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Provost’s Email Ignites Discussion on Freedom of the Press

On the evening of Sept. 10, Provost Sue Mattison sent an email address to all faculty, staff and students addressing a story published in the Des Moines Register. The Register story, titled “Petition pushes Drake for virus data: school is not revealing real-time test numbers,” looked at Drake University’s handling of COVID data.

In her statement, Mattison criticized aspects of the Register’s reporting on the story, gave some information on Drake’s COVID numbers and contact tracing ability and called students and staff to continue their diligence toward preventing COVID spread on campus. Mattison stated the Register’s reporter had ignored the data that Drake had given it and had published an incomplete picture.

Several days before the article was published, the reporter received evidence that we already shared important and actionable statistics with the entire campus, but published the article anyway, which included other misinformation,” Mattison said in the email. 

Mattison justified Drake’s decision to not release the raw case numbers, but offered alternative data such as current isolation capacity and surveillance testing results. Mattison assured students that the school’s contact tracing team had the situation well under control.

Mattison expressed frustration with what she felt were bad-faith questions regarding COVID and Drake, describing such questions as “laziness.”

She closed the address by calling on students to remain diligent and not take “the easy way out.”

Shortly after being sent out, Mattison’s statement drew criticism from students. Jessica Comstock, a junior studying magazine media and politics, felt that the statement showed “blatant disrespect toward journalists” and went against students wishes. 

“I thought they’d be willing to share more of the numbers and be transparent,” Comstock said. “I’m shocked and surprised how they really aren’t listening to students.” 

Marie Nalan, a senior news and history major, had a similar view.

“The Des Moines Register was working really hard to uncover a lot of what was going on on Drake’s campus and doing really important work because, specifically, Drake wasn’t releasing numbers.” Nalan said. “It was honestly just frustrating and belittling, that…she just didn’t seem to be taking the criticism very well.”

Sarah Ball, a senior studying public relations and political communication, felt that publicly denouncing the Register’s story was inappropriate. 

“If she did have issues with the journalist she should have just reached out to her personally,” Ball said. “I feel like it’s unprofessional for the Provost of a university to just rant to the student body because she’s angry.”

Despite that complaint, Ball maintained that she trusted Mattison’s expertise in epidemiology.

“I do trust [Mattison’s] expertise, I do understand her frustration, and I feel that her frustration and her expertise and how students are feeling are two completely valid things, and can sometimes be a little bit contradictory,” Ball said. 

In particular, Ball shared Mattison’s concern about low published numbers leading to a lapse in COVID discipline. This message was echoed by several public health faculty. 

Cassity Gutierrez, Associate Professor and Chair of Health Sciences, described the “health belief model” as it applied to Drake.

“A key aspect of the health belief model…is perceived susceptibility; this refers to a person’s subjective perception of the risk of acquiring an illness or disease,” Gutierrez said. “When someone sees a very low number within their population in comparison to county, state or national data, it can provide a false sense of security or low perceived vulnerability, resulting in more risk taking behavior and decreased practice of prevention and control strategies.”

In an interview, Mattison maintained that a university official directly engaging with a story about the school was warranted.

“It is typical for a Drake administrator to address issues that impact our community, no matter what the circumstances,” Mattison said.

A line from Mattison’s address that was heavily criticized by students was the claim that “Education is not a luxury, nor a product.” 

“Let me tell you, it was not easy for me to tell my Venezuelan immigrant parents who left their entire life behind for a better life here that education is ‘not a luxury,’” said Valerie Buvat de Virginy, a senior majoring in strategic political communications and politics, who was very critical of Mattison’s address. 

Buvat de Virginy elaborated to say that education would be a luxury until it was much more accessible and affordable. 

“The ironic part was that, almost like clockwork, the following day, we all received a billing statement to our emails,” Buvat de Virginy said. “Until education is acknowledged to be a human right and is free, it is a luxury.”

Ball, on the other hand, felt that the sentiment had good intentions but was poorly worded.

“I feel as if she didn’t mean it the way students were [interpreting] it,” Ball said. “I have faith in the Provost for her to not see the private university education we’re all getting as not a privilege.” 

In an interview Mattison stood by the remark, trying to look beyond the transactional side of education.

Education is a societal imperative, not a luxury,” Mattison said. “I wasn’t referring to tuition. Education is not a product, but a lifelong habit of mind.” 

She did acknowledge the negative response the remark received.

“It’s interesting to note that I received over 100 emails in response to my message, and that last paragraph of the message was a source of professional pride and support for 100% of the faculty, while about half of the students who wrote took great offense to it,” Mattison said. 

According to Mattison, a draft of her email was reviewed by 11 faculty members and six campus leaders. 

The day after Mattison’s address, the Drake School of Journalism and Mass Communication posted a statement supporting investigative journalism and transparent communication, saying “When journalism comes under attack from any front, we all should take notice.”

SJMC Dean Kathleen Richardson said that the statement was not necessarily a response to Mattison’s email.

“The SJMC faculty wanted to voice support for the role of journalism in providing information to the public during this health crisis and specifically for the role of student journalists covering their campus,” Richardson said. 

Mattison said that she “agrees completely” with the J-school’s statement.

The campus COVID update on Sept. 14 contained some of the data that students had been asking for. Renae Chestnut, dean of the clinical sciences department, stressed that the numbers themselves were less important than maintaining discipline in regards to protocols like masks and social distancing. 

“The important thing with the release of the numbers is to not take this lightly if they are ‘good’ and not to panic if they are ‘bad,’” Chestnut said. “We should still assume that others are positive and act accordingly.” 

Erik Maki, chair of the clinical sciences department, echoed this sentiment, but praised students for their commitment to campus safety precautions. 

“Seeing today’s numbers, we should be virtually ‘high fiving’ each other,” Maki said. ”These numbers represent the collective effort of everyone on campus to minimize risk, especially students.”

Mattison stressed that as campus reopens, it is adhering to guidelines set out by White House Coronavirus Task Force leader Dr. Anthony Fauci.

On Sept. 17 from 7 to 8 p.m. the Times-Delphic and Student Senate will host a COVID-19 forum with Mattison, President Marty Martin and Dean Jerry Parker that will discuss student-submitted questions. The link to submit questions may be found at https://drake.qualtrics.com/jfe/form/SV_026vusz6nYf4ezP

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