A University of Minnesota Duluth administrator called the school's student newspaper the "Ministry of Propaganda," and likened it to "fake news" in an e-mail with numerous expletives that was sent to one of her colleagues and obtained by student reporters as part of a public data request.
A monthslong battle between student journalists and school officials came to a head this week when the newspaper published the results of the request that was answered in March, seven months after it was made. The more than 800-page response showed the extent of the animosity between the administrator, Jessi Eaton, and the student newspaper.
"For her to feel so aggressive and vehemently against students is shocking," said Heidi Stang, editor-in-chief of the Bark newspaper. What they put forth to students and what is said "when they think we will never see it are two different things."
Eaton, who didn't respond to an interview request, sent an apology letter to students Wednesday: "There is no excuse for the language I used, and I am deeply embarrassed and ashamed by its stridency and profanity. Simply put, it was not appropriate, I regret it, and I am very sorry."
In the e-mail, Eaton, assistant director of UMD's Kirby Student Center, the campus' physical location for most student organizations and hub of student life, was responding to a colleague about an office space dispute between Kirby administrators and the Bark. The students had been given less than two weeks to vacate its office in the student center last summer, when most of the students weren't in town. Stang first wrote to Eaton with questions and objections. When that yielded no change, newspaper staff posted an open letter on their social media to school leaders criticizing the decision and asking for a reprieve. Eaton's e-mail was about that letter, and her response was in sharp contrast to a separate e-mail she sent the students.
The tone and language of the e-mail was inappropriate and doesn't represent UMD or Student Life, said Lisa Erwin, dean of students and vice chancellor of student life.
Last summer, Erwin granted the newspaper a yearlong extension of its lease. It was told to vacate initially, she said, because it's sponsored by the College of Liberal Arts and not Kirby. Kirby-sponsored programs have priority in its building, said spokeswoman Lynne Williams.
The newspaper was housed within Kirby Student Center for several decades because space was available. With the expansion of a program for freshmen run by Kirby and the pandemic putting space at a premium as furniture was moved to maintain social distancing, officials chose to move the newspaper to make room for the expanded program. Erwin, who wasn't involved in the initial decision, responded to the ensuing controversy with the extension.
"From my perspective, I didn't wash my hands of it," she said.
Erwin, as the dean of students, should have been involved in the decision from the start, said the Bark's outgoing editorial adviser, Mark Nicklawske.
"It's unacceptable for her to not know what her underlings are doing," he said.
Eaton's apparent anger toward the students seemed to stem partly from previous debt the newspaper — funded by student fees — had, debt that she had helped resolve.
"You and I were/are marketing advisers, not financial," she wrote to Mat Gilderman, communications manager for Kirby Student Center. "But we did it anyway, and this is the thanks we get."
The student journalists' letter to school leaders "did the very thing that generated the concept of #fakenews in the first place," Eaton wrote.
She referred to the students' "spoiled hearts" and said "we might be the Gestapo, but they just turned into the Ministry of Propaganda."
"I was really sad they were saying stuff like that about us," said Madison Hunter, one of the writers of the Bark story.
"We are students and they are administrators. It was very unprofessional."
Employees shouldn't be thinking about students like that, let alone putting it in writing on publicly accessible e-mail, said Paula Gudmundson, an associate music professor at UMD.
"It is an issue of culture, of climate, of how we treat people," she said. "We need students. If people think this is how we treat students, that is really disturbing."
Williams said students are at "the core of what we do, and we do this work because we love students."
The student newspaper "has a long, important history on campus and they do some great work," she said. "I understand those comments are harsh and I don't believe they reflect the beliefs of UMD or Jessi."
But the e-mails show that some staff treat students as "annoying employees," said Jennifer Moore, an associate professor of journalism.
"We're here to be educators and support student learning," she said. "We can't lose sight of that."
The students have done "fantastic work," she said, and have handled the situation "like professionals."
Williams said the pandemic contributed to the delay in filling the data request, along with the short notice to vacate last summer. Because furniture had to be stored for social distancing purposes, it took up remaining space in the student center. Williams also said UMD is conducting an investigation related to Eaton.
The Bark, which has existed since the 1930s, still hasn't found new office space. The College of Liberal Arts is working with the newspaper to find a home for the coming school year.
Jana Hollingsworth • 218-508-2450