Amid a barrage of criticism, Rutgers University on Tuesday reversed an earlier decision restricting students in an investigative journalism course from exploring topics at the university.
John Pavlik, chairman of the journalism and media studies department, had mandated in January that students in the Investigative and In Depth Reporting class at Rutgers limit their work to off-campus subjects. He had made that decision, in part, because of complaints from colleagues and officials in other departments about some of the articles students in the course had written, including one on alleged special treatment of athletes that The Daily Targum, Rutgers's student newspaper, had declined to publish.
Inside Higher Ed's article last week on the Rutgers controversy prompted a barrage of criticism of the department's decision. One local newspaper columnist blasted the decision in a column called "The Sting of Rutgers Censorship." Officials at Temple and Columbia Universities challenged Pavlik's contention that Rutgers was following their lead in barring journalism students from writing about on-campus issues.
And the Society of Professional Journalists said last week that it would set up a fact finding panel to explore the issue.
On Monday evening, Pavlik sent around to the journalism faculty at Rutgers an e-mail containing a defense of his original decision, which he planned to submit as a letter to the editor. Linda Steiner, an associate professor in the department who had criticized the course change, replied to his e-mail with a long one of her own that night, in which she again urged him to reconsider the new policy.
"Five minutes" after she sent her e-mail, Steiner says, Pavlik replied with a note saying that students in the journalism course would again be able to explore on-campus subjects.
In an interview Tuesday, Pavlik said that after talking to a "wide range of professors, students, colleagues at other schools and people in the public," he had reached the conclusion that students are going to be best served by getting a broad experience both off the campus and on." He said he had decided in the last week or so to allow students to report off-campus in the fall, and determined Monday night that there was no reason not to institute the change right away.
Asked if the external criticism of the earlier decision had prompted the change, Pavlik said: "It certainly made us sensitive to the complexity of the issue."
Steiner says the change of heart "shows that John is a reasonable person and that good policy is not made on the basis of single incidents." She added: "To say we're going to change the policy regarding this course or journalism courses in general because somebody has a complaint about one particular student never made any sense."
Pavlik delivered the news about the shift in person Tuesday morning to Guy Baehr, the adjunct instructor in the investigative journalism course.
"I'm glad that the decision was reversed," says Baehr, associate director of the Journalism Resources Institute at Rutgers and a long-time reporter at The Newark Star-Ledger. "I didn't agree with it when it was made, and we'll go back to doing what I think is an educationally and journalistically sound course."