For the past eight years, I have worked in big newsrooms like the Los Angeles Times and The New York Times, and have learned a thing or two about office politics.
But the worst, most politically fraught period of my life remains the three months I campaigned to be editor of the Daily Bruin. And one of the most emotionally weighty days I’ve ever had was the day I won by one vote.
I’m totally serious. Politicking for votes among your best friends and college family is not fun. Neither is giving a speech in front of them, or having one of your peers call you out for a few typographical errors in your 10-page application. And neither is seeing people gather and whisper angrily when it’s announced that you’ve won. When you give over your life to something in college and love it unconditionally, you want it to love you back.
Although I edged out my opponent, I was incredibly pained that only half the staff wanted me to lead them. What of the other half? I took it all very personally. And so I stewed on Janss Steps with two Bruin friends, drinking wine until the bottle was empty. Then we went to The Apple Pan and stewed some more. By the time I was finally done stewing, I was so upset and emotionally exhausted, I decided to withdraw my application.
About the only thing that could have made the situation worse would have been if I had stayed in the race and interviewed with the ASUCLA Communications Board, as is protocol, and then been told by that board – a group of people I’d never met – that they had overruled the Bruin staff, invalidated my three months of work, and selected the other candidate to become editor.
That is essentially what happened this week when the Communications Board picked The Bruin’s next boss. They selected the candidate who had failed to gain the endorsement of her fellow staff members by a margin much larger than the one vote I won by nine years ago.
I cannot pretend to know how the two candidates feel, but I imagine they are both emotional wrecks. One must feel cheated; the other has been left, at least for now, with a depleted staff as well as several peers who are extremely upset. And this all could have been avoided had the Communications Board shown a little deference.
Stripping away who the actual candidates are, and stipulating that reasonable people can disagree on who would be a better editor, the situation comes down to this: A group of folks mostly lacking ties to The Bruin or professional journalism experience, who met the candidates once and interviewed them for a matter of minutes, had the hubris to believe they could assess the candidates better than the candidates’ peers could. They decided that their snap judgments and impressions should outweigh those of the people who have spent, in many cases, 40 hours a week with the candidates for three years; that their inspection of a candidate’s writing samples should count for more than the judgment of other student journalists who have observed the candidates’ work over the years.
It is the board’s prerogative to make such a decision. They technically publish the paper, and based on my reading of a letter they released Tuesday night, they appear to have made their choice in good faith. But over the years, as they obliquely note, when selecting the editor, the board has, with very few (and perhaps equally contestable) exceptions, deferred to the wisdom of the staff – the people who know the candidates best.
Because they failed to do so this time around, they have created quite a mess. Staff members have gone on strike, and I have to presume that no one involved is more miserable than the candidates themselves. I urge the members of the Communications Board to really reflect on that, and to consider how they might feel if a group of strangers said they weren’t good enough for a job or a promotion after a group of their peers who know them well said the opposite.
The Daily Bruin has a way of overcoming UCLA’s bureaucracy and will carry on. The situation will eventually blow over. You don’t get to be almost 100 years old without some bumps.
But this move by the Communications Board has set a deeply troubling precedent for the next 100 years. In seizing control of this decisionmaking process, the board has disenfranchised the students who give their sweat and their hearts to The Bruin every day. And in failing to allow the staff to democratically elect their own leader, they have stifled the voices of the very people who allow the rest of campus to be heard.
Stevens is a former Daily Bruin senior staff writer who graduated in 2011. He is currently a reporter for The New York Times.