By Harold Pierce
Colleges around the nation are under scrutiny for lack of transparency, whether the issue is sexual assaults or a campus break-in.
A review of communications between district media relations and journalists dating back four years suggests an institution of higher learning wary of negative press that at times withholds records and denies interview requests.
In some cases, media requests from outlets ranging from the Orange County Register to a Japanese television station are forwarded to as many as a dozen administrators before public records are released and interview requests are granted.
When the California recession hit, Rancho Santiago Community College District’s public affairs staff was cut in half. Among those lost were two college public information officers who would regularly handle media requests, Public Affairs Director Judy Iannaccone said.
As a result, college presidents at Santa Ana College and Santiago Canyon College handle most inquiries.
“We’re filling a gap,” SAC President Erlinda Martinez said. “We’re at a disadvantage right now because we don’t have a single voice. We don’t have a P.I.O.”
When public officials assume the role of a press officer, it creates a conflict, public affairs experts say.
“They [college presidents] may be less likely to be as open perhaps as somebody who has good training in communication and public relations. Sometimes their instincts aren’t very good. Some people forget they are public servants,” said Jacqueline Lambiase, a public affairs and ethics expert serving as interim director of Texas Christian University’s School of StrategicCommunication.
The lack of a full-time press officer has created disorder among employees. When campus safety officers discovered a break-in at Phillips Hall Theatre last month, they needed permission from Interim District Safety and Security Supervisor Alistair Winter to call the police.
Some faculty members, however, say the recent development of various participatory college governance committees increases transparency.
“Do you really need a full-time public relations person to handle the college?” SAC Academic Senate President John Zarske said.
An examination of records suggests that college presidents’ involvement in press relations results in less transparency.
When Yvette Cabrera, a former OC Register columnist, requested enrollment data in 2010 for English as a Second Language students at continuing education centers, administrators blocked the request.
“Now is not a good time to put the spotlight on OEC [Orange Education Center],” former SCC President Juan Vasquez wrote to Iannaccone.
Vasquez was protecting students from the possibility of backlash from what he perceived as an anti-immigrant community. Orange City Council members that month passed a resolution supporting Arizona’s tightened enforcement of immigration laws.
“The disgruntled OEC seniors (from Villa Park) who feel disenfranchised because of the suspension of non-credit P.E. [physical education] blame it on our ‘catering’ to immigrants,” Vasquez wrote in a June 30 email.
“We are in a very different town than SAC [Santa Ana College], so go ahead with CEC [Centennial Education Center] if they want the coverage, but please do not do this at OEC,” Vasquez wrote.
Iannaccone honored Vasquez’s request and withheld OEC enrollment figures.
“I do understand and respect your view point. OEC has been left out of the story,” Iannaccone told Vasquez.
Cabrera said she had few problems gaining access to students and faculty members, and expected the public institution to be forthcoming with her informal request.
“Regardless of whether you do it as a Public Records Act request, you expect public officials to provide that information,” Cabrera said.
Iannaccone told the el Don that she was on a tight deadline, describing the situation as an “unusual and rare circumstance.”
“People have freedom of choice … a particular college did not want to participate. They have that choice and I can’t force them,” Iannaccone said. “I’m always about providing what the media is looking for … this is a public institution. If somebody has made a decision not to share information, I’m unaware of it.”
Around the same time, district officials denied an interview request to a Japanese television station seeking coverage of the Tam Tran Memorial Scholarship, a $500 award honoring the undocumented Vietnamese student who graduated from UCLA before her death. The award is open to students on a path to U.S. citizenship.
Some administrators expressed concerns that publicizing the scholarship could cast a negative light on the college at a time when immigration was being nationally debated.
The request came about three months after the story went viral. Politicians questioned whether a public college should be using tax dollars to reward non-citizens. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Costa Mesa, told Martinez in a letter that the college risked losing its federal funding.
“Their interest and good intentions could re-ignite a fire that we worked arduously to put out,” SAC Vice President of Student Services Sara Lundquist wrote in an Aug. 3 email. “Let’s hold until Erlinda [Martinez] has a chance to weigh in on the risks and benefits.”
After Laurie Weidner, the district’s former executive director of public affairs and governmental relations denied the request, she asked for an update on the scholarship for media inquiries.
“Simply tell them that the Tam Tran Memorial Scholarship will be awarded in the spring of 2011 for the 2011-2012 academic year,” Lundquist wrote. “No further details are available at this time. That is my two cents.”
Despite Lundquist’s response, Iannaccone showed reservations about not granting the request.
“What I struggle with in general is that as a public institution, transparency is key. Of course, we can and will wait for Erlinda’s return,” Iannaccone wrote.
When reporters request records, college presidents at public institutions are obligated to share as much information as possible, Lambiase said.
Institutions that receive public funds need to be held accountable, “even if that accountability causes critics to go ballistic,” Lambiase said.
In what Iannaccone describes as “crisis communication situations,” college administrators become more involved in media requests. Those situations arise anytime they anticipate negative press.
“They’re the college presidents and they are the senior administrators at their institutions … they do make the decisions that go with that leadership position,” Iannaccone said. “I work to support their needs.”
Iannaccone acts as a liaison between college presidents and reporters. She says she can release information, but typically informs college presidents of inquiries.
“I can’t be over here making a decision that the college president is not on board with. That would be absolutely inappropriate,” Iannaccone said.
College presidents are not trained press relations officers, but when budget cuts forced layoffs, they began to take on that role.
Martinez’s only formal training is a media relations workshop she attended while working at West-Valley Mission Community College District.
“You’ve lost a professional expert and [replaced them with] those who are not familiar with the media, … the news cycle or community outreach,” said Trustee Arianna Barrios, who also owns Communications LAB, an OC-based public relations firm. “Is that a position we should fill? That would be ideal. When you have a pro, they do know the law.”
Public relations, Barrios says, is one of the areas the district has struggled with in recent years.
When public agencies omit information and provide partial data, reporters are given little choice but to trust them, Cabrera said.
“The issue with data is that you make a request and expect them [public agencies] to be forthright, and if they’re not it’s very difficult to ascertain that,” Cabrera said.
Unless a request is made through the California Public Records Act, “public officials do not have to answer questions at all,” UC Irvine law school DeanErwin Chemerinsky said in an email.
“What is legal isn’t always ethical,” Lambiase said.
The media policy goes beyond denying interview requests and access to information.
Classified employees and faculty are consistently warned about speaking to reporters.
Media law experts say it could be a violation of First Amendment rights.
“Citizens do not surrender their First Amendment rights by becoming government employees. The First Amendment is binding on public institutions,” Leila Knox, an associate of the First Amendment Coalition specializing in media law said in an email.
In a 2007 email, Iannaccone asked college employees not to speak to reporters after el Don broke a story about the campus’ faulty fire alarm system. Employees say it has since become established as an “unofficial policy.”
“We advise that you not enter into a conversation with the media should they call you directly … in concert with the President’s office, we will determine the best spokespersons for each request,” Iannaccone’s email states.
Iannaccone, Winter and Martinez deny knowledge of the policy.
“I know of no policy … I’ve never restrained anyone from speaking,” Martinez said, explaining that the policy which safety officers have continuously cited may stem from a loose precedent set in place at another time. “I’m unaware of the origin, and can’t speak to the history or depth of it.”
Martinez was SAC’s president when el Don broke a story about the college’s faulty fire alarm system in 2007 that drew national attention, prompting Iannaccone’s email admonishing employees from speaking to reporters.
Iannaccone says the move is “standard operating protocol” at large corporations. But “[the college] is not a corporation, they’re a public entity,” Lambiase said. “I think the rules are different.”
Safety officers routinely refer reporters to their bosses, citing internal policy that prohibits them from speaking to the media.
For many employees, the policy established by the email came as a direct order not to be questioned, former SAC safety officer Steve De Maria said.
“He [Lt. James Wooley] was our direct supervisor, and if he puts out an order whether its in writing or verbal, if we didn’t follow him, he’s the kind of guy who would be disciplinary … he would come after us for that,” De Maria said. “It’s not us, personally. We [safety officers] never knew any better.”
Wooley, the former campus safety and security supervisor, was transferred to a desk position at the district last spring.
“I’m not terribly surprised about the culture of fear,” Barrios said. “I wish nobody would have fear of that [the press]. If you tell the truth, you won’t have fear.”
When an el Don staffer called the campus safety office, identified himself as a reporter and asked which employees were at an active shooter safety drill in August, an officer said that the information could not be released, citing the policy and referring the conversation to Winter.
“Maybe he said that because he didn’t know you. He maybe had been nervous because he did not know you were a reporter and thought you were pulling his leg,” Winter said in response to the discussion. “There’s no policy.”
In an Aug. 14, 2014 email sent before the drill, Vice President of Administrative Services Michael Collins advised those involved to “stay away from media.”
The college, Martinez says, was trying to strike a balance between promoting a positive image and remaining transparent.
“There’s a fine line between informing and alarming,” Martinez said. “We’re a public institution – there is very little that is private.”