When a major earthquake hit Haiti in January, two University of Florida graduate students, Jon Bougher and Roman Safiullin, were in a small town not far from the epicenter, shooting footage for their master’s thesis about two aid workers.
They kept their cameras rolling until they were evacuated, and vowed to go back again to film the men they've been filming for months, the founders of sustainable building nonprofit Planting Peace. A documentary about humanitarian efforts in Haiti, Bougher said, “would be incomplete -- and our professors feel it’s incomplete – without going back after the earthquake.”
But as it now stands, their film will be incomplete. They’ve been told their final submission cannot include any footage captured during their post-earthquake trips to Haiti because they defied university rules in traveling there after a ban on “UF-sanctioned, -sponsored, or -approved trips” for students was put into place.
To the students and their professors, the ban is a threat to their academic and artistic freedom. From the university’s perspective, it’s an issue of liability: The students ignored institutional rules and put themselves in danger.
“Never in my professional life had anybody told me what could or couldn’t be in a student’s thesis,” said Churchill Roberts, the students’ adviser and co-director of the Documentary Institute in the university’s College of Journalism and Communications. “It’s contrary to anything I’ve ever seen at a university. It’s so absurd that some outside person would come in and dictate what the story should be.”
The university’s provost, Joe Glover, said that the ban and subsequent memos and meetings had made it clear to Bougher, 25, and Safiullin, 26, that “student travel to Haiti is basically out of bounds at this point.”
He added: “We informed them that they could not travel in a university capacity to Haiti. They were told clearly they could not use material they obtained post-earthquake in their thesis.”
When the ban was announced, Bougher told the Gainesville Sun that he and Safiullin were determined to get to the island nation. “We're going to find a way to get down there if possible,” he said.
The students tried to convince administrators that “we had a good reason to go.” Faculty and staff could go on aid or research trips with administration approval and, Bougher said, “we were hopeful that the university would make an exception to the policy for us.”
Bougher said he was given “no definitive statement” that footage shot using non-university sources of funding couldn’t be used in the film. “There weren’t any clear directives on Haiti travel given to us.”
Using his own money, Bougher traveled to Haiti in mid-February on the first commercial flight to Port-au-Prince since the earthquake. Though Documentary Institute faculty and Bougher's family were aware of the trip, university administrators did not learn about it until it was reported in the Sun.
A few weeks later, Bougher and Safiullin went back again to visit a school whose development they’d been following since before the earthquake. That trip was financed by a retired University of Florida faculty member. On both trips, they used personal video equipment.
Cary Nelson, president of American Association of University Professors, said the university “was well within its rights to bar use of its funds for travel to a given country.” But because the students chose to travel without using university funds, “academic freedom should have protected their right to use the Haiti footage in their thesis. The authority to accept the content of the thesis must reside with the students' faculty advisers and their department, not with the administration."
It’s an uncomfortable juxtaposition of administrative prerogatives and academic goals, said Warren Haffar, associate dean of internationalization and director of a graduate program on international peace at Arcadia University. When students ask to travel to countries on U.S. State Department advisory lists, he said, institutions are “walking a very fine line between safety and liability on the one hand, and academic integrity and wanting the students to be engaged in the world relative to their subject matter on the other.”
While other colleges and universities have explicitly banned undergraduates from traveling to Haiti since the earthquake, policies for graduate students elsewhere were less strict and were more like those applied to faculty. “There is a difference between graduate and undergraduate students in these kinds of situations,” Haffar said.
Bougher drew the distinction too. “Roman and I don’t want to advocate widespread travel to Haiti,” he said. “We’re not asking groups of undergraduates to go down there without professional skills – but we have professional skills and could take care of ourselves there.”
Asked about the students’ professional skills, Glover said that because “they’re not trained medical personnel or aid workers,” they had no reason to go back, with or without the university’s approval.
Roberts, the students’ adviser, disagrees. Once the earthquake hit, it became an essential part of the film’s narrative that couldn’t be omitted or glossed over.
“They have been working on this project for a year,” he said. “The nature of their film had to change to take into account what happened.”
Had the students not gone back to Haiti, Roberts added, he and his colleagues grading the thesis “would have all said, ‘We are very, very disappointed that you didn’t go; you could have completed a really good thesis.’”
Roberts and the students argue that because they’ve already shot the footage (and did so with the permission of their professors), they ought to be allowed to use it.
To Glover, that strikes the wrong note. “If we had this travel ban in place but nevertheless allowed the students to travel to Haiti and to submit materials,” he said, “we would at least implicitly be condoning them to continue their research.”