October 17, 2020
Due to a dispute with an adviser, the Washington Square News at NYU has not published since Sept. 30. [ Credit: Sarah Parker]
The College Media Association (CMA), a nonprofit network for college advisers of student-run news outlets, announced Friday that its board of directors voted 3-1 against removing its embattled president.
Dr. Kenna Griffin, the group’s leader, is at the center of a controversy involving a student-run newspaper at New York University. Last month, 43 of the 47 staff members at Washington Square News (WSN) walked off the job after publishing a series of grievances and allegations against Griffin, who also serves as the newspaper’s adviser.“While Griffin is the leader of our organization, this is essentially a matter between Griffin, her students and New York University,” said a statement obtained by The Click, which the CMA board emailed to its members on Oct. 16. The lone dissent in the board’s decision came from Tamara Zellars Buck, CMA’s vice president of member support.
Griffin joined WSN as its editorial adviser in late August. On Sept. 28, the majority of WSN’s staff resigned and published on its website 22 accusations against Griffin and 15 demands to address staff concerns. The resignation letter alleged, among other things, that Griffin engaged in “transphobic rhetoric and behavior” and that she “displayed an increasing disrespect to WSN’s Black staff members.” Griffin has not responded to multiple requests for comment from The Click.
On Sept. 30, the CMA, founded in 1954 with a current membership of over 700 advisers, organized a committee made up of senior members of CMA’s board of directors to investigate the WSN staff allegations. However, an email sent to CMA members on Oct. 13 announced that the committee had disbanded.
“From the beginning, the four committee members expressed concern about potential legal liabilities resulting from their work. The more they looked into this, the more concerned they became,” CMA’s president-elect Chris Whitley, who is due to take over from Griffin next year, said in the email.
To avoid a conflict of interest, Whitley and Griffin were the only members of the board of directors who were not part of the vote on Griffin, according to the Friday announcement.
The board said in its statement that the organization tried finding a third party to conduct an independent investigation, but that the $50,000 quoted price tag proved cost-prohibitive. The CMA, a nonprofit group, posted revenue of $372,045 and expenses of $313,744 in 2017, according to publicly available tax records.
Attempts to reach members of the board and Griffin for comment after the announcement were unsuccessful.
“This could potentially be a blow to the College Media Association if they look as if they’re just turning the other way from dealing with this” — CMA member Mark Goodman
The board also pointed to Griffin remaining at NYU as another reason why it decided to keep her as president.
“[Griffin] remains employed by NYU and has received support from several NYU administrators and journalism faculty members,” the Friday email said.
However, NYU’s only public statement on the WSN walkouts has thrown into question whether or not Griffin is, in fact, employed by the university.
“Our expectation is that the students must sort out this internal dispute between themselves, their advisor (who is a person independent of NYU and is paid with WSN revenues), and their Publication Board,” university spokesperson John Beckman said on Sept. 29.
Griffin served as a journalism professor at Oklahoma City University (OKCU) for 16 years and as an adviser to its media publications before leaving the school in July 2019, according to OKCU and Griffin’s LinkedIn page. She also included on LinkedIn that she took a remote adviser position with the University of Southern Indiana’s student newspaper in August 2019.
During Griffin’s time at OKCU, she became involved in the CMA, which bills itself as “the voice of collegiate media and its advisers.” In October 2019, she was elected CMA president for a two-year term according to the CMA’s website. This summer, according to WSN staff, she signed up to advise the New York-based WSN performing her job remotely from Oklahoma.
Less than two months after she began working with WSN, the staff resigned. The paper has not published any articles since Sept. 30.
Joe Amditis, associate director of the Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State University, said that the purpose of a college media adviser is “to guide and help journalists grow in the industry and in the field, to hone their skills and to help them improve the way they think about what they’re doing, not just how to do it.”
The CMA’s own definition of the role supports this statement. “An adviser encourages collaboration to strengthen student media overall,” reads the last line of a 22-point definition on its website.
Prior to Friday’s announcement, CMA members were already debating what the group’s potential investigation meant for their organization.
“The problem is, I think many people were hoping for some independent investigation, so people who don’t have a vested interest in the outcome could assess what the facts are,” CMA member Mark Goodman told The Click. Goodman is a journalism professor at Kent State University.
“This could potentially be a blow to the College Media Association if they look as if they’re just turning the other way from dealing with this,” he added.