By NATALIE WRIGHT
The truth shines, like light passing through a stained glass window, in a spectrum of colors.
Every individual sees a world of a different hue, a world colored by his or her own senses and experiences. To each of them, that color, their fragment of the bigger picture, is the only truth they know.
The first time I went to a meeting of Washtenaw Community College’s board of trustees, on March 26, 2013, there was nowhere to stand. ML 150 was packed from side-to-side with people I had never seen before.
I found two familiar faces at a table in the back. Ben Solis and Adrian Hedden, editors of The Washtenaw Voice had been among the lucky minority to find seats. They had saved one too, in case any enterprising journalism students showed up. I grabbed the seat, and whispered “Hi,” just as the meeting was starting.
I had been contributing to The Voice for several months at this point, after taking my first journalism class in the fall. I had such tunnel vision in the chase for more bylines, scouring bulletin boards, that I missed newsroom discussions about stories hiding behind closed doors. Those are the good stories, I soon came to understand.
I don’t remember whether the editors had warned us that the board meeting would be a big one. I’m sure they did.
I’m sure they told us that Vice President of Instruction Stuart Blacklaw had been fired, angering the faculty who adored him. I’m sure I was too busy thinking about my stories to hear any of it.
But there I was in the crowded boardroom, and it was clear something big was about to happen. I was paying attention now.
One by one teachers identified themselves – not just by names, but by the subjects they taught and how many years they had been at Washtenaw. You could hear the pride in their voices – and then you could hear anger.
They explained how Blacklaw had been fired and escorted off campus, while they sat, unaware, in a faculty meeting. They expressed their fear at the loss of their chief defender and friend in an increasingly hostile environment. They pleaded for their voices to be heard, for the trustees to believe them when they said employees had seen a frightening turn in the work environment at Washtenaw since President Rose Bellanca’s hiring in 2011.
After the faculty finished, Bellanca responded. She was concerned about their perception of her.
“Change is hard,” she said.
Indeed, change is hard.
When I came to Washtenaw, I was returning home, beaten, after spending two years at Oakland University studying international relations. Inspired by a mission trip to South Africa, I hoped to do my part to right the world’s inequalities.
But two years of international politics courses drilled out of me any naive hope that I could make an impact.
I came to Washtenaw no longer hoping to change the world, just wanting to find something to do with my life.
I will never forget how terrified I was of Keith Gave, the adviser to The Voice, when I showed up to my first journalism class. He was a gristly old “journosaur” with a successful sports writing career, which he wasn’t timid about boasting.
I don’t remember his exact words on that first day, but I remember the message: Journalism is not for the faint of heart.
I, with my confidence at its lifetime low, immediately thought, “I won’t make it; better start thinking of Plan B.”
But I stayed in the class, and my writing seemed to set me apart. Soon, I saw my first few bylines in The Voice. I was excited, but even then, my self-doubt told me that I wasn’t excited enough.
“If it’s for you, you’ll know,” Gave said. “It’ll hook you with that first byline.”
I wasn’t hooked right away, but I enjoyed writing, and maybe that was good enough.
I’m so grateful that, for a moment, I thought settling was the best option because the thing I settled for grabbed hold of my heart at that first board meeting.
After Bellanca concluded her remarks, the faculty stormed out of the meeting. As my body pulsed with adrenaline, I chased after them. That day, I became a journalist.
Journalists should be unbiased. That’s the one thing everyone who has never studied journalism can tell you.
I’ve never subscribed to this standard. Journalists, just as every other human being, interpret the world through their own eyes and ears.
The facts a journalist gathers are shaped by a lifetime of experiences before they ever reach a notepad. With every syntax and structure choice, we impose our perception on the reader.
Instead, journalists should focus on being fair and getting as close to the full truth as possible. Our job is to gather as many of the fragments, as many individual truths as we can and to assemble them into a discernable narrative.
In my second year at The Voice, as managing editor, my No. 1 goal became seeking out truth that would benefit students. The students didn’t care about the politics of the college; they cared about their education. So I took up the cause of obtaining the Student Opinion Questionnaires – surveys students fill out rating their teachers. I wanted to publish them to give students more information when they register.
I learned how to use the Freedom of Information Act to request public records from the college. I consulted with a lawyer about the legality of the college holding these records from the public eye. I got them released after four months, and made a lot of people angry.
“Someone is always going to be angry at you,” Gave said. “If you’re making everyone angry, it just means you’re really doing something right.”
I’m glad I believed him. I wanted to chase down more stories that would make people angry, more stories that could change the world around me.
About year after my first board meeting, the faculty rose to action again. After a relatively quiet year, some thought perhaps they had begun to work out their issues with the administration. But in May 2014, WCC’s faculty union overwhelmingly passed a vote of “no confidence” in Bellanca. Their reasons were many.
First and foremost, they were being left out of decision-making, they said, and they were sick of being talked at.
Shortly before the vote, four academic deans resigned within the same week for what the college said were “personal reasons.” We could not get more of an answer out of the deans, though colleagues suggested there was more to the story. The VPI position remained in interim status for more than a year after Blacklaw’s firing, with no clear plan to find a successor.
An increasing amount of work was being outsourced to consultants that could be done by college employees, the faculty said, and some of these consultants had eerie ties to Bellanca.
Money was inflating the administration while the classrooms suffered. At this time, there were seven vice presidents – five more than when Bellanca was hired. (There are eight now.)
Especially concerning were the whispers that the non academic vice presidents were bypassing the academic chain of command to create credit courses without the knowledge or endorsement of the faculty.
However, the no confidence vote was met with dismissal and mockery by the trustees. One trustee called it “uncivilized” and “a publicity stunt” in the media.
So the faculty took their grievances to the next level, contacting the Higher Learning Commission, WCC’s accrediting body, with a complaint challenging the college’s ability to meet accreditation standards.
That summer I became editor of The Voice, and I felt that change was in the air at WCC.
Meanwhile, news about the turmoil on campus was spreading into the broader community. With a millage and three trustee seats expected on the Washtenaw County ballot in the fall, the college’s future could be immediately impacted by its public perception.
Soon, we found out the millage would no longer be up for a vote that fall. The college denied that it ever planned on it.
During this time, reporters from various local publications started calling me. A concerned community member asked me to go on a local radio show to speak about WCC and Bellanca. I was paralyzed. I chose not to speak on the record about anything. Writing the news is my job, I decided, not being the news.
Around this time, I set up a non-WCC email account at the suggestion of my adviser. Even if our own paranoia was unjustified, he said, many in the college shared the same paranoia, and having a separate email address could put them at ease.
It worked. After I had shared my new address with a handful of teachers, I received a flood of emails from college employees with tips and messages of support.
“You guys could single-handedly save this place from imploding,” one said. “It’s bad. Your paper has never been more important than this moment in history. Please, don’t give up. Nobody will listen.”
The burden felt enormous, but I made the conscious decision to accept it. No longer would I assume failure. It was time to believe I could make a difference again.
The first story I had my eye on was the renewal of Bellanca’s contract, expected to happen in June, as it had every year before. There wasn’t a peep about it all summer.
Then, in early October The Ann Arbor News ran an article on it’s front page about Bellanca racking up $120,000 on her college-purchase card in three years, much of which was spent on alcohol and travel expenses. The article was written by former Voice editor Matt Durr.
“This is the end to it,” I thought. “They’ll have to get rid of her now.”
Although purchasing alcohol was technically against the rules, it’s one of those rules that you can overlook in certain situations, the board chair explained to me. Clearly, this business was beyond my level of comprehension. Silly me, thinking when the tax payers pledge their money to education, it should not be used to fund cocktail parties at the president’s house.
I didn’t speak to Bellanca about this until several months later, and by then, she had some pretty colorful explanations for the expenses. The most unbelievable: Her college credit card was the same color as her personal credit card, and sometimes, she just mixed them up.
Also in the early fall, I learned that a teacher who had taught part time at WCC for 10 years was suing the school for gender discrimination and that liaison meetings between Bellanca and the faculty union had ceased.
In late October, the trustees extended Bellanca’s contract and awarded her a raise, with no discussion or explanation, no acknowledgement of all the anger and fear circling her.
In November, the Washtenaw County voters made it clear they wanted change at WCC with the election of three new trustees, including former Voice online editor Christina Fleming. I felt we had made a truly tangible difference with our coverage of the election and our endorsements of the three winning candidates.
Since then, the back-and-forth between the faculty and administration has continued. The low drone of the same circular arguments echoed in my head all semester as I passed unknowing students in the hallways. The frigid atmosphere at WCC matched the dreary winter outside.
When the new trustees joined the board in January, they changed things up – asking challenging questions, calling out the lack of trust, presenting alternative proposals and even voting “no” – something I had never seen in my three years.
Yet, with only three of seven votes, the newly elected leaders cannot take any real action. What they can do is help track down truths to the numerous questions surrounding WCC’s administration and President Bellanca.
Despite the best efforts of the new trustees, the board passed a tuition hike for next fall. One board member argued that the college must increase tuition or risk going bankrupt.
It made my stomach sick. Maybe if the president stopped racking up liquor store purchases on the college’s dime, the students could get a break. This didn’t come up at the board meeting, unfortunately.
Bad news continues to roll out of Washtenaw’s offices – the college’s therapist positions have been eliminated worsening the situation for a counseling department already stretched thin and one of the few administrators still trusted by lower-level employees has disappeared from campus completely, with no explanation from the college. There is still no permanent vice president of instruction, two years later.
I thought this year, my year as editor, was the year for change. I guess that naïve optimism still hasn’t been completely drilled out of me.
Throughout these three years, our newspaper staff has tried to do one thing: To serve WCC and its community by sharing the fragments of the truth we can find. We have tried to make a difference simply by paying attention and holding people to their words. We have tried, but part of me still feels we have failed because the atmosphere here is as bad as ever, but bigger part of me feels that we succeeded because we really made some people angry.
Life in TI 106 got a lot harder when we started writing stories that made people angry. Even at our most cynical, we wouldn’t dare to believe that educators would punish students for the sake of a political agenda. All we can do is tell you our fragment of the truth.
One day, just before WCC’s campus was flooded with hundreds of visiting skilled trades workers for a summer conference, a bizarre thing happened. Overnight, our latest issue, with Bellanca’s photo on the front page below a bold “No confidence” headline mysteriously disappeared from newsstands across campus.
We informed campus security of the theft, but the perpetrator was never caught.
There were a number of people, we thought, who wouldn’t want campus visitors to see that issue, but we tried not to assume the worst.
Then, last spring, administrators told us that Voice staff members would no longer be paid as employees of the college, and instead we would receive scholarships for our work. We were nervous because the change seemed sudden. What would the results be, intended or not? Nothing, they assured us.
By the fall, it was clear there would be consequences. Students’ other financial aid packages were put at risk because of the new scholarship, and because we were no longer “employees,” we could not be on campus after 10 p.m.
This was devastating to a staff of dedicated reporters and designers who truly loved camping out in the college until 3 a.m. We didn’t need to – we only got paid for 15 hours a week – but we cared so much about this newspaper, we spent every waking moment here. We wanted to fight back, but it seemed there was no hope.
Then, at our first staff meeting of the fall, three administrators showed up at our door (the word “ambush” seems appropriate) and told us that our adviser would be gone, effective immediately. Of course, he wasn’t fired, they assured us. He was needed to fill in a desperate hole in Student Activities pushing paperwork across a desk. A man who worked in the journalism industry for decades would become a low-level bureaucrat at a community college? Not a chance.
Gave planned to quit, but our staff rallied and made pleas at a board of trustees meeting. If this was going to happen, we certainly wouldn’t let it happen quietly. Did they really ever expect us to?
We planned to leave the paper if this wasn’t resolved. We planned to start our own online publication, which we would work for, unpaid, to continue to write about the college.
A few days later, our adviser was back, with no explanation, no apology.
The semester went by, and we felt that we had won the battle. The worst had been done to us, and we came out relatively unscathed.
But when Gave left Washtenaw in December to return to his sports writing career, our difficulties with the administration continued.
A new adviser would be hired by the end of the year. That was the goal they promised to work toward. We had to beg to publish our paper without one. An adviser is crucial, we said, and we need one as soon as possible, but we don’t want to disappear until then. After a two-month delay, we were allowed to put out a newspaper.
Soon after, a copy of a letter from the president to the college’s faculty and staff made its way back to our office.
“Current editors Natalie Wright and Emily Stout have asked for their independence to provide leadership for The Washtenaw Voice for the winter semester,” it said. “They feel strongly that, under their leadership, the Voice student staff can run the paper on their own for the remainder of this semester without a coordinator.”
That was not what we said. There must have been some miscommunication. This administration is not used to listening to people, though, so who can fault them for being out of practice?
As a result of this miscommunication, The Voice still has no adviser. The college plans to post the job this month, administrators told us, but how can we be expected to believe that?
Without an adviser, I have spent much more time managing logistics, filling out paperwork and conversing with administrators than I have reporting. I, along with other newsroom leaders, have had to fill the void of a full-time teacher.
“It’s good experience, though!” Bellanca recently assured me. But she doesn’t understand, I’m losing out on the experience I need – reporting and writing. Or maybe she does understand, and maybe she’s relieved.
Without an adviser here to act as an advocate for student needs, we fear more “unintended” consequences may befall the students who carry The Voice into next year. Administrators are already talking about increasing the required credit hours for Voice staff and making vague threats about not allowing them to attend the national conference in the fall.
Surely the administration isn’t seeing how this will affect the quality of the paper and the educational experience that is The Voice. For years, students in this room have raised the bar every semester, solidifying the newspaper’s reputation, not only as one of the best college newspapers in the nation, but as one of the best newspapers in Washtenaw County, among professional competitors. These consequences of going on without an adviser put The Voice, as an institution, at serious risk – unintentionally, of course.
Each of these stories, some of which have merited headlines and some of which have not, show a sliver of the truth of what is happening at WCC. We have long said at The Voice that we are the first student group to feel the consequences of the chaos and corruption here, or at least to know we’re feeling them. I hope that sharing our fragments of the truth can inspire you to do the same.
I can’t count the number of employees I have talked to in my three years on this campus who have told me just how much they hate the atmosphere Bellanca has created. They are willing to whisper and to push us in the right direction, but when we ask the ominous, “Can you say this on the record?” they recoil, scalded by the thought. Fear is a powerful motivator, but it is one we must ignore if we want to see change.
If we want the truth to shine in every dark and quiet nook, on every twisted word and every hidden agenda, we must hold our fragments up to the sun, consequences be damned. Be brave, WCC, and tell your truth.