Administrator interferes with student board

Anthony Viola

Student board representative reports an orchestration of student votes against FOIA, adviser

Steven Neiheisel, vice president for enrollment and student services, influenced student members of The North Wind Board of Directors to vote against Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests and ultimately the reinstatement of assistant professor Cheryl Reed as adviser of the student paper, according to Mary Malaske, student representative and secretary of The North Wind board.

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Cohodas Hall, Northern Michigan University

Malaske believes the vote on Friday, April 3 to oust Reed as adviser was influenced by Neiheisel as retaliation for the string of FOIAs over the last year, critical stories of NMU administration and certain inaccuracies by the paper. She feels Neiheisel has been out to get Reed from the start.

“[Neiheisel] brought up Cheryl [in a Jan. 14 private meeting],” Malaske said. “Cheryl being the new adviser, and coming from investigative journalism and coming from Chicago, it was very clear, in my personal opinion, I am pretty sure it has been his plan to get Cheryl Reed fired.”

Malaske approached Reed immediately after the April 3 Board of Directors meeting and told Reed she felt that Neiheisel orchestrated the student vote.

Malaske said Neiheisel requested to have a private meeting with her in January to discuss the student paper. It wasn’t discovered that the meetings occurred until a student told Marquette Social Scene. The North Wind FOIA’d emails on April 6, 2015 previously FOIA’d by Brice Burge at Marquette Social Scene after Malaske talked to Reed. According to the emails, Neiheisel set up private meetings with all the student representatives of the board the week of Jan. 11, the first week of the winter 2015 semester.

Student representative to the Board of Directors Pearl Gaidelis denied being asked to have a meeting with Neiheisel, but the emails show differently. An email from Bergman dated Jan. 12, 2015 stated, “Pearl: Steve Neiheisel would like to meet with you regarding The North Wind. Could you please email me times you are available this week, or call me at 227-2000 to set up a time for the meeting.”

Gaidelis replied, “Yes, I am available Monday, Wednesday, Friday after 4 p.m. Tuesdays after 11 a.m. Thursdays 8 a.m.-11 a.m. or anytime after 2 p.m.”

According to the emails, they set a meeting date for 4 p.m., Wednesday, Jan. 14.

Gaidelis declined to comment regarding the Board of Directors. Similar emails were sent to Board Chairperson Aubrey Kall, Vice-Chair Eric Laksonen, ASNMU- appointed representative Troy Morris and Malaske.

Executive Director of the Student Press Law Center Frank LoMonte said there are some court interpretations that state it is a violation of the Open Meetings Law to hold a series of closed door meetings for purposes of determining the outcome of a vote.

“There was a ruling back in 2008 from the Michigan Court of Appeals in a case that involved the city of Marquette in which the court ruled that holding a series of pre-meeting meetings among members of the City Commission could violate the Open Meetings Act,” LoMonte said. “If you’re holding these meetings for the purpose of undermining the act and having discussions that should be taking place in open session then that absolutely could be a violation.”

Malaske said Neiheisel seemed adamant the meeting happen that week.

“I got an email [and] when I didn’t respond to the email, I got a phone call,” Malaske said, “and then after the phone call, he had [Chairperson] Aubrey [Kall] Facebook message me to set up a meeting with him so we could meet that week. It was very urgent that we meet with him that week.”

According to Neiheisel, the meetings were to review the rules and the bylaws of the board. He said the meetings were not private because administrative assistant Carol Bergman was present. Bergman is not a member of the board. The individual meetings were never discussed at official board meetings.

Reed said the tone from student representatives shifted at the Jan. 16 Board of Directors meeting.

“What Mary said made sense to me because it was the [Jan. 16] meeting when the students seemed to become hostile toward me,” Reed said. “Previous to that we’ve had what I would characterize as civil disagreements.”

Neiheisel thought the meetings in his office were innocuous.

“There were, as I think everyone is aware, some new challenges during the winter semester and I thought it good to start the semester before the board meeting with everyone familiar with the bylaws and their roles,” Neiheisel said.

In that meeting with Neiheisel, Malaske said the vice president reiterated a passage in the bylaws, urged her to vote down The North Wind’s FOIA request for administrators’ emails and spoke critically of Cheryl Reed, the adviser of the student paper.

“He had [The North Wind Board of Directors] binder and he basically went to the page in the bylaws that said that [the editor] is responsible to the board for the tone of the paper,” Malaske said. “He went over that line at least three times, basically telling us that we have control over the tone of the paper and it is kind of like our say in The North Wind.”

After he pointed out this passage, he became critical of the recent FOIA requests submitted by the student paper, according to Malaske.

Neiheisel denies he brought up the FOIA issues because the vote was put on the agenda during the board meeting on Jan. 16. He claims he was unaware the FOIA would be voted on during that meeting.

“He discussed the Starbucks issue and he talked about how that was a waste of time and money, just put us in a bad light,” Malaske said. “Then he talked about the Lenovo FOIA and how all these papers were printed out and not a single story came out of it and it was just a big waste of our time and energy. He talked about how we don’t have a lot of money right now and so it wouldn’t be a good decision to keep doing these. He basically was saying about how FOIAs were a waste, just a waste.”

On Nov. 2, 2014, The North Wind requested the contracts between the university and Lenovo. Because the FOIA language said “inspect or obtain” copies of these contracts, the university asked Editor in Chief Emma Finkbeiner to come inspect the documents in the office. Finkbeiner declined and requested that she be presented with copies. The university then provided over 9,000 documents, most of which the paper did not ask for. The university said after providing the documents that an inspection would have cut down the number of documents provided, but this purpose was not made clear to Finkbeiner.

At the Friday, Jan. 16 board meeting, the board voted on a FOIA request submitted by Finkbeiner. After she was allegedly intimidated by administration to stop pursuing investigative stories in late 2014, Finkbeiner submitted a FOIA request for the emails of six administrators, including Neiheisel. The request was to determine if there was any collusion between top officials to stifle the newspaper’s voice and intimidate the student editors. The university tried to charge the newspaper for the documents.

During Malaske’s individual meeting with Neiheisel, he said The North Wind’s FOIA request for administrators’ emails would be a waste of time and money. However, what Neiheisel failed to mention in those meetings was his conflict of interest, Malaske said.

“He had been telling us all these horrible things about how big of a waste of time FOIA requests are,” Malaske said, “but [Neiheisel] failed to mention at any point during that meeting that the current FOIA request that we were to vote on included him. So he gave us all this stuff, didn’t mention that he was involved, but basically told us that we shouldn’t vote for it.”

The board ultimately voted against paying for the FOIA and Neiheisel did not abstain from the vote.

However, after a flurry of critical stories on social media and a groundswell of support for the newspaper, the administration backed down and provided the emails free of charge. When the paper received them, however, they were heavily redacted. The university cited the “open and frank communication” exemption.

Malaske feels Neiheisel’s influence has affected how the student representatives view Reed.

“I feel like a lot of the student reps, with the influence of Steve, have been holding [Reed] accountable for what the paper has been putting out, and feel like if they change her then everything changes,” Malaske said. “I don’t think that the student reps are bad people—I just think they are impressionable and Steve has had his way with them. Since they only heard one side of the story they’ve gotten so polarized in that side that they’ve become unwilling to hear the other side.”

Malaske said she tried to urge the student representatives to meet with Reed like they met with Neiheisel.

“I brought up to Aubrey that I thought we should all meet with Cheryl because we all were forced to meet with Steve,” Malaske said. “I mean obviously not physically forced, but we were all pretty much forced to meet with Steve, we should meet with Cheryl too, to get her side.”

However, none of the student representatives made an attempt to meet with Reed privately to discuss board issues. Reed and Morris met in March to discuss the definition of prior restraint, but never talked about the board, according to Reed.

Kall admits to meeting with Neiheisel, but never with Reed.

“I am not a member of the editorial staff, therefore there was no need for me to meet with the journalistic adviser,” Kall wrote in an email.

Malaske feels that the board’s job is to keep the paper running, something Neiheisel and the other board members under the influence of the vice president failed to do so on April 3.

“If you get rid of the journalistic adviser and an editor in chief, you have two blank major positions for the following year,” Malaske said. “To me that sounds like you’re trying to literally take down The North Wind.”

However, Malaske doesn’t see the student representatives who voted against Reed as ill-to-do, only misinformed.

“I think it’s important to say, I don’t think they’re inherently against Cheryl,” Malaske said. “I definitely think it’s been Steve’s influence on them. I don’t think [the student representatives are] bad people. I really don’t think the student reps are evil and out to get people, I just think they’ve been poorly informed and influenced.”


*UPDATE*

Minutes after this article appeared online, Gaidelis called saying she did not realize that when the reporter asked whether she had met with “Dr. Neiheisel” that the reporter was referring to Steve. She said she didn’t realize Neiheisel had a doctorate.

On Wednesday, April 8, Malaske met with President Fritz Erickson to discuss the potential influences and wrong doings she saw and any possible action the president could take to reverse the decision of the board.

“After much discussion, he expressed to me that he did not think this was a place he should step in,” Malaske said, “because as president of the university, to go in and overthrow a mostly student vote on the board would not be a wise decision, almost like an over breach of his power.”

According to Malaske, Erickson did not think the April 3 vote was an attempt to shut down the North Wind.

“He thinks it will be tedious for us to get it back,” Malaske said, “to find a new adviser and editor in chief, but it will keep going, the cycle will continue, regardless.”