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Cutting Budgets, Silencing Students
For 80 years, the Ventura College Press has been the student voice of the community college whose name it bears. But Monday, the weekly newspaper published its last issue, becoming a victim of budget shortfalls that led the Ventura County Community College District to slash the journalism departments (and the student papers attached to them) at Ventura and Oxnard Colleges.
Administrators at the Ventura district say the decision was based entirely on the relative cost and comparatively low enrollments of the two journalism programs. They reject suggestions made by some students and faculty members that the presidents of the two campuses were seeking to silence the student papers because of critical coverage, and argue that they have crafted a plan to keep a working student press by having the existing student paper at the Ventura district's third campus, Moorpark College, cover all three institutions.
"The last thing I wanted to do as a new chancellor was step into the politics of cutting journalism -- talk about the Nightmare From Elm Street," says James Meznek, who became chancellor of the Ventura district last fall. "I know the students think we're chewing away at their First Amendment rights. But we maintain that this joint paper might be a good thing, because it pulls us together rather than apart."
Ventura and Oxnard are the second and third California community colleges to lose their student newspapers this year, joining Evergreen Valley College. Community college journalism officials in California and nationally say they don't necessarily believe the closures mark a trend. They are concerned, though, that two-year college administrators may both underestimate the importance the papers play on their campuses and exaggerate the likelihood that consolidation of papers within a community college district can work.
"The Board of Trustees has eliminated a student voice, and it may have lulled itself into a false sense that they've handled the issue by shifting the programs around," says Rich Cameron, chair of the department of mass communication at Cerritos College and online communications director of the Journalism Association of Community Colleges, which represents two-year college programs in California. "There are plenty of other colleges going through budget situations, and it's not inconceivable that this could give other boards the same idea."
The Ventura district's budget problems are severe. It has been on and off a state watchlist of programs that appear headed for financial failure, Meznek says, and faces declining enrollments that threaten its state-mandated base level of funding. Meznek says that when he took over nine months ago, the district first put in place a new program to boost enrollment, but that when that failed, he asked the presidents of the three campuses for suggested budget cuts.
The journalism programs at both Ventura and Oxnard were on their presidents' lists. Two reasons were cited at Ventura: since 1999, the journalism program has averaged no more than nine full-time students a semester, and the college's journalism instructor had announced her retirement a few months earlier. At Oxnard, enrollments were at about the same level, but the college had just hired a well-regarded new instructor this year, whose hours have been cut back by two-thirds.
When student journalists at the two colleges found out about the proposed cuts, just days before the district's board was to vote on them, they held sit-ins at the colleges and at the chancellor's office (which Meznek, in probable contrast to a lot of college chief executives, describes as "pretty cool.") They contended, among other things, that the campus presidents had proposed cutting the journalism programs -- and with them the student newspapers -- because they didn't like the publications' critical coverage of their administrations.
"They're just silencing the press," says Nathan Murillo, editor of the Ventura College Press. "We are the voice of Ventura College, and we let everybody know about anything that goes wrong at the college."
Meznek says he looked into the motivation of the campus presidents, especially at Oxnard, where a vice president had proposed not too long ago that administrators review the content of Oxnard's Campus Observer before it was published.
Meznek says he had discussed the issue with Oxnard's president "and pointed out informally the ABC's of life" as a college administrator -- that "the student press is the student press, and if they're going to do a caricature of you or they're just going to rag on you, you suck it up." Meznek says he would not have approved of cutting the student papers at either campus if he thought the recommendations were driven by any desire to rid the campuses of critical voices.
But for better or worse, that's exactly what colleges do -- among other unfortunate things -- when they eliminate student papers, says John Neal, journalism program director at Brookhaven College in Texas and president of the Community College Journalism Association, a national group. "A sense of community is lost, and a college becomes just a place to take classes, instead of one where we're sharing in a collegial environment."
Campus papers give students a chance to express themselves, and "they can also be one of the few checks on administrators, holding them accountable if there's a problem that isn't being solved," Neal says.
And at community colleges, especially, where the usually transient students often have few ties to the campus, being on the staff of a student newspaper can provide a "sense of sense of belonging that you don't get if you're not involved in an activity." Such considerations should factor in to any decision alongside enrollment counts and dollar totals, he suggests.
Meznek, the chancellor, says he understands all the reasons why eliminating the Oxnard and Ventura papers was painful and unpleasant for all involved. The district has tried to mitigate the impact, he notes, through its plan -- crafted with the help of the journalism instructor and newspaper adviser at Moorpark -- to have the student newspaper there cover all three campuses.
Journalism courses will rotate among the three campuses, and students who cannot travel among the campuses (which are 30 miles away from one another) will participate in the classes via compressed video. An editorial board of students, Meznek says, will decide how the newspaper should cover the three campuses.
Trying to cover three campuses that have decidedly different cultures with a newspaper based at one of them is "doomed," says Murillo, the Ventura College Press editor. "Ventura College will get 10 percent of its normal coverage. All the sports games, all the arts exhibits are hardly going to get covered."
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