A criticism double down and open invitation to Chico State to talk about the enrollment dilemma

On the occasions this newspaper editor comes down on organizations run amok—that is, when I speak truth to power—oftentimes I learn there are others who have similar gripes. Such was the case last week, when I dropped the hammer on Chico State, its public relations department in particular.

ICYMI: The flacks there attempted to stymie the CN&R’s efforts to report on—among other things—the university’s enrollment woes, a more than 8 percent drop in the incoming freshman class (see “Bad PR,” Second & Flume, Aug. 15). As a result, I received messages from colleagues at other outlets with complaints about efforts to interfere with their reporting on subjects the campus would like to bury.

Another response to my criticism: messages from faculty and staff about a lack of transparency related to varying issues. For example, why did Milton Lang, vice president for student affairs and chief diversity officer, leave the university only 17 months into his tenure? That’s a good question. Here’s one of my own: Why did the university wait until this week to announce his departure, when it appears he’s been gone since early June? Further: Why was that announcement made only internally—not to the media?

The CN&R attempted to contact Mr. Lang weeks ago for comments regarding the enrollment drop (one of his “areas of direct report” was enrollment management, according to his profile via the online Office of the President) post-Camp Fire. Among other things, we wondered how concerned the university was about such a steep decline and what it might do to address additional losses moving forward. We received an automated reply noting that Lang was “out of the office” and Sandy Parsons-Ellis (associate VP for student affairs and dean of students) should be contacted in his absence.

However, when we reached out to Parsons-Ellis directly, we got a response from one of the public relations underlings asking the CN&R’s Ashiah Scharaga to email questions for the VP to him “in the spirit of efficiency.” This signals a few things: First, there’s apparently an internal edict on campus that comments on enrollment come only through the official mouthpiece. Second, it’s a pretty prime indicator that administration is nervous as hell about messaging on the subject.

My response: No. 1: That’s not how journalism works. No. 2: Conversations driven by the press are actually helpful to finding solutions. No. 3: Such resistance will blow up in the university’s face. Say, in the form of two consecutive columns in the most-circulated newspaper north of Sacramento. I hope that message has been received—it’s been crickets from Kendall Hall.

Indeed, since the PR department (aka University Communications) has blocked such important conversations—a move that is antithetical to providing context to what likely is a complex issue—this write-up is my way of making an open invitation to Parsons-Ellis to expound on the enrollment dilemma. I’ll report back on what we hear.

In the meantime, I welcome more info from the university community.

Last but not least: It’s great to see students trickling back into town. Some locals get cranky about traffic and parking once classes commence. Personally, I love the energy when the university is in session. Welcome back!