Bad PR

Chico State is so concerned about losing students that its public relations arm interfered with the CN&R’s work

Chico State doesn’t want the public to know it’s worried about enrollment. That’s my take following a frustrating week in which yours truly—the busy editor of this fine publication—had to prod the folks in Kendall Hall to hand over information of community interest.

The campus’ public relations arm—the newly (and amusingly) titled University Communications department—attempted to withhold the numbers from the CN&R’s reporters. That is, the public university didn’t want to give the local watchdogs public information.

Among the things we eventually learned: Fall enrollment for Chico State’s freshman class is down 8.3 percent over the previous year. That’s not a big deal right now, but it could be if the trend holds.

We’ve been wondering how the campus landscape might change as a result of the Camp Fire, especially in light of our reporting on the contracted housing supply, particularly rentals. For this week’s cover story, our annual Back to School issue, we spoke with students struggling to find a place to live. We also spoke with campus officials charged with helping address such challenges.

Housing students was a concern long before the fire. Indeed, the university commissioned a study on the subject before the blaze. It also looked at the post-disaster market. The CN&R asked for that (ahem, taxpayer-funded) report back in May. We attempted again in July and were basically told it didn’t exist. Finally, after that aforementioned prodding, we received the 200-plus-page document late last week.

Some of the highlights: Chico State has entertained the idea of mandating that freshmen live on campus and knows exactly how many beds it would need to add to make that happen by 2028 (about 1,400). As it turns out, even though officials there told us that option isn’t being implemented, the plan is to build precisely enough units to fit 1,400 extra beds. I guess, you know, should there be a change of heart.

Irrespective of the current decision to forgo such a requirement, the community should know about it and have an opportunity to consider the implications, both positive and negative.

Considering the PR folks wanted us to run questions for one source through their department, and shut us down when I wouldn’t agree to that, I’d describe what the CN&R encountered as a combination of stonewalling and incompetence. Our last interaction was me sending an email voicing my displeasure with their overt maneuvers. Actually, our last interaction was the department sending us one of its typically hard-hitting press releases, this one on the opening of the University Farm’s U-Pick peaches operation.

One would hope that the public university would recognize and appreciate the importance of transparency, and value the work of journalists to bring light to important issues. That’s especially true in the wake of the fire. Pretending there aren’t difficulties in our region may convince a few prospective students to choose Chico State over another school. But it’s dishonest and not in the public’s interest.

In any case, it’s deserving of a crystal clear message from this longtime newspaperwoman in a larger forum: The public has a right to this information, the university has an obligation to adequately respond to media inquiries, and we don’t appreciate the efforts to hinder our work.