Radford University, a taxpayer-supported institution in southwestern Virginia, is in a public-relations hole entirely of its own making. The question is how deep its administrators will insist on digging.
In September, roughly 1,000 copies of The Tartan, Radford’s student-run newspaper, disappeared from campus news racks after having been delivered hours earlier. The next day, administrators summoned the paper’s editor, junior Dylan Lepore, to a meeting at which they criticized as insensitive a photo published on the paper’s front page. However, they appeared surprised to hear that most of the issues had been stolen from 22 news racks around campus.
It turns out, after what campus police called an “in-depth” investigation, that a low-level university employee — neither administrator nor professor — was caught on video and admitted stealing papers from four of the news racks. The administration and police won’t reveal the thief’s identity, although they know it; they won’t charge the employee because they say taking free newspapers is not a crime; and they won’t offer an explanation of who swiped the papers from 18 other news racks. Nor will they offer a motive or explanation for the theft.
The university’s strategy, if you can call it that, is tailor-made to prolong Radford’s embarrassment, calling into question its leadership’s judgment.
The photo in question upset a few administrators and faculty members, including Radford’s president, Brian Hemphill, but apparently no one else; Lepore, the editor, told us he received no criticism from fellow students or on social media. The photo depicts Steve Tibbetts, a newly hired criminal-justice professor who died suddenly at age 49 a few weeks after arriving on campus, and it was given to The Tartan for publication by Tibbetts’ widow. In it, Tibbetts and his daughter are standing beneath a road sign that reads “Tibbetts St.” and, next to it, “Dead End.”
Radford said that the thief has been disciplined and that the matter, along with incriminating police video, is a closed “personnel issue.” The thief was not acting on anyone’s direction, a university spokesman said.
That strains credulity. It also is hard to believe that the employee acted alone; when the newspaper is delivered to campus each week, it takes two hours to distribute it, by golf cart, to all the news racks. Nor, as campus police suggest, does the fact that The Tartan is distributed for free mean that no crime was committed. The paper, whose publication costs include a $750 printing bill, Lepore’s salary and other expenses, is an object of value, whether it is sold or given away.
The question of whether publishing the photo of Tibbetts was tasteful is a topic of legitimate debate. Stealing two-thirds of a newspaper’s press run is an act of theft and an affront to the First Amendment. By its stonewalling, the university suggests that it takes neither matter very seriously.