Esteban understood free speech

Dave Waddell is a Chico State journalism instructor and advisor to The Orion.

The retirement of Manuel Esteban as Chico State’s president has left me feeling uneasy about the future.

My apprehension relates mostly to my role as faculty adviser to Chico State’s student-managed weekly newspaper, The Orion, which has won an avalanche of awards and brought considerable positive recognition to the university.

Chico State has long been a place where free speech is valued. Whether it be war protests or anti-abortion placards or Bible-thumping “Brother Matt” railing against fornicators in the Free Speech Area, dialogue is healthy for democracy. And it’s good for education because it creates relevant and active classroom discussions.

An environment that values free speech is delicate and important. Indeed, I think one of several factors that have fostered The Orion’s success is an administration that respects a free, vigorous and responsible student press.

I am reminded of a quote from journalism educator W. Dale Harrison, who said that “the only press that has remained undeniably free is the collegiate press at our best state universities.”

In an age of cold corporate takeover of journalism, there’s truth to that. And I’m convinced that it’s not possible to have a great college newspaper unless students have genuine control of its content. A public-university president can’t legally wrest away that control, but he or she can try to undercut it in any number of unseemly ways.

At Chico State, journalism students are trained and trusted. Sometimes they make mistakes— mistakes that are always more painful in print. The students—the good ones, anyway—learn from those mistakes and become better journalists.

Esteban has been good for The Orion by not overreacting to mistakes. He has trumpeted the paper’s triumphs and been to its reporters one of the most accessible administrators on campus. That access has translated into a better-informed university community.

Another thing Esteban did regularly was participate in free-wheeling, off-the-record discussions with The Orion staff. He could be both very opinionated and very, very funny. During one particularly divisive campus issue, Esteban expressed astonishment at the profane language some students put into angry e-mails to him. Orion staffers, I think, were both surprised and delighted when he told them what those words were.

It is probably unrealistic to expect the next university president to connect with students as well as Esteban has. But his successor should be expected to respect the free-speech ethic that has made The Orion a better newspaper and Chico State a better university.