Former Students Paint Complex Portrait of the Media Adviser Who Sparked NYU’s Newspaper Walkout


December 7, 2020


Education, Media, Washington Square News


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Dr. Kenna Griffin (center) surrounded by Oklahoma City University students, from left to right, Zoe Travers, Chandler White, Miguel Rios, and Lauren Berlingeri at a 2017 College Media Association Conference in Dallas, Texas. [Credit: Zoe Travers]

Dr. Kenna Griffin, the professor and student-media adviser who sparked the headline-making mass resignation at New York University’s student newspaper, has left strong impressions on those who’ve worked with or studied under her.

As part of an ongoing investigation into the resignations at Washington Square News (WSN), in which students walked out and publicly accused Griffin of making transphobic and racist comments, The Click reached out to several of the instructor’s former students from two separate journalism departments spread out across two states. Some found resonance in the allegations WSN staff posted on the paper’s site on Sept. 28. Others, however, said those accusations were at odds with their memories of a beloved professor and adviser who always had their best interest in mind.

“I would say, she is someone who is not one to sugarcoat things,” said Amanda Whitesell, who worked with Griffin at another university’s paper in 2010. “She tells you like it is. She always encouraged us to do our best, and she encouraged us to set aside any personal prejudices we had in pursuit of the truth. And sometimes, you know, that truth is uncomfortable.”

Last week, the board of the College Media Association, where Griffin was halfway through a two-year term as president, asked Griffin to step down after receiving a letter demanding her resignation from 14 CMA members, including six past presidents. This move came after the same board voted in October to reinstate Griffin following the cancellation of a CMA-ordered investigation into the unprecedented walkout at WSN over fears of legal liabilities.

Griffin did not respond to The Click’s multiple attempts to contact her. WSN remains shuttered as of this writing.

From 2003 to 2019, Griffin was a professor at the mass communications program of Oklahoma City University (OKCU). She also served as faculty adviser for Student Publications, a publishing arm of the program that included a newspaper, website, and yearbook. It’s a small media program with few professors, meaning students could study under a single teacher across many classes over the course of a four-year bachelor’s degree.

OKCU students who spoke to The Click said Griffin’s teaching and mentorship methods stood out. Griffin adopted pet names for her students, calling them her chickens. She was the “mama hen.”

“I always thought it was the funniest and weirdest thing, and then you just kind of get used to it,” said Emily Long, who served in various roles across Student Publications from 2013 to 2017, including editor-in-chief. “We actually had a sign in the newsroom that said ‘the chicken coop.’”

Like the communications program, Student Publications was small enough that a single editor-in-chief could oversee all the publications. Farris Willingham served in that role in 2012. The position called for him to work closely with Griffin.

“I experienced some of my lowest points working under Kenna,” Willingham said. “She was a ruthless editor who rarely expressed empathy. I tried several times to confront Kenna but was only met with outbursts and threats.”

He complained to the department’s chairperson but said no action was taken. Willingham later left the department.

The Click reached out to Dr. Helen Gaudin, associate dean of OKCU’s Petree College of Arts and Sciences, which oversees the Mass Communications department. Gaudin responded: “Of course, we cannot comment on personnel issues.” Other school faculty members were not available for comment.

Another editor-in-chief, Zoe Travers, said she clashed with Griffin several times after taking up the helm of Student Publications in 2018. Travers said that their relationship became so fraught that Griffin fired her. Travers said she was later surprised to learn that Griffin told classmates that the editor-in-chief had left for personal reasons. Travers said the editor-in-chief post remained unfilled for several months.

“She had various inappropriate actions such as name-callings and ableist language, for example (and pardon the language), the use of, and variations of, the word ‘fucktard,’” Travers said.

When asked if she knew about Griffin’s use of that word, Long said it didn’t sound like something the professor would say.

“That makes me cringe, thinking about her saying something like that,” she said. “Yeah, I don’t think she would ever do that, and you would notice it if she did.”

Long and Griffin developed a close bond when they worked together. They’ve kept in touch, and Long even invited Griffin to her wedding.

“If you wanted to have a bad taste of Kenna, you mess with one of her students, and she’ll get after you,” Long said. “She’s there to help us.”

WSN’s original 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.” A second letter posted on Sept. 30 by two staff members who stayed on in hopes of negotiating with NYU repeated those charges. However, the WSN students were not the first to accuse Griffin of intolerance toward marginalized groups.

Sophia Babb, who reported for Student Publications in 2017, was so uncomfortable over Griffin’s treatment of students that she recorded the incidents in a diary, parts of which The Click has reviewed.

“She consistently made racist comments to the Black students in the class, riddled them with microaggressions, asked if they would turn down their ‘gangster music,’ and constantly mocked their speech,” said Babb, who is white. She said she grew so discomfited, she switched concentrations to a different area of mass communications to get away from Griffin.

OKCU alum Whitesell, who appreciated Griffin’s upfront communication style, was baffled when told of allegations of racism. Whitesell began her studies at OKCU as a dance major but switched to mass communications with a concentration in journalism, where Griffin taught many of her classes. By Whitesell’s senior year in 2010, she had worked her way up to editor-in-chief with a spot on the Student Publications editorial board. 

“No, I’ve never experienced her being abusive to other students,” Whitesell said. “When I was on the editorial board, we had an LGBTQ student on the editorial board. We had a Black member, we had a Hispanic member. Our university had a decent Native American population. So she’s no stranger to diversity, and I never experienced any of that behavior from her. She doesn’t live under a rock.”

Griffin resigned from her position at OKCU in 2019. In her blog, Prof KRG, she said long work hours without the pay or benefits to match influenced her decision. That fall, she took up a part-time position as an online editorial adviser at the University of Southern Indiana (USI) Shield. Griffin still advises at USI, where she calls the staff her “Shieldsters,” according to Long.

Megan Thorne and her boyfriend Riley Guerzini are USI alumni who spoke with The Click about their experiences with Griffin. Each served in multiple roles at The Shield in the years before Griffin’s arrival and during her first year at the paper. They felt her contribution to the publication was positive and productive.

“She was incredibly supportive,” Thorne said. “She helped me to think out of the box a little bit more, to look at things from different angles. Sometimes she could be a little bit harsh, but I felt like it came from a good place.”

Thorne described an incident shortly after Griffin arrived. Thorne struggled with managing her time, and Griffin asked her, “Are you sure this isn’t something you’re doing to yourself?” 

Thorne went home that night, upset. “I thought about it and thought, you know what? Maybe it is me, and I talked to her and she had specific ideas for things I could do. She didn’t just leave me hanging.”

While Guerzini admitted Griffin’s delivery could sometimes be difficult, he said the instructor always had good intentions at heart.

“Her advice was thoughtful,” he said. “Sometimes her advice would come off as a little sarcastic and maybe condescending, but the content of her advice was helpful to the staff and helped everyone grow as not only journalists but professionals as well.”

Both Thorne and Guerzini avidly followed WSN developments, until the story dropped out of the national news cycle.

“I wanted more context on the allegations,” Thorne said. “I have so many questions — there’s just a need for answers.”

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