Catholic University newspaper unsure of survival after administration slashes scholarships

The lights eerily turn on and off on their own at The Catholic University of America’s student newspaper, The Tower. They are motion-activated and shut down when editors leave for the day. But Editor in Chief Phil Essington worries that following the university’s recent elimination of the editors’ scholarships, those lights may turn off for the last time this May.

CUA administrators decided last month to cut $24,000 in annual scholarships awarded to the editors of The Tower. The decision came about four months after senior university officials began its policy of ignoring all requests for interviews, Essington said.

The Tower’s relations with the administration got off to a rocky start this year when the university initially barred the formation of an NAACP chapter on campus, Essington said. CUA ultimately reversed that policy, but the controversy didn’t stop there.

CUA also decided to ban any person who supports abortion rights from speaking on campus. That decision was made in accordance with a statement from the Catholic Church’s summer bishops’ conference; the university chose to “not honor those who act in defiance of our fundamental moral principles.”

Unhappy with the paper’s coverage of these controversial decisions at the start of the academic year, senior administrators refused to talk to The Tower after mid-October, Essington said.

Leaders of the student government and the yearbook will also lose scholarships starting next year. The heads of the three organizations see the move as devastating, if not fatal, to their operations.

“I think it’s going to be impossible to find enough editors to run the paper without compensation,” said Essington, who graduates this spring. “Without the scholarship I don’t see how it’s possible to keep The Tower going.”

Catholic University has given scholarships to the editors of the 83-year-old newspaper since 1965, Essington added.

Peter Bowman, the yearbook’s editor in chief, said the loss of awards will be crippling to his organization.

“It’s ludicrous – one of many awful dealings with this university,” he said. “It shows a lack of care – almost a (lack of) conscience – for the students.”

Although Bowman concedes the scholarship elimination may just be a way to cut costs from the budget, he also suspects it may be a clash of personalities between administrators and this year’s student leaders.

“I think it has a lot to do with them not liking me, Phil (Essington), and Sarah (McGrath, student government president),” Bowman said. “It could be a personal vendetta.”

Michael Foley, an associate professor of politics, wrote a column in The Tower last month condemning the new speakers policy, but he’s not sure whether it was hot-button issues like this that led to the slashing of the scholarships.

“It may be more or less innocent – nonetheless stupid,” Foley said. “Under this editor, The Tower has done a wonderful job covering the issues in an even-handed manner. (Essington) is not a flaming radical.”

Foley said the administration should permit speakers with diverse opinions to present their beliefs at the university, otherwise students won’t intelligently understand opposing positions.

“It’s fundamental to the American academic community,” he added.

Victor Nakas, executive director of public affairs, sent Essington an e-mail in October saying that he would have “no more dealings” with members of The Tower’s staff. The Rev. David O’Connell, CUA president, and Susan Pervi, vice president for student life, have also ignored all Tower interview requests since October. All three of these officials failed to return numerous phone calls for this story.

Freshman Sara Prieto said the university should not shield its students from the diversity of opinions outside the Catholic Church.

“There are other people in the world aside from Catholics,” she said. “Students should be able to differentiate what is said from what (they) believe in.”

The American Association of University Professors, a group promoting intellectual freedom, said it finds the speakers policy objectionable.

“It is certainly not suitable for an American institute of higher learning,” said Jordan Kurland, associate general secretary of the association. “We’re not saying that there can’t be obligations to the Church, but in our judgment they have gone too far.”

The university is being unfair in severing the lines of communication between administrators and The Tower, Kurland said.

“They are hostile to the lack of support The Tower gives them,” he said. “But they should be able to live with that sort of dissent.”

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