Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Achievement Worth Celebrating

Last semester, then-provost now-president Judy Bonner launched an initiative that, for many students on the University of Alabama campus, will be the legacy of the Capstone's first female president. I'm talking, of course, about Celebrating Achievement. It's a song that Dr. Bonner commissioned to be written to honor success within the campus community, one that could be played from Denny Chimes whenever the situation called for it. A student obliged and wrote a merry tune that most students can't differentiate from the hymns and other University-themed songs that radiate from the bell tower, and every so often Dr. Bonner will email the entire student body to announce that the anthem will be played in honor of a championship team, a leader in the Women's Resource Center, a professor who's earned a prestigious award, etc.

Generally speaking, I don't have a problem with Celebrating Achievement. Some occasions call for acknowledgement and pride, and "For He's a Jolly Good Fellow" ringing out from Denny Chimes just doesn't fit in with the carefully crafted spirit of tradition and pomp on campus. Dr. Bonner decided we needed a song that can be played from a bell tower to laud our successes with the same sense of academia and rich history that almost everything at UA radiates, and Celebrating Achievement does a pretty good job of that. 

Here's the thing. Friday night, while I was in Tuscaloosa meeting Bob Woodward and starting this blog, the editor-in-chief of The Crimson White was with the youngest members of the newspaper's editorial staff at the Southeastern Journalism Conference in Jackson, Tennessee, on the campus of Union University. The newspaper and the sophomores and juniors there to represent UA absolutely swept the awards ceremony of the conference. For our work in 2012-2013, the Crimson White was named the best newspaper in the south. Our website, cw.ua.edu, was named best web site in the region. Will, our editor, was named Journalist of the Year. Our magazines won awards, and so did the features written by our culture desk, the coverage of games and teams by our sports desk, and the public service of our news desk. We were acknowledged for writing and reporting about racial segregation in sororities on campus, exposing a culture of hazing in the University's fraternities, and for explanations and examinations of President Obama's landmark Affordable Care Act and what it means for students. Working on a campus that often shies away from hard truths and changing the status quo, that recognition meant a lot to me, even though I'd trade most of the awards we've won in the last few years for meaningful change at the University.  It was a huge day for us, and an affirmation that what we do is important, and of excellent quality.

What bothers me is that the Crimson White's decorations at the SEJC's Best of the South Awards were achievements that were not celebrated.

What gets under my skin is not that I did not get the opportunity to stand on the Quad with the people who work for me and with me and hear some song clang out from Denny Chimes. The issue here, to me, is that the only community that consistently refuses to acknowledge the value of the work of the students journalists at the Crimson White is the campus community, specifically the University administrators. 

Far from celebrating our achievements, which are many, Dr. Bonner's only acknowledgement of the CW this year has been to throw us under the bus. Bonner wrote an email to a concerned reader after the  paper ran an article about concerns surrounding sexual consent on campus. In it, we reported that a faculty member said this:
“Some people think there are false accusations. There’s really no false accusations. If someone feels they didn’t give consent, then they didn’t give consent. Whether it’s coerced or manipulated, that’s still not consent. I think right now that’s really a big issue on our campus and students are really confused about it.”
A reader took issue with the first clause in the statement, and contacted Dr. Bonner about it. She responded with this:

“I understand your concerns. As is often the case with student newspapers and unfortunately professional newspapers as well, reporting is not as accurate as we would hope. The interview that The CW did with [the official] was conducted last November on an entirely different topic. As I understand it, The CW selected comments from the interview on an entirely different topic and wrote a story about rape."

I won't spend much time defending our reporting, which was sound. The other members of the editorial board of the CW and I already did that very well in an Our View addressing Bonner's haste to rag on the newspaper instead of addressing the very real issue of sexual consent on campus.

What I want to address is the disdain for the Crimson White shared by the offices of Media and University Relations, by the public information officers of the Tuscaloosa Police Department and the Tuscaloosa County Sheriff's Office, by the University president, by the chancellor of the University of Alabama system, by many of the University's highest administrators and by thousands of students. It boggles my mind, because I can't imagine a similar group of students in another field of study that so many people on campus want to fail so badly. I'm biased, though, so try to imagine it yourself:

Imagine more than 100 student engineers building something, or student nurses treating people, or student lawyers working pro bono. Imagine this group getting together no less than four days a week, every week of the school year. Imagine this group making less than minimum wage doing this, all while balancing full-time class schedules with full-time work hours. Imagine them skipping whole nights of sleep because they're on the verge of the next big thing and skipping meals just to make the day-to-day work the best it can be. Imagine the work they do being acknowledged as the best in the SEC, in the South, and sometimes as the best in the nation. Frame it that way, and try to tell me it's not difficult to imagine that University administrators would be anything but thrilled to pridefully celebrate that achievement.

In the last three years, I've seen hundreds of dedicated students log tens of thousands of hours to help the CW serve UA's student body by addressing the University's most divisive issues, covering its breaking news or connecting people in need with people who could help. The student journalists that work producing and designing content for the Crimson White are some of the hardest working, most dedicated students I've ever met. We have uncovered racism on campus, exposed political corruption, localized national issues, served the entire Tuscaloosa community in the wake of an unprecedented natural disaster in April 2011, and consistently covered the issues that affect our readership in a way that is every bit as good as our professional counterparts, if not better. When reports came in of a mass shooting downtown, of a drug raid in the dorms or of a robbery on campus, there was not a single staffer unwilling to drop what they were doing for as long was necessary to cover the news. We work all hours of the day and night, we work harder than any other news outlet on the story, and we work for very little money and very little recognition.

It doesn't bother me that Dr. Bonner hasn't emailed the students of the University of Alabama to announce that bells will ring in honor of the tireless student staff of the Crimson White. We do what we do as a service to this campus and its students, not for ourselves or for recognition and certainly not for money. 

What bothers me is that it takes a panel of judges at some journalism conference in Jackson, Tenn. or Gainesville, Fla. or Chicago, Ill. or Atlanta, Ga. to recognize what so many administrators, faculty and students can't or won't-- that at the Crimson White, we're achieving more than we have in decades, and that calls for celebration.

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