After being born and raised only 20 minutes from the college that’d be my future alma mater, after working three semesters as a student journalist for that same college’s newspaper, The Collegian, and after obtaining my second degree from the same college where I’ve spent years studying, I’ve come to the following conclusion about that college.
Fresno State isn’t even trying to be a transparent university anymore. It’s trying to be a business.
Fresno State has seen its share of controversy in recent years: including former president Joseph Castro’s “failure to more aggressively respond” to reports of former employee Frank Lamas’ misconduct; the painfully slow process to change Henry Madden Library’s name following its former namesake’s rampant antisemitism making headlines; a graduate coaching assistant’s temper tantrum in the press box breaking a window and injuring fans during a football game; and, most recently, the Conley Art Building’s closure due to a planned protest and for which faculty members and administrators offered multiple conflicting explanations.
One might think that the university would be more inclined than ever to maintain transparency and rebuild credibility and trust with students, staff and faculty. However, my three semesters as a student journalist at The Collegian have shown me that’s far from the truth here.
For example, University Communications (UComm) is supposed to provide responses to media inquiries, but official responses from UComm often prompt more questions than give answers.
Instead of providing timely and unbiased information, UComm is essentially a PR team for the university.
At Fresno State, the expectation is that all media requests for any individual working for Fresno State from professors, construction workers, librarians and more should be going through UComm first – meaning any media request must first be sent to one or two specific individuals on campus, no matter who the request is for.
Basically, UComm is the filtered voice speaking for everyone representing Fresno State, ensuring in its businesslike way that all staff and faculty members are maintaining the unified, branded message it wants.
Most large organizations such as Fresno State have their own media department or public relations team to increase efficiency, and admittedly UComm can be a great tool for journalists working to find sources or determine rules on access. However, Fresno State has clearly twisted this tool for information efficiency into a tool for information control.
During a Collegian staff meeting where UComm gave the staff and contributors “advice” on how to best interact with them, they emphasized that contacting anyone else before UComm was strongly discouraged. Their advice also included a request to know student journalists’ interview questions upfront, which was another concern for students who had been taught that the journalism code of ethics discourages sharing questions beforehand.
This has caused reporters and editors to push back deadlines countless times, among other issues. One of our reporters even held an interview with a staff member for a school project, not for The Collegian, and had a UComm member show up unannounced to supervise.
Despite having an entire journalism department, this university seems to not understand how to treat student journalists. We shouldn’t get treated differently from other students trying to complete a project, just as we shouldn’t get treated differently from other journalists from professional news publications.
But Fresno State seems constantly afraid that someone will slip up to a student journalist, even one who is just trying to get an A on a project, because it could be bad for the Bulldog brand.
UComm’s response to Measure E, the proposed countywide sales tax intended to improve Fresno State that failed after November’s general election, emphasized the more manipulative businesslike qualities of Fresno State.
I was told I couldn’t speak with professors about their thoughts on the ballot “on university time, through university email, or in any way through use of university resources” to prohibit political advocacy related to a ballot measure due to “legal rules,” citing a state law that state employees could not advocate for ballot issues that would create a substantive gain for the university.
Multiple faculty and staff members expressed to me their confusion and anger that they weren’t able to share their personal viewpoints on Measure E, particularly when yard signs promoting “Yes On Measure E” were still allowed on the campus grounds, and UComm itself gave me a statement that was pro-Measure E.
Conflicting answers is a continuing trend, especially after The Collegian attempted multiple times to get clarification on confusing responses we got from multiple administrators and UComm regarding the Oct. 25 Conley Art Building closure in reaction to a community protest that had already been canceled. I got clearer answers after resorting to a public records request to obtain emails regarding the situation.
UComm, at the direction of administrators, provided inaccurate information to The Collegian on deadline, telling us that the building would remain open the next day when the reality was that all classrooms were closed and locked, with only an exterior courtyard open, leaving people to dither as to the definition of what made a building “closed.”
According to the emails, UComm was using a shared Google Doc to collaborate on how to reply to The Collegian’s media inquiries, leaving me to wonder how authentic were those answers we got back. To answer our questions about the closure, we got many, many replies from the two representatives of UComm relaying responses from multiple staff and faculty members, making the responses more confusing and less reliable.
But we made do with what we had, since reporters are discouraged from contacting these sources directly and must rely on UComm to relay these messages accurately.
Even this issue’s lead article regarding Resnick Student Union (RSU) finances required multiple back-and-forth emails beginning in September and running through November with UComm in another painfully slow attempt to get answers. After months of emails, multiple published articles regarding the RSU and a public records request, our numerous requests to speak with Vice President for Administration and Chief Financial Officer Debbie Adishian-Astone in-person were finally granted two weeks before our final issue.
My critique of the university’s transparency is not my criticism alone, for my time at The Collegian has introduced me to multiple staff and faculty members with clear criticism and genuine concerns about the direction the university is heading in and its transparency along the way. But for them, there’s too much fear of retaliation to step forward. The more I’ve gotten to understand the administration and how things operate, the less I blame them for being afraid.
Because trying to learn the truth about what is going on at Fresno State, no matter how seemingly innocuous the question is, will be met with pushback. Minor questions about something simple like construction updates must be run through UComm.
President Saúl Jiménez-Sandoval has maintained his availability to serve students since ascending to his current position, often encouraging students to reach out to him directly. The few interviews The Collegian was able to hold with Jiménez-Sandoval endured multiple delays and cancellations, and always included supervision from UComm. It’s clear that the dedication to serve students doesn’t extend to serving student journalists, and yet the university isn’t ready to treat us as journalists either, leaving us in a limbo as we try to report accurately.
While I’m about to graduate from Fresno State and move on from The Collegian, my hope is that leaving with honesty can help the students and reporters that come after me find a true, genuine environment on campus. What students need isn’t another disconnected corporation. We’re here for an education, and our school should be open to educating us, for better or for worse.