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Campus Alternative Papers: Making Change at the Grassroots

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In December of last year, Boston University's The Student Underground ran a feature about a student who'd been raped on campus. When she brought her case to the campus police the administration suspended her for violating the school's alcohol policy (she'd been drinking on the night of the rape) and let the alleged rapist off scot-free. The campus's mainstream paper had never covered her perspective on how the investigation was carried out, or questioned how BU deals with rape cases. The editors at "The Student Underground" were so outraged that they put her story on the front cover and personally slid over 2,000 copies under dorm-room doors to get it maximum exposure.

According to Dan Feder, one of the paper's editors, the article drew a heavier response from the administration than any student actions the rape case had spawned to date. When BU's PR director called in over an editorial that criticized the university's massive losses on high-risk stocks (the university lost 27% of its endowment while maintaining that community reinvestment is financially unfeasible), he made a point of attacking the rape article as well: "He called me an embarrassment to the school and to myself." For Dan, the PR director's agitation a good sign that the story shook up the school's administration and may change the way it deals with rape cases in the future.

Today, colleges and universities are more image-conscious than ever. They market themselves to alumni for funding. They compete over prospective students. They jockey for rankings in "US News & World Report." And they must constantly defend their reputations as they fight off attacks on public funding.

This has left student activists uniquely positioned to hold their schools accountable to the idealized images they project. In recent years there has been a rash of successful campaigns to get universities to stop contracting with apparel manufacturers that use sweatshop labor. Student-labor coalitions across the country have forced public and private institutions to pass living wage resolutions. In these struggles, the alternative student press precisely because of its capacity to compromise the university's public image has been crucial. As they watchdog, advocate, and push marginalized voices into the public forum, student alternative papers have concrete impacts on their respective communities.

At City College of New York, for instance, an article in "The Messenger's" latest issue got the NYPD kicked off campus. The police had been using one of the campus' buildings to survey the surrounding neighborhood without the permission of school officials, much less students. "The Messenger," which has a long history of exposing police abuses in the black and Latino community, described how the police were kicking students out of common spaces where they'd set up their surveillance equipment. Outrage mounted, and the administration had to respond. "The funniest thing," said Hank Williams, editor of the paper, "is that City College Security"who had been tacitly allowing the police to carry out their surveillance"actually showed that story to the police as proof that what they were doing was not only disrupting the college but that they [security] were getting heat for it."

At the publication I worked on in college Wesleyan University's "Hermes" our reporting on a living-wage campaign proved an integral part of its success. When Wesleyan's student-labor coalition started helping campus janitors unionize, we ran profiles of the workers. We explained the campaign's goals, the administration's objections, and the projected costs of the organizers' proposals. We broke a story on the administration's covert involvement in the subcontractor's attempt to break the unionization drive. The campaign built tremendous support (organizers soon had over half the student body's signatures on their petition) and grew into a campus-wide living-wage campaign.

Throughout, the campus's main newspaper mixed inept coverage with editorials that attacked the organizers for "simplifying the issues." Because "Hermes" existed as an alternative forum, student activists and janitors were able to get their message out and hold the high ground on the public-image front. Wesleyan now guarantees all its employees even those hired through subcontractors full benefits, a living wage indexed to the cost of living, free tuition for their children, and job security should the university change contractors.

Unfortunately, the circumstances of the student alternative press are pretty grim today. Right-wing foundations funnel millions of dollars a year directly into conservative campus papers, while conservative attacks on student fee funding have left many progressive papers reeling or extinct. At CCNY, for instance, The Messenger was de-funded four years ago during a fight over student autonomy the all-volunteer staff has had to do its own fund raising since then, and the paper's frequency has decreased significantly. In California, the 1993 Smith vs. the Board of Regents decision decimated the student alternative press, which has been slow to recover since the case was overturned needless to say, it takes a lot more energy to start a new paper than to keep one going.

The good news is that many of these papers thrive without outside support, and have persevered through considerable adversity. The Campus Alternative Journalism Project (CAJP) was founded in 1994 by the Center for Campus Organizing to counter the millions of dollars right-wing organizations spend training and promoting the conservative campus press. The CAJP publishes a series of technical assistance manuals for the campus press and runs a Free Speech Rapid Response Network to help student papers fight off attacks on their funding. The CAJP also recognizes excellence through the annual Campus Alternative Journalism Awards. Since the IPA took over the project last year, it has helped graduating muckrakers figure out how to make a career out of justice journalism.

Most importantly, CAJP helps progressive campus papers help each other. Member papers turn to each other for advice on the CAJP's listserv, meet up and share their experiences at CAJP-sponsored events, and participate in a mailing labels exchange to get a sense of what their peers' publications look like on paper. Students whose papers have been particularly successful write many of our manuals. And students initiated many of our member services. Right now, for instance, the CAJP is adapting a web-publishing engine that the "Student Underground" developed to meet the needs of the rest of our membership. By supporting students who are publishing their own magazines and newspapers, the IPA hopes to groom the next generation of independent editors and publishers.

You can get in touch with the Campus Alternative Journalism Project at [email protected].

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