There are some serious issues facing the University of Montana: declining enrollment, lingering bad feelings and fears about a climate that seemed to permit sexual assault, budget cuts, and dissatisfaction among some members of the faculty, to name a few. It’s been a really difficult couple of years for the University, but the coverage of the school has often taken a cheerleading tone that isn’t sufficiently critical.
Often reporting on this news for the Missoulian is higher education reporter Martin Kidston, whose coverage seems awfully deferential to the administration and unfairly critical of those who want change at the university.
Six weeks ago, I was surprised to see that Kidston had written a commentary piece lambasting “naysayers” critical of the University’s management. In language better suited to a University press release, Kidston wrote:
One does not need to agree with the administration every step of the way. After all, there’s nothing wrong with asking tough questions, holding our decisionmakers accountable and engaging in healthy debate.
But at times, the debate this past year has been anything but healthy. If UM is to succeed and grow — and Missoula to progress along with it — one should consider keeping quiet if one has nothing constructive to bring to the table.
It’s easy to be a nasty critic and a constant naysayer, but little good has ever come from that. The burden of building a stronger university and a better Missoula falls on the shoulders of each of us, and a little positivity wouldn’t hurt.
Odd, to say the least, for a reporter covering the university beat to essentially be asking critics of the University to shut up and stop talking unpleasant subjects like sexual assault and budget cuts.
Over the last week, though, Mr. Kidston seems to have upped the ante, offering opinion in news pieces, opinion that should never have made its way past an editor. In a story from today he suggests, without evidence, that critics of the university’s budget cuts are outnumbered by those who are content with the budget situation. He writes:
Faculty members and department heads at the University of Montana are expressing frustration with a small group of professors who claim that an atmosphere of intimidation exists on campus, and that administrators are balancing the school’s budget on the back of the humanities.
The group, led by history professor and former associate provost of international programs Mehrdad Kia, has been vocal in its criticism of the university over the past year. The group numbered seven at its last meeting, but recently joined forces with another group critical of UM to take the complaints public.
Great lede, but there’s nothing in the piece to substantiate the suggestion that these “other faculty members” represent a significant number of professors. Despite Kidston’s assertion that the critics of the university are a “small group,” there’s no evidence in his piece to support that assertion. In fact, the piece only cites two sources, Chris Comer, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, and Liz Putnam, chair of the faculty Senate. Contrast those 2 with the 27 who signed a public letter critical of the administration last June, and the claim becomes even more questionable.
Near the end, the piece delves into some truly questionable journalistic ethics, trafficking in innuendo and smear quotes. Kidston writes:
Other faculty members say they’re frustrated with the attacks leveled by Kia’s group, calling them “without merit” and “hypocritical.”
Kia resigned as associate provost for UM’s international program in March of 2012, and while the reasons behind that resignation have never been revealed, some faculty members wonder if he has an ax to grind with the administration.
That’s just blatantly unfair to Professor Kia. No one was put on the record to defend the charges of hypocrisy, nor even explain them—and the suggestion of an “ax to grind” without foundation is little more than an ad hominem attack. Surely those defending the position of the administration have no need for anonymity—and even anonymous sources typically need to provide reasons supporting their assertions.
There’s also no indication in the piece that Professor Kia was given the opportunity to respond.
Finally, the detail that caught my eye and generated this post came in the third paragraph, in which Kidston said:
But other faculty members – many who have been reluctant to counter the group publicly – say the group’s criticisms have been high on rhetoric and slim on facts
That line stood out because in his November 14 new story about a protest against the budget cuts, Kidston wrote:
While facts were largely absent from the meeting – as noted by one member of the student senate – the group of faculty members called for administrators to undergo cuts equal to the university’s drop in student enrollment the past two years.
That sounds an awful lot like someone pushing an agenda in a talking point than a reporter objectively covering a dispute. A search of Mr. Kidston’s other pieces on the University doesn’t show that he applies this standard of criticism to claims from administration sources, either.
In a November 17th piece listed as “News” on the Missoulian web site, Kidston offered a defense of the administration’s decision to scale back liberal arts at UM. After quoting UM professor Doug Coffin, a pharmacy professor worried about losing the liberal arts identity of the school, Kidston offered the administration’s rebuttal:
Coffin, like several of his colleagues, believes UM’s administration is directing its cuts toward the very things that make higher education at UM what it has become. Their concerns are understandable, but there also is another side to the story and, one has to admit, it’s equally valid.
It starts at Main Hall, where administrators have the responsibility of balancing the school’s $164 million general fund budget while directing limited resources toward areas showing growth in student demand. Most of the university’s top administrators also served as teachers, and the choices they’re facing are no doubt difficult to make.
And don’t even get me started on this piece from September 21, a glowing review of the good things happening at the university, or the fact-free assertion Kidston offered on November 9th that UM has “has emerged as a national leader” on the issue of handling sexual assault.
On August 4, Bozeman Magpie contributor Ellie Newell dissected another Kidston piece about sexual assault, arguing that it gave UM President Royce Engstrom a free pass:
While I respect Kidston’s aim as a reporter to just tell the facts, the article reads like an unfiltered PR statement from the UM Office of the President. Kidston challenges neither Engstrom’s professional stake in moving past UM’s sexual-assault scandal nor the president’s dismissive assessment. The absence of a critical review of Engstrom’s statements is simply weak journalism.
On another matter, UM history professor Michael Mayer summed up the problem with this coverage quite nicely. Referring to another Kidston piece, he wrote:
If the Missoulian plans simply to print the talking points of the university’s administration, they may as well dispense with reporters.
I don’t have a vested interest in this fight other than as someone who appreciates the importance of a humanities education, but the people of Missoula and the state deserve critical and unbiased coverage about the University of Montana. Addressing the enrollment shortages and determining the future direction of UM might just depend on listening to the naysayers and critics who believe in the value of education just as much as those who defend the UM administrative team.
Unfortunately, these stories read less like objective news than sample work for a potential job in public relations at the University. And they’re seemingly always hiring.