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Because of the paper’s history, Vergult said she understood certain things could not be published if the students wanted the paper to survive.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