Silencing a Staff Voice

U. of Colorado ends funding for independent newspaper for employees, citing dire budget situation.
May 4, 2009

Two weeks ago, the Silver and Gold Record, the faculty and staff newspaper at the University of Colorado system, reported that university officials had told its editor that it faced a 24 percent budget cut.

It will end up having been one of the publication's last stories.

On Friday, as part of a major restructuring of the system office announced by President Bruce D. Benson, designed to save $6.2 million, the university said it would eliminate the weekly publication, arguably the only one of its kind in the country: editorially independent (with professional reporters and a faculty/staff editorial board), but financed with administration money.

The university still needs to communicate with its employees, which it will do through its existing campus publications, e-mails, and a new "electronic system-level communication vehicle," but it "cannot afford to be in the newspaper business," Benson said in a news release.

Supporters of the Silver and Gold Record are troubled by how the decision came about, and see something other than mere budget realities at play. On Thursday, Benson told a Faculty Senate meeting that the university would not make budget cuts without consulting with faculty leaders -- but the elimination of the Silver and Gold Record came without any such consultation, members of the newspaper's editorial board say.

And it is suspicious, says Nancy Ciccone, the faculty chair of editorial board, that 10 days after being told that it would lose 25 percent of its budget -- and reporting that fact, to the acknowledged dismay of university administrators -- the Silver and Gold Record learned that it would be wiped out entirely. "The university says it wasn't retaliatory," Ciccone says, "but it looks that way to us."

One of a Kind

The Silver and Gold Record is a highly unusual, if not unique, publication. It emerged, in part, because the University of Colorado at Boulder lost its student-run newspaper, formerly the Silver and Gold, in 1971, when it left campus to become an independent, professionally run publication. Believing they needed a newspaper to cover university governance and other issues important to them, faculty members pushed to create the Silver and Gold Record in 1972.

The publication, which distributes 8,500 copies a week on the system's three campuses for its 14,000-plus employees, focuses especially on state and university system governance, but covers other issues important to faculty and staff members.

As a newspaper aimed at faculty and staff members, reported by professional reporters who are university employees, but financed by the administration, it has at times had a bumpy ride -- especially when it has carried critical coverage of Colorado administrators, who have had more than their share of ups and downs in recent years. Its financing has frequently been at risk, and two years ago, then-President Hank Brown sought to appoint the publication's editor, which had historically been the purview of its employee-led editorial board.

In the current financial environment, where state funds for higher education (and everything else) are declining, all aspects of the three-campus university system's budgets are vulnerable. And Benson has made the operations of the system office that he heads a particular target, said Ken McConnellogue, a Colorado spokesman, to "make our system administration more efficient and effective."

As part of that process, various campus departments have prepared for budget cuts of varying sizes, as the projected size of university revenue shortfalls has changed virtually by the week, if not the day. Two weeks ago, system administrators told department managers to expect cuts of certain sizes in their 2009-10 fiscal year budgets. The editors of the Silver and Gold Record were told its budget would be reduced by 21 percent, or $125,000 a year. The publication's managers responded with a plan to cut staff salaries and make a series of changes in its publishing schedule and size, all of which was laid out in an April 23 article in its own pages about the cuts.

But a week later, after further review revealed that the planned level of cuts left the system "well short of target of where we need to be," according to McConnellogue, Colorado administrators announced a plan for deeper reductions yet -- a total of $6.2 million in the central system's budget, including 54 staff positions. The eliminated positions include the system's vice president for academic affairs and research, the systemwide diversity officer (within the next year) -- and all 6.5 full-time equivalent positions (nine employees total) at the Silver and Gold Record, essentially eliminating the publication.

"I highlight this move because I know the paper has been a part of CU for some time," Benson said in his budget communiqué. "CU certainly needs effective internal communications. But we cannot afford to be in the newspaper business, a model none of our peer universities follow."

Members of the publication's editorial board said they were deeply troubled by the decision and by how it was made. They noted that administrators had strongly objected to the April article the newspaper published about its planned budget cut, because the editors had been "told not to report on it because [university administrators] wanted no staff or faculty to know that they might be losing their jobs," said Ciccone, the publication's editorial board chair and an associate professor and chair in the English department at Colorado's Denver campus. Was the decision to end the Silver and Gold Record "retaliatory," she wondered?

That assertion is "wholly inaccurate," said McConnellogue, the Colorado spokesman. Yes, he said, Leonard Dinegar, the university's vice president for administration, told Silver and Gold Record staff members Friday that there have been "articles in the paper that made me wince over the years," and that the article about the budget cut was one of them.

But that was largely because the information about the proposed budget cut was shared with the publication's editors in their capacity as managers of a university department, not as journalists, McConnellogue said, and the numbers and effective dates of the potential cuts were not set in stone. Although university officials were unhappy that the Silver and Gold Record reported the preliminary information in the way that it did, McConnellogue said, the fact that Editor Jefferson Dodge did so "is a testament to the fact that he had the independence to do that." (Of course, that's an independence the publication might not have after June 30....)

The other major point raised by supporters of the Silver and Gold Record was that the paper's faculty/staff editorial board and other faculty leaders were not consulted about the decision to eliminate the publication. That runs counter to all the talk from President Benson and other university leaders about how the budget cutting process "will be open and transparent and will be informed by governance groups and the university community," one of several governing principles they have repeatedly cited, Ciccone said Friday. "We were notified today that it was over, and this decision was made without any co-governance or any transparency. Those have been buzzwords around the campus, and now we know they are just buzzwords."

It's wrong for Silver and Gold Report backers to characterize the elimination of the publication as a failure of shared governance, McConnellogue said, given that the publication is a unit of the president's office. "The budget for that operation rests within the president's office, and president has to make those budget decisions," he said. "Ideally everyone sits around the table and has a chance to make their arguments, but at the end of the day, when it comes to administrative budgets, the president has to make difficult decisions.

"That's what happened in this case," McConnellogue added, "and not just related to the newspaper."


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