By Michael O’Shea
I feel that something more must be said concerning the bear incident than a news story, so here’s my opinion on the matter.
The first topic is public relations. Public relations is defined in the dictionary as the professional maintenance of a favorable public image. WCU has a department of public relations with full-time staff members whose sole occupational goal is to maintain the university’s favorable public image. Granted, most every school has one of these and they are an important part of retaining students, not to mention ensuring that the hallowed piece of paper we receive at the end of four years keeps up its value, but in this situation it is important to keep in mind the nature of a PR department.
WCU’s PR department is not charged with informing the students and faculty, nor with informing the public, when it is concerning a matter that is degrading the favorable public image of the university. It simply is not in the job description. The oversight of the PR department is the upper administration. Period. They are not accountable to students, faculty or the public.
In which case, they have no business questioning the “facts,” timing or content of what the university decides would be best for people to hear. Take, for instance, if Chancellor Bardo decides it’s a good idea to dismiss the bear incident as a “stupid prank.”
“I am pleased to hear that this situation appears to be a stupid prank. I am disappointed in the extremely poor judgment demonstrated by these young people. I hope that this intolerable incident can serve as a learning moment for them and for others, one that reminds us that we must respect one another’s opinions and we should not jump to conclusions without first having all the facts,” Bardo said in a press release put out by WCU’s PR department and circulated amongst local and major media outlets. Which, I might add, was never sent to the Western Carolinian.
This particular press release (http://www.wcu.edu/11223.asp) was published at 4:30 pm on Tuesday October 21. At 3:00 pm on that day I heard from a source that campus police had several students in custody and were beginning to interview them. I immediately went to the campus police department, where I was informed that all information on the matter was being run through the WCU PR department and I would have to go through them. So, at 3:30 pm I was in the PR department, where I gave my name, personal cell number and e-mail to Leila Tvedt, the Associate Vice Chancellor of Public Relations, who assured me that, as soon as the police released any information, they would send it right over to me.
Thus far, I have not been contacted by the public relations department once concerning the bear incident. After voicing my concern at the panel discussion with the political science department, Tvedt reassured me that they would send me any relevant info as soon as it became available. When the names of the two suspects were released after that, I found out through a Citizen-Times article, not the public relations department.
On Wednesday, October 22 I e-mailed Chancellor Bardo to request an interview. He has still not contacted me, nor has he made any effort to give comments to the campus newspaper directly. That same evening, I also requested that the names of the students be sent to our paper to Police Chief Tom Johnson. Dr. Johnson did not reply and, when they did release the names, the Western Carolinian was not sent a copy by his department or the PR department.
Keep in mind that I don’t mean to sound personally bitter at the PR department and Chancellor Bardo’s ignoring of the campus newspaper. As editor-in-chief, I understand that in the newspaper business sometimes you get ignored and stonewalled; people don’t always want to talk to the press, understandably, and it’s not to be taken personally. However, as a tuition and tax paying student of a public university in NC, I am most definitely bitter, and I am confident in saying that, as students and faculty of this institution, you ought to be bitter about the university’s ignoring of this publication.
As I’m sure you know, the Western Carolinian is funded by student affairs monies, meaning that we, in effect, work for the students. Thus, it is the duty of this publication to look after the interests of the students and faculty of this university, regardless of how that affects the public image of the university. Compare this to the mission and structure of the PR department. The editors of this publication are elected by a Media Board consisting of heads of other media organizations and faculty sponsors, as well as being overseen by said board. We must have the interests of the students and faculty in mind, and we have oversight from an elected board in our endeavors. The PR department has the oversight of the upper administration.
As a student, I am irate that the campus chose to ignore the publication that I fund and is charged with keeping my best interests in mind. I am irate that the administration chose to send this through a department whose job it is to unquestioningly publish statements, such as the one by Chancellor Bardo that this is a “stupid prank.” That sort of rhetorical oversimplification reflects on our student body and faculty and I am disappointed that the administration did not allow it to be questioned by another party before it was sent out as our campus’ official statement on the matter.
That sort of sentiment is not representative of the students and faculty of this university and I am frankly ashamed that this is what was sent to national media outlets without input from the campus community. It is not my statement on the matter, nor is it the statement that a large portion of the campus would like to make heard either.
Yes, Chancellor Bardo did hold a press conference on campus in which he said, “I don’t know, and we may never know, what their real motives were. I cannot look into their hearts.” I commend him on that statement, and I think it is important to not jump to any conclusions, as well. However, why was this statement not sent to national media the day before? Why was this sentiment not the one expressed in the press release sent to national media? Why was this contained to the campus and local media?
The language of “stupid prank” and that we should learn from this that “we should not jump to conclusions without first having all the facts” from the press release the day before sounds very definite to me. Why, then, the next day was the tone changed?
The definitive statement of “stupid prank” was published less than an hour after the PR department even knew that the students were being interviewed. At that time, they had only had a few hours to interview most, but not all, of the students. That was enough time to formulate a definitive opinion as strongly as the one that Chancellor Bardo published in the press release?
This appears to me to be a case of trying to save face in front of a national audience. However, perhaps the old adage of “honesty is best policy” should have been employed here, as the rapidity and finality of the official statement has backfired and this has turned into a PR debacle. This was one of the few instances in which this campus has been in the national spotlight, and we could have used this to show that WCU takes issues such as this seriously and examines them from an intellectual basis, but instead the PR department and Chancellor Bardo quickly penned some PR rhetoric to try and save face.
We are not a business, we are a university. I know that’s only true to a certain extent at this point, but it would be nice if we at least tried to maintain a scholarly dedication to the ideals of truth and justice rather than to the ideal of reputation.
Some students criticize the administration with acting too slowly in the matter. I charge just the opposite-that Chancellor Bardo jumped to conclusions and then quickly turned around and chastised the students, faculty and public for making judgments (those judgments, of course, were not sent to national media outlets as an “official statement”). Chancellor Bardo, please excuse us for trying to put the interpretive skills we learn here to use and reading into this incident. Apparently reading the overt symbolism that can easily been seen here was “jumping to conclusions” (though, if this were to appear in a work of fiction, I have a hunch critics would lambaste it for “overly-obvious symbolism”). Perhaps we ought to take an example and listen unquestioningly to the official story from the PR department, which seems to take the story coming from the suspects as true.
The “meaning” of an event is a tricky thing to grasp. In literary and artistic interpretations, authorial intent is very far down the list of critical interpretation of a work’s meaning. Even if the students involved did not “mean” for the act to incite fear and intimidation, the simple fact of the matter is that it did. There was obvious and unarguable symbolism in the act, whether intention or not. This creates quite a dilemma for justice, as we have two competing interpretations of the event. In classes, we are taught to take intent as being in irrelevant to meaning. In this case we are being asked to make intent as the sole meaning. One can easily see why this is such a convoluted situation, and I offer my condolences to the administration for having to make these decisions.
From my sources, it does, in fact, seem probable that this was a relatively innocent prank. That, however, is too difficult to determine in a few hours, and I criticize that statement, which made this campus community look appallingly dismissive towards the incident. I do appreciate Chancellor Bardo’s comment the next day that “I don’t know, and we may never know, what their real motives were. I cannot look into their hearts.” I implore students to actually take a step back and take some time to examine things before they declare this as either a “prank” or a “heinous crime.” Please, let’s try to separate the actual incident at hand with the slew of connotative issues it brings us for us. Let’s not “make an example” of these students for the historical context of this area that they did not mean to dredge up.
By the same token, let us not let something so blatantly wrong slip by with misdemeanors and fines akin to a “traffic ticket.” Regardless of intent, this did “mean” something to the students and faculty, and it should be treated accordingly. Criminal action may, in this case, be unwarranted; however, these students are under the ethical code of the university. If they were too nearsighted to see the ramifications of this act on the campus community, then perhaps they do not belong in this campus community. I only ask that the ethics committee keep expulsion and suspension as possibilities, though perhaps being forced to take a course in literary theory and interpretation may be more appropriate. Either way, let’s not be rash about this. After all, justice is a slippery thing, so one must approach it carefully.
Look for letters to the editor concerning this incident in the next edition.