First the journalistic malpractice, then BYU-Idaho.
Not long ago the Salt Lake Tribune ran a headline so egregiously inaccurate that it constitutes journalistic malpractice: “As a new Women of Color club provides a ‘sanctuary’ at Brigham Young University in Provo, its Idaho campus has shut down such groups.” The only logical interpretation of the headline is that there were clubs providing sanctuary for women of color at BYU-Idaho, but BYU-Idaho has shut them down.
This is simply untrue. There never have been such clubs at BYU-Idaho. The university’s student cultural associations were for men and women of all backgrounds (and not, as the article incorrectly states, for students of a particular heritage) who were interested in international cultures. One may well believe that BYU-Idaho should offer clubs for women of color, but that such clubs were targeted for closing is a figment of the headline writer’s imagination. The headline recklessly suggests racist and sexist intent that the following article does not substantiate. This is the type of lazy headline writing that breeds mistrust of serious media outlets. For people concerned about racism, sexism, and the erosion of trust in media, news stories that promise but don’t deliver do a real disservice.
Another level of journalistic malpractice is that the article entirely misses the actual story.
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When I taught at BYU-Idaho, I helped students organize an academic society, and then, when the students determined that a cultural association was a better fit for their goals, they reformed as one of those. The difference between the two, as far as I could tell, was that academic societies needed a faculty advisor, while cultural associations didn’t, and academic societies were supposed to have a narrower academic or career focus, and there were some restrictions on approved activities. As a language teacher, I appreciated how having a cultural association made it easy for my students to hold fun, low-stress cultural activities outside of class, and especially how the university made it easy it to schedule facilities and hold events. If I were still teaching there, I would be highly disturbed to lose that. A language club is one of the first things you try to set up alongside a language program, and at BYU-Idaho it was working quite well. For languages not represented in the curriculum, the cultural associations were the only way for international students, returned missionaries, and other interested students to maintain cultural engagement on even a basic level in some official way on campus. And for communication, publicity, organizing, and other fundamental concerns, having an official campus identity is absolutely essential.
But whether what BYU-Idaho has done is trivial or awful depends on answers to questions that the Tribune article never asks. Questions like:
- The university’s announcement has now disappeared; is the university reconsidering its decision?
- The university’s announcement mentioned a transition to academic societies. The distinction between cultural associations and academic societies was in fact not entirely clear, so that turning two overlapping systems into one might make sense; will the scope of academic societies be broadened? What types of activities will no longer be available to students?
- When Ricks College became BYU-Idaho, the loss of intercollegiate athletics was justified by the numerous opportunities for meaningful student participation in athletic, cultural, and volunteer activities; does the closing of cultural associations represent a step back from a commitment to what has been a vibrant on-campus life?
- One of the few things accreditation visits have cautioned BYU-Idaho about is a lack of meaningful faculty input on administrative decisions; were faculty from relevant academic departments consulted on this decision?
- Is closing the cultural associations part of the university’s efforts to “strategically reduce and simplify campus programs,” similar to closing the Badger Creek outdoor facility? BYU-Idaho is already one of the most efficient, least expensive residential colleges in the United States, and it receives a fraction of the resources per student that the Provo campus receives; isn’t trying to cut costs at BYU-Idaho like trying to squeeze blood from a stone?
- Since the shift to BYU-Idaho, foreign languages have lost any place in the core curriculum, there are fewer continuing faculty in languages now despite a massive influx of students since then, language programs have been phased out without new ones taking their place, and it has become harder for interested students to fit language courses into highly regimented major plans. Although the university has students as internationally-minded as BYU-Provo, and the same business environment as Boise, why has BYU-Idaho resisted building on the incredibly broad linguistic talents of its student body in a way similar to the Provo campus?
- The university’s spokesman contrasts cultural associations with career-focused networking and academic goals, as if cultural and career interests were opposites. Does this reflect a narrow view of education and even of career preparation for students, many of whose academic programs and career goals include professional engagement with other cultures?
There might be a story here, an interesting and important story, if only there were someone at the Tribune who knew the right questions to ask.