placed in the newspaper. According to Wyszkowski, Simmons “had been informed by our previous [faculty] advisor about the concept of prior restraint and that discussing content and pressuring us for stories was not only unacceptable, but it violated our rights.”
This advisor subsequently was removed from his position and replaced with a new faculty advisor who had no journalism experience and a heavy teaching load, making his ability to satisfactorily perform in this new capacity untenable. He eventually stepped down from the position.
Gentile stated that the student staff of Youngtown were dubiously told by administration that the reason the new advisor left the position was because the students “placed unrealistic expectations on him.” Gentile proceeded to directly address the administrators in the room, exclaiming, “How dare you blame students for your mismanagement!”
To close his public comments, Anthony Ingham, a Youngtown news editor, read excerpts of a letter from a senior legal counsel with the Student Press Law Center responding to the Youngstown staff’s formidable challenges.
Part of the letter stated: “The law is clear: At a public college or university, the student editor is responsible for making all decisions regarding the editorial content in his or her student publication. School officials, while they may act in an advisory role, are required to exercise a strictly ‘hands-off’ approach.”
The letter from the Law Center went on:
“It is clear that CCM officials are in desperate need of a First Amendment refresher course. They have taken and threatened multiple actions that raise serious legal concerns, including their removal of your advisor and cuts to your budget for reasons that seem very clearly tied to their unhappiness with the journalism you are practicing.
“I urge you to share this information with CCM officials and ask that they reconsider their actions and work with you to amicably resolve your concerns. I cannot imagine that they want to find themselves the defendants in a First Amendment legal battle.”
Following the board meeting, the Youngtown staff provided the following statement: “We hope that the board of trustees is now informed of what has been happening and that they look into the actions that the college administration has been taking that has created a culture of fear.”
Many faculty members were in the audience at the board meeting, showing their enthusiastic support for the students. Some brought signs emphasizing the necessity for free speech.
Jim Capozzi, president of the Faculty Association of CCM, felt appreciation for the students who spoke out and took pride in their conviction.
He also conveyed disappointment in the college’s deafening silence related to the faculty’s deeply felt concerns shared at last month’s meeting.
“The college has refused to even acknowledge our statements at the October Board meeting–no ‘we hear you,’ no ‘we can work together to remedy this,’ no nothing.
“Though this is unfortunate, it’s also entirely consistent with the hostile work environment this administration has created over the past three years,” Capozzi stated.
A recurring theme with the current administration at CCM seems to be emerging.
Bill Cole of Morristown is a press relations specialist for the Morris County Council of Education Associations (MCCEA), and is Legislative chair for The Education Association of Morris (TEAM), which represents teachers in the Morris School District.
Editor’s note: The opinions expressed above are the author’s, and do not necessarily reflect those of this publication.