Enter To Learn...And Then Shut Up

     The best education I got this semester didn't come from textbooks and it wasn't in the classroom.  It actually came from watching the controversy surrounding BYUSA, Brigham Young University's student service organization, unfold.  It was a microcosm of what happens in the "real world".

     According to a budget document obtained by BYU's newspaper, the Daily Universe, BYUSA had spent hundreds of dollars on questionable purchases for themselves.  Their expenses ranged from several small payments at Jamba Juice to over $1,000 spent at Olive Garden.  There were trips to Cheesecake Factory, Red Robin, Tucano's, a go-karting track, an Alpine skiing resort, as well as laundry expenses.

     After these allegations arose, BYUSA volunteers and supporters put on their biggest and brightest smiles and began tossing out talking points, dodging questions, and hoping the controversy would go away.  Students were upset.  Activists organized.  Divine Comedy put out a humorous satirical video.

     In the real world, this kind of thing happens all the time as watchdog journalists and whistleblowers uncover unethical activities.  It usually results in people being fired, sued, sent to prison, or not getting re-elected though.  For everyone involved in "BYUSA-gate", none of those things will happen.  We'll all go on our way and get a quality education at a remarkable price.  In the larger scheme of things, BYUSA's misuse of student tuition dollars doesn't make that much of a difference.  There are much larger examples of questionable spending in the world.  Does that mean we should just shut up, move on, and forget about it like BYUSA and some within the administration want us to?  Absolutely not. 

     It is unethical for a student service organization with a budget made of student tuition dollars to spend money the way BYUSA has.  And others agree.

     "I do not think those expenses are ethical," said Sterling May, BYUSA's Vice President elect and brother of current President Elise May.

    I'm glad someone agrees with me.  Jon Kau, Associate Dean of Students doesn't.  In my conversation with him, he not only said that the questionable spending was ethical, but he said that I didn't know the whole story.  When I asked what the whole story was, he wouldn't tell me.

     With an attitude like that, this controversy will never completely go away.  BYUSA's reputation will remain damaged (although I'm pretty sure University Towing is still ranked higher in the "Things BYU Students Dislike Poll") and these allegations will continue.  The only way BYUSA can effectively deal with this controversy is to be up front and honest.  The Vice President elect is able to admit that the organization has had some unethical spending, why can't anyone else?  I guarantee that BYUSA’s spending isn't as horrible and corrupt as some people think it is, and by being transparent, the organization can show that.


     "I have never received nor do I expect to receive Tucano's, Olive Garden, Cheesecake Factory, go-karting, skiing, or laundry from BYUSA," said Sterling May.  "There is nothing fundamentally wrong with BYUSA's budget.  Every expense must be approved by four separate people, two of which are accountants.  That being said, Chris [Peterson, BYUSA's President elect] and I are already beginning to eliminate unnecessary expenses.  We will do everything we can to use every penny effectively."

     Wasn't that easy?  Why couldn't anyone have said this from the beginning?  "We're sorry, that wasn't the right way to spend your money, we won't do it again."  It wouldn't even be an issue if BYUSA responded that way instead of side stepping the allegations.  Obviously, BYUSA does a lot of good on campus and its volunteers work hard to serve the student body.  Of the thousands of dollars that make up their budget, the unethical spending was a small part. 

     It soon looked like BYUSA would get their way though.  The controversy would die down and they would be able to go on their retreats and spend students' money behind closed doors.  For that reason, I requested to hold a demonstration on campus protesting BYUSA's lack of transparency and responsibility.  My request was denied.  I was told by Jon Kau that BYUSA wasn't allowed to be transparent and they weren't responsible to students despite the fact that they were spending our money.

     I asked Kau how students got permission to protest in 2006.  A Student Leadership Coordinator was fired after writing a letter that was critical of BYUSA's presidential election process and the university offered him a month's salary and three months' health insurance if he kept quiet.  He went to the media instead, and students protested.  Kau hadn't heard of the protest and bristled at the term "hush money".

     By the time Kau was interviewed by the Daily Universe, he was aware of the protest.

     "This petition is different from other protests...on those occasions, students were expressing their disagreement with a university decision.  However, they were not advocating violation of university policy as the current request does," said Kau.  "In fact, during the 2007 protests [held in response to Vice President Dick Cheney’s visit to campus], the students made it very clear that they did not expect the university to make a change in its decision."

     Saying the protest called for "violation of university policy" makes it sound like we were advocating apostasy or dismantling the honor code.  And if the request was edited to say that we didn't actually expect any change, would it have been granted?  My guess is probably not.

     Allegedly, the Daily Universe planned to run the story of the denied protest on the front page but was pressured to bury it.  It ended up on page five while a story about a 50-year-old performance group made the front page.

     The Daily Universe reporters go to class and learn about the Pentagon Papers and about Bernstein and Woodward, heroic tales of journalists seeking and reporting truth despite the powerful establishment trying to stop them.  Then they go write soft news stories about crafts and finding dates in the library.  Hard controversial stories are far and few between for the DU.  These student journalists finally have an opportunity to practice these ideals of uncovering truth, and they're told to stop.  There's no such thing as freedom of the press unless you own the press.  It's obvious that some within BYU don't want the Daily Universe to even think about practicing watchdog journalism.  It seems like they don't even want it to be press release newsletter either.

     After hearing rumors of an e-mail sent out by someone in the administration telling campus organizations to not talk to the Daily Universe, I decided to go find out for myself.  BYU's Multicultural Student Services had allegedly declined to be interviewed for an article about their annual pow-wow.  When I asked a woman working at their office if this was true, she got defensive and only offered short responses that didn’t answer my questions.  I talked to a few student workers at other offices on campus, and they were more cooperative.  It sounded like the administration didn’t trust the Daily Universe at all.  Don’t talk to any of their reporters because they will lie and they will misquote you.  Only respond through e-mail so you can script your response and you won’t get misquoted.

     While there isn’t anything wrong with thinking out responses before being asked questions, the paranoia that seemed to pervade the Wilkinson student center was unbelievable.  It felt like everyone was convinced that the BYUSA articles were full of falsehoods and that the Daily Universe was out to get everyone.  I doubt that the Daily Universe would try to write a muckraking article about an annual pow-wow though.

     In all likelihood, nothing will change. Students aren’t allowed to demonstrate.  The Daily Universe isn’t allowed to write anything that could ruffle some feathers (even if it’s true).  We have Sterling May's word that the budget will be used effectively and that they will eliminate unnecessary expenses, but those claims can’t be verified.  Even if next year's BYUSA is ethical in its spending, there is nothing from stopping the organization from dropping thousands of dollars at restaurants and entertainment on itself in the future.

     Brigham Young University is a great place to go to school.  I love it.  Even though it's an amazing institution, there are areas where it can be improved, and there always will be.  Stifling student voices and refusing to admit there could be problems isn't the right way to go.  I couldn't have said it better than Beauregard Bahnam, a BYU student who wrote this recent letter to the editor.

     "What is the administration trying to hide by being so secretive and wielding such control?  As a former Student Advisory Council member, I can testify we were often told by administrators that we possessed and attitude of entitlement whenever we expressed dismay with current university practice or policy...the lack of student voice on this campus and the ineffectiveness of BYUSA isn't because of the students, it's due to the harsh limitations set on us by the administration.  Someone needs to protest that.  Good luck getting it approved."

     Observing and experiencing the BYUSA controversy was the best education of the semester for me because it was the closest thing to a "real world" experience I got.  I learned that the ideals you learn about in class don't always work the way you think they should.  I learned that change is hard.  I learned that sometimes people disagree with you and try to stop you from "rocking the boat", but if you believe in what you're fighting for, you shouldn't give up.  These are issues that I as well as everyone who took apart in this controversy in some form or another will face when we finally enter "the real world".  They don't teach you that in a textbook.  So maybe that Tucano's trip served the student body after all.

8 comments:

Anonymous said...

Without getting into specifics, I thought I would briefly respond to this sentence in your post:

"The Daily Universe isn’t allowed to write anything that could ruffle some feathers (even if it’s true)."

As outgoing news editor of The Daily Universe, I can say with a surety that even after all the controversy surrounding our coverage of BYUSA's budget this semester, we have still not received any directive or policy that would prohibit us from running stories that "could ruffle some feathers." We understand that a big part of our role as a campus newspaper is simply to inform students of campus activities and profile students, professors and their accomplishments. This is not earth-shattering stuff, but it is part of our community and we intend to cover it.

At the same time, if this semester has done anything for our drive as a newspaper to aggressively pursue important stories, it's renewed it. We will not back away from writing article that might make some people on campus uncomfortable, provided they are absolutely accurate and abide by the highest journalistic standards.

Anyway, just thought that should be clarified.

McKay Coppins
News Editor
The Daily Universe

Anonymous said...

Good piece, Hunter.

It is interesting to me the apparent double standard on free speech. The school (American Heritage, I'm looking your way) and the Church consider the Constitution and its attached Bill of Rights to be inspired documents. Indeed, the Bill of Rights is what many people credit as one of the fundamental building blocks setting the stage for the restoration of the Gospel. Yet, when it comes to the application of the principles in these inspired documents, the administration's faith in them seems to falter.

These educational experiences, I think, are absolutely priceless for the students involved, both at BYUSA and at the Daily Universe. Yet, the administration has effectively silenced discussion on campus and deprived students of an experience that could have taught them more than any ethics class ever could.

Silencing the protest has only made the school's administration seem petty and their meddling in the editorial process of the paper has compromised the integrity of the paper and jeopardized the true educational value of having such a student lab.

Having surveyed a number of private and public educational institutions, I have seen a trend in administrative involvement: when private institutions prohibit legitimate discussion and free speech on campus, it only serves to diminish the reputation of the university as a whole. Let's hope this does not remain a consistent trend here at BYU...

Snash said...

Good blog post. Oh BYUSA...

-Scott Nash

Anonymous said...

I work for a campus department, and as far as I'm aware, there has been no directive from BYU to shun Daily Universe reporters. As a former reporter and editor for the DU, I found that most of the departments/people on campus unwilling or reluctant to talk to us had been misrepresented or misquoted sometime in the past by another reporter. No directive from BYU, just a novice reporter screwing up royally on a quote that results in a lasting press policy.

I know that Multicultural Student Services (specifically some of its student employees) has been grossly misrepresented in the local press (read: Daily Herald), which led to stricter procedures with reporters. Who can blame them? I've also met many other people in organizations across campus who have had the same experience with the Daily Universe. They did have conduct e-mail interviews or send our quotes for a look-over, but I really couldn't blame them. Getting misquoted in a newspaper is a big deal, and at some point, we blew it, and this was their way of making sure it wouldn't happen again.

But I suspect the trail stops there. Having dealt as a reporter with a variety of departments, each of which had its own press policies (some were absolutely liberal and others were quite restrictive), I suspect that any rules about talking to the DU are made at a department level at best, and are not a directive from BYU.

Best,

J.M.R.

Anonymous said...

JMR,

actually, there really was an e-mail sent by Jan Sharman to various campus entities under the umbrella of student life telling them to only deal with the DU through e-mail. the writers of the BYUSA article recorded the interviews so they probably didn't misquote anyone in that article. just thought you'd want to know

bcb said...

I think it is ridiculous that they didn't let you protest. If they have nothing to hide, if everything is being done by the books, then what do they care if attention is brought to the issue. Like you said, open the books and there will be no need for protest, if everything checks out. There will always be frivolous spending in organizations like this. I was in student council in high school just for the free hour during school, getting in free to dances and a free trip to California... notice the recurring use of the word "free". I can't imagine that the lure for perks is that much different than it was for me in high school, and if noone is saying no to me getting jamba juice on the school's dime then I'm probably saying "gimme two".

AmyHatesPeople!YesThatMeansYou;) said...

Like the post Schwarzy-I would have to say that I am not at all surprised that BYU would not let you protest. There is an article at http://www.affirmation.org/news/2006_34.shtml That is a very good read, it is about several students and non-students getting arrested because they were protesting. They did a "die-in," which symoblized the members who were gay that ended their lives, each person carried a Lilly with them and dropped to the grass in remembrance. As soon as the lied down they were excorted off, how sad! there is a part of it in Equality U a documentary. Ok so this is not exactly the same as you are going through but it is just an example of how they wont let anything break into the bubble they put the school and their students in. It makes me sad to think that we are taught to be free thinkers yet we cannot speak our minds, what is wrong with that picture. All the best to you and your classmates. And I am happy that I am not going to BYU or BYU-Idaho (Which is the same way, and it frustrated me when I went there, no one wanted to question anything that was being taught to them or spoke to them), God Bless Always.

Anonymous said...

Sounds like Professor Umbridge at Hogwarts all over again...

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