Why “no comment” on Jordan Nott?

Maggie writes:

Along a different line, I am curious why EVPA Lehman selectively chooses what queries he will respond to, and which ones he won’t. i.e. “Student suspended following depression treatment sues University…”; in another article in the Fall edition of the Hatchet, he “refused” to be interviewed for said article. Isn’t that his job, to answer “Academic Affairs” related queries?

That’s an interesting question. Throughout the year, I have struggled with this problem on numerous occasions. It is University policy not to comment on “pending litigation.” On other controversial subjects, University administrators often decline to comment. Unfortunately for GW, declining to comment does not cause a story to go away, and it almost always fuels speculation among readers that the University is in the wrong when comment is declined ( see more about this subject in Barnett’s column, “‘No comment’ doesn’t mean no story”)This is happening with the case involving Jordan Nott and the counseling center, and it was also the case when we reported on the dismissal of Michael Schaffer, sexuality professor.

I don’t think this is necessarily a fair rap GW. Although disappointing for us, declining to comment is hardly an admission of guilt. If I were in the position of VP Lehman, UCC director Dianne DePalma, or anyone else being sued by Jordan Nott, I would probably do the same thing and not be interviewed by The Hatchet. It’s not unreasonable for someone to not want to talk about a court case they are involved in, simply for fear of influencing the judicial proceedings.

Additionally, it’s not the VP’s job to answer queries, as Maggie suggests. It’s his job, and the job of all other administrators, to strengthen the University and educate its students. Whenever they talk to us, it is because they choose to do so, not because they have to. VP Lehman in particular has always been very helpful to The Hatchet, and I would guess that he is probably quoted more than any other campus administrator in our publication.

I think it’s also critical to distinguish the difference between not returning phone calls, and declining to comment or deferring comment to Media Relations. I think it is usually the case that when someone does not return a call or calls, it is because they don’t want to say anything about a story, either because it is a controversial story or it is not appropriate yet to discuss it. Once, an administrator even told me after I had written a piece that he intentionally didn’t return my calls because he wanted his name to have the friendlier “did not return calls” as opposed to “declined” or “refused” comment attached to his name.

That said, I think it’s important to understand this isn’t always the case. When we try to interview some of GW’s highest ranking officials, we understand they are very busy people. When someone doesn’t return a call, it can sometimes be just because they were too busy to talk for that article. We include the note that somebody did not return a call so that readers understand we tried to do a thorough job on a piece and are not left asking “why didn’t you talk to so-and-so?”

Finally, though The Hatchet and Media Relations have worked well together for years, I would call on the Department of Media Relations to be more forthcoming on the ongoing case of Jordan Nott. That case has two critical issues: one, an allegation that the hospital and counseling breach student confidentiality. If this proves to be true, students should know about the policy, so they can get off-campus help if they so choose. And if the University is in the right and has not breached confidentiality, it needs to explain that clearly to students so that they won’t avoid the counseling center unnecessarily.

Secondly, the issue involves GW’s endangering behavior policy, which treats thoughts of suicide or a threat of suicide the same way as a threat against another student. If this policy remains in effect, it could continue to result in disciplinary sanctions against students during their most troubled and vulnerable times. It’s my belief that as long as the University implores suicidal and depressed students to go to the University of help, it would only be fair to be open about any consequences of seeking that help. One of the questions I wanted to ask Dr. DePalma was whether, during her sessions with Jordan, she interrupted him whenever he brought up depression and suicide to remind him of the endangering behaivor policy. She chose to defer comment to Media Relations.

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