Many college presidents consider reporters a necessary nuisance in a democracy. Auburn University's interim president, Ed Richardson, isn't so sure about the necessary part.
He sent a memo to Auburn faculty members and administrators last week telling them that he will no longer speak with Jack Stripling, who covers higher education for the local newspaper, The Opelika-Auburn News.
"I acknowledge that the News' coverage of Auburn has included positive stories about students, research and events. In my view though, the News has pitted our constituencies against one another in print and has been especially dismissive of positive steps this university has taken with regard to its governing board," Richardson wrote in the memo.
"I have been dealing with journalists for decades," Richardson continued. "While I expect skepticism and hard questions from reporters, I also expect fairness and responsibility. I have not seen that fairness in the News' coverage of Auburn governance."
He said that his decision affects only himself, and that other Auburn employees are free to talk to Stripling and his colleagues. He said that Auburn's public relations office would continue to try to answer his questions.
The Mobile Register reported that the governance article that prompted Richardson's move was about the business ties of two Auburn trustees. Accreditors and faculty groups have criticized the Auburn board for being too interconnected to encourage independent thinking by all board members.
That article by Stripling reported that at a time when Auburn's accreditor was raising questions about trustees doing business with one another, the business of one trustee (Robert Lowder) spent more than $4 million with the law firm of another (Jack Miller). Both trustees refused to talk to the newspaper about their business dealings. In his memo, Richardson did not specifically refer to the article, but he noted the reporting requirements that Auburn's board has imposed upon itself. Lowder has long been extremely influential at Auburn -- many critics say too influential -- and has frequently clashed with reporters.
Stripling said that all calls about the Auburn president's action were being handled by his newspaper's publisher, Jim Rainey, who said, "we stand by our reporter 1,000 percent."
Rainey said that Richardson's conduct was "unbecoming the president of a public university," and added, "What it comes down to is Dr. Richardson is charged with running Auburn University and I think he would like to run this newspaper as well and it doesn't work that way."