Censorship strikes again at UST

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This unedited image shows the sign outside the Institutional Assessment and Effectiveness building at 1211 Colquitt Street, which once announced the location of the student newsroom with the words, “The Summa”, has been painted over. Image Credit: Alyssa Foley

By Elley Myers

The once vibrant sign outside the Institutional Assessment and Effectiveness building that read: “The Summa”, has now been covered with black paint. The UST student newspaper is officially dead.

The University of St. Thomas has been home to several student publications since the 1950s, including the Cauldron, The Summa and Laurels.

Student staff members from all these publications have felt the icy influence of the University’s administration as those administrators attempt to prevent students from publishing anything that criticized the University or reflected negatively on its image.

Although English graduate student Tristian Soulsby-Monroy never experienced a direct incident of censorship while writing for the Laurels, he said he knew certain topics were off-limit.

In Soulsby-Monroy’s observations, staff members understood that a student could not write anything that would displease university administration.

Self-Preservation

“We censored ourselves not because of our advisers, but more of a need for self-preservation from University officials,” Soulsby-Monroy said.

In 2015 UST senior Hannah Vergult was The Summa co-editor-in-chief. Before The Summa was dissolved in October 2016, Vergult said she was excited to go work daily on the student-run newspaper.

Because of the paper’s history, Vergult said she understood certain things could not be published if the students wanted the paper to survive.

The Summa was created by UST in 2008 after the University did away with the Cauldron, the UST-student run paper that had operated for 20 years without University censorship.

Vergult described the stories published by The Summa as bland. She said she wrote more controversial stories in high school than she did at UST.

Vergult said the student staff had everything prepared to launch a new print version of the paper in October 2016. However, once Siobhan Fleming, UST’s associate vice president of institutional development, was appointed advisor over the paper, everything changed.

Editorial Purge

Vergult said she was working on a story about UST’s negative bond rating. Fleming told Vergult that her story topic was inappropriate for a student newspaper because it reflected poorly on UST, despite being true.

“The purpose of a university is to help the students. Not allowing expression hurts the students,” Vergult said.

Within a few weeks, Fleming had fired all The Summa editors, Vergult said. The only students who retained their positions were the copy editors, one of whom was Fleming’s daughter.

Alyssa Foley, a junior and transfer student from Houston Community College, came to UST in 2016 in the hopes of developing and nurturing her journalism skills.

Foley had served as the editor-in-chief for the HCC newsletter for 20 months.

When Foley arrived on campus she was told that there was no student newspaper. When Foley finally got in touch with The Summa editors, she was given the position of news editor.

Aftermath

In September 2016, stories started to circulate among The Summa staff regarding issues with past student newspaper censorship and the consequences for printing content considered critical of the University.

Foley, as well as other Summa editors received an email from Fleming that they had been fired and would have to reapply for their positions.

Foley reapplied and never received a response.

“As a journalism student, I shouldn’t have to attend a school where I have to worry about keeping my head low or facing retaliation from my own school’s administration,” Foley said.

Although numerous attempts were made to contact Fleming for comment, she never responded.

As a result, Foley started her own online newspaper called UST Underground. She said her objective is to get uncensored news about UST to the students.

Don’t Embarrass Your Mother

UST Provost and Vice President of Academic Affairs Dominic Aquila said that a student newspaper should be a laboratory to practice the craft of journalism and a place for students to go to get news about the University.

However Aquila said the relationship between a student journalist and the University is complicated.

On one hand, the University wants students to be trained in ethical journalism. On the other, the student journalist must take pride in the University and its reputation.

“When you graduate from here it’s called your alma mater, which is, you know, from or about the mother,” Aquila said. “When we sing alma mater songs, we sing our ‘mother’. And you would never want to embarrass your mother.”

Gia Cooper, a UST alumna and former editor of the Cauldron, believes a student-run newspaper should add value not only to the student’s scholastic experience but also in his or her future career.

A Different Era

Cooper recalls her time spent on the Cauldron as a rewarding experience. It was an invaluable training ground to becoming a great journalist after college she said.

“It helped us by offering a leadership opportunity to develop our sense of self,” Cooper said. “To reach our full potential, to make ethical choices and to take responsibility seriously.”

Under Cauldron adviser Nicole Casarez, Cooper stated that she never felt censored although there were stories that the students knew the UST administration would prefer them not to write. Nevertheless, the Cauldron continued to publish controversial stories even though the paper occasionally faced criticism. It was a different era, she said.

After Cooper had graduated, she learned that UST administration in 2008 had created a publications board to review the newspapers content.

In Cooper’s opinion, this type of committee is a prior review board that is not acceptable in journalism.

A Bad Light

Cooper and numerous other Cauldron alumni helped to support the student Cauldron editors who were fighting to get the administration to add more journalists to the committee.  Cooper said she hoped journalists could help mentor UST students and be a resource to them after graduation.  Despite these efforts, UST administration refused to make any concessions.

According to Aquila, the publications committee was created primarily to make sure University funds were being allocated to the right people, not to censor content.

After submitting numerous requests and written questions to UST President Robert Ivany concerning censorship of student publications, Ivany declined an interview. According to Director of Communications Sandra Soliz, Ivany was too busy to be interviewed. However, she suggested he would make time to discuss his legacy as UST president.

Certain stories published by the Cauldron that shed an unfavorable light on the University, according to Aquila, helped facilitate needed change. However, Aquila nevertheless insisted that a student publication must respect the institution the paper serves.

Undercurrent of Fear

 “If you were about to write an article that was so devastatingly critical that would put your mother in a bad light, would you do that?” Aquila said.

Aquila said that he arrived at UST at the tail-end of the Cauldron controversy and knew nothing about the dissolution of The Summa.

Because she cannot work for an uncensored student publication at UST, this is Foley’s first and last semester at the University.  She stated that both students and faculty members here are afraid to speak truthfully for fear of retaliation.

“How does that create leaders of faith and character?” she asked.

The result of this undercurrent of fear is negative for the University. According to Foley, students are choosing to leave UST to attend other universities as well as publish their negative experiences online.

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Cafeteria gets 7 health code violations

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While the campus Subway received no health code violations, the Crooker Cafeteria received seven health code violations in a recent inspection, leaving students wondering about their food. Image Credit: Alyssa Foley

By Alyssa Foley

The University of St. Thomas’ sole cafeteria was found to have seven health code violations in a recent inspection. The City of Houston Health Department inspectors conducted routine, unannounced inspections on Nov. 8.

The Subway on campus was given a clean report, no health code violations were found.

Potentially hazardous food was found in the Crooker Cafe’s fridge without a marked disposition or prepared date, and food service items were found to not be high enough off the floor to prevent contamination.

The Crooker Cafe was found to be operating without the person in charge having a Food Service Manager’s Certification from the city. Jerry Fashell, a supervisor at the Houston Health Department, noted that “It is a major violation, and if it’s a repeated violation, it may result in a citation.”

The cafeteria also seems to struggle with bad plumbing and was not able to provide pressured water. Fashell explained that “If the water does not have adequate flushing pressure, that means that it cannot adequately dispel debris…” In other words, things cannot be cleaned without water pressure.

Other violations included issues with insufficient lighting and not posting warnings that under-cooked foods like sushi carry a greater risk of food-borne illness.

UST contracts campus dining services to Aramark. Campus Aramark managers said that they have a protocol in place; questions must be emailed to their media corporate and be approved before they can comment. As of this publishing, no response has been received from Aramark.

Improvements

The November inspection report is an improvement from Crooker’s scary health report from earlier this year in May when the city issued a citation to the Crooker Cafe after finding food not safe for human consumption, insects/rodents, contaminated ice, dirty floors, bad plumbing and more.

Upon re-inspection about a week after the initial May inspection, the only major violation health inspectors listed was that the cafeteria still had was a problem with insects/rodents.

In the May health inspection, the campus Subway was also found to have food sitting out for over two hours without being reheated, but was not issued a citation.

While Crooker Cafe had multiple health code violations in November, they did not receive a citation like in May. A city sanitarian may issue a municipal court citation against a food establishment when there is an immediate health risk or if previous interventions failed.

Fashell supervises food establishment inspections in the area. He explained that violations can turn into citations, “Based on the type of violation it is and was it a repeated violation?” Fashell also noted that different health inspector personal may have visited in May and in November.

Resident Students React

Lauren Mitchell lives in Guinen Hall and is required to purchase the $1,675 semester meal plan. After seeing the health inspection reports herself, Mitchell said, “It kind of pisses me off…for most of us, if you live on campus, it’s your only source of food.” Mitchell believes that “because of this issue, we should have options in our meal plans.”

Mitchell said that she can “deal with” everything but the potentially contaminated food service items. However, the inspection reports left her with a lot of questions. She also had complaints about how expensive the meal plan is, food running out all the time and the lack of healthy options.

Mary Rinaldi lives in Claire Hall and purchased the minimum meal plan required for students who live on campus, it is $600 a semester. After reading the city health reports, Rinaldi said that “If I have to have a meal plan, I should be able to use that meal plan and not worry about getting sick.” She hopes that they will continue to correct the situation.

Rinaldi avoids eating at Crooker because she does not believe the food is healthy anyways. “I will probably be using up the rest of my meal plan just with the overpriced convince store items.”

Commuters Avoid Food

Natasha Cedano is one of UST’s many commuter students. She usually eats before she leaves home or she gets food near her home in northwest Houston. She has eaten at the Subway on campus, but not at Crooker Cafe.

While she was pleased with Subway’s recent inspection, she found the cafeteria’s inspection shocking. “I would have liked to go to the cafeteria in the near future, but I just can’t now.”

Alexandra Hatch takes the bus to class, she often walks off campus or takes a bus to go someplace with better and cheaper food than what is available on campus.

She has eaten at the Subway on campus and has bought drinks and chips at Crooker Cafe, but Hatch says she has found dirty cups in the cafeteria before.

Hatch thinks that at UST, “They spend so much time on that lawn, but they’re not cleaning our cafeteria. They need to prioritize better.”
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View Crooker Cafeteria’s Nov. 8 Reports here and here. The cafeteria’s initial May reports can be found here and here, and their May re-inspections here and here.

View Subway’s Nov. 8 Reports here and here. Subway’s May report can be found here.