The Hatchet reported last Thursday that GW would propose a 4.9 percent tuition increase to the Board of Trustees the next day. Since the question has come up in conversation with numerous administrators, I’d like to clarify why we found it important to report this news as soon as we had received it.
Newspapers function on the basic premise that news their readers would deem important should be reported as soon as it can. This allows the process of open public debate and dialogue to begin sooner rather than later. It is especially important to report news on major decisions or policy shifts before they are finalized to allow readers to know what’s coming and to make recommendations for changes before proposals are set in stone. I cannot think of a decision that has such a wide and important effect on all students than how much they will pay to attend GW next year.
Clearly, GW President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, his budget advisors and a handful of deans and other administrators understood the importance of announcing proposals before they are passed when they convened a student leader meeting last Wednesday to discuss a proposed 4.9 percent tuition increase. They invited 40 student leaders, including me, to the “information session” to get feedback on the proposal and to work any concerns, so they said, into a final pitch to the Board of Trustees the following Friday. Trachtenberg called the meeting a “democratic” attempt to let students participate in the budget process.
But the administration’s rhetoric was not matched by its actions, when Trachtenberg politely asked The Hatchet to keep quiet about the tuition increase until the following Monday’s paper. The effect would be to allow only the 25 students who decided to show up to the meeting to have information the rest of the more than 8,000 undergraduates deserved to know. We declined to ignore our readers by keeping a lid on information so that a tuition jump would slip into existence with minimum attention.
Trachtenberg offered some reasonable concerns about letting the tuition proposal out before it was passed by the Board of Trustees. First, he said, it could change. And, secondly, he didn’t want to put pressure on the board by letting the issue into the public’s eye before they got to act.
The problem is, major decisions should never take place in the secretive and behind-closed-doors manner. If the final tuition increase goes beyond 4.9 percent, students should know many intelligent people thought the smaller increase was plenty. If it is lowered, students should know that GW made a judgement that student pocketbooks are more important than certain programs the administration wanted. Either way, GW should respect the students paying the bills around here more by being more open.
In an apparent attempt to keep the tuition increase out of the public spotlight, administration officials said the meeting was understood to be off limits for reporting the next day, even though no mention was made before the meeting and The Hatchet had been open about its intention to send a reporter to write a story. I assure every one of our readers that we broke no implicit or explicit agreement not to print information when we ran the story on Thursday, and that we considered the administration’s concerns about releasing information heavily in the way we wrote the story. You will notice that few details of the large proposal were initially reported.
In the future, if the administration wants to embargo information to withhold it from public scrutiny while preserving an appearance of democracy with a closed meeting of selected students, I suggest it make its wishes clear and allow student media to decide if it wants to play by those rules.