Investigations Editor for The Stanford Daily News Theo Baker(left), former The Cornell Daily Sun reporter Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs (middle), The Harvard Crimson staff writer Carrie Hsu (right). Illustration by Hugo Amador/The Cornell Daily Sun

July 24, 2023

GUEST ROOM | Independent Journalism Is Essential for Universities

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Last week, Stanford University President Marc Tessier-Lavigne announced that he will resign effective Aug. 31, after an investigation prompted by articles printed in The Stanford Daily News regarding manipulated data in his prior academic research papers.

The Stanford President’s downfall was due to first year Theo Baker, who is Investigations Editor of The Daily News. He received a tip about rumors regarding discrepancies in Tessier-Lavigne’s research that he confirmed and published in November. This prompted a formal Stanford investigation followed by the resignation.  Baker won the prestigious George Polk Award for this reporting.

Earlier this summer, The Daily Northwestern published detailed accounts of sexualized hazing rituals involving the Northwestern football teams. Head football coach Pat Fitzgerald was fired. Meanwhile, Northwestern baseball coach Jim Foster was fired after players called him “abusive” and 15 players applied to transfer.

Data manipulation by star academics is a problem at other elite schools as well. In 2021, The Harvard Crimson reported on data manipulation by a scholar specializing in “honesty” research, Francesca Gino. This summer, after a long investigation, Harvard placed her on leave.

The Cornell Daily Sun has exposed local data fudging problems. In 2018, Prof. Brian Wansink, the head of Cornell’s Food and Brand Lab announced his retirement after retracting six academic papers. As with Tessier-Lavigne and Gino, The Cornell Daily Sun’s reporting of Wansink was based upon internet postings expressing data inconsistencies.

The common element between the Stanford Daily News, The Daily Northwestern, the Harvard Crimson and the Cornell Daily Sun is their editorial independence from their host universities.  This is made possible by financial donations from alumni and readers.

The Never Ending Battle

Just as Hollywood movie studios in the 1950s evolved into a “star system” with highly compensated actors attaining high-profile public images, academia is also trending to a “star system” where a subset of professors are quoted in the media.  The public relations techniques pioneered by the movie studios (which kept the stars’ names in the news while suppressing adverse stories) are now practiced by university media relations staff.  If mainstream media is looking for a quotable expert, Cornell will help locate a faculty member. But if a reporter is working on a critical story, Cornell Media Relations will either ignore the inquiry or say “no comment.”  Cornell Media Relations must escort any journalist who is on campus to interview, film or photograph.

Student journalists get little assistance from Cornell, which has published a competing weekly paper The Cornell Chronicle since 1969. In fact, administrators and faculty are told not to talk to the media without permission from Cornell Media Relations.  This has drawn criticism from the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE).

Under the Hollywood star system, movies were judged by their box office receipts and academy awards.  At universities, stars are judged by a coach’s win-loss ratio, or an academic’s strong correlations in their breakthrough research data. Coaches earn championships; academics rise to college president or the National Academy of Science. The Stanford and Northwestern stories stem from these pressures to deliver top results.

The media relations departments of each of these schools did not assist the student journalists investigate their stories.  They work to maximize coverage of good news enhancing academic star power and hope that scandalous news goes unnoticed.

Year-round Vigilance

Another troubling element of these important stories is that they played out over the summer.  Although most student journalism is posted during the school year, universities tend to release bad news during vacation breaks.  Year-round coverage is essential to keep up such important stories.

Fortunately, the Cornell Daily Sun has a program to fund three journalists to spend the summer in Ithaca to maintain its coverage.

Independent student journalists, beyond administration control or censorship, is an essential check upon the functioning of the University and is deserving of our attention and support.

Robert C. Platt ‘73, J.D. ‘76, is a graduate of the College of Arts & Sciences and Cornell Law School. He is a former columnist for The Cornell Daily Sun and is currently Secretary of The Cornell Daily Sun Alumni Association. 

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