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VtCynic.com readership surges as students seek to expose UVM wrongdoing

July 23, 2020

This summer, more people are reading The Vermont Cynic than ever as UVM student journalists pull back the curtain on what they say are missteps, wrongdoing and failure among university leadership.

The most-read story of the year appeared just three weeks ago: an investigation into conditions in residence halls where furnaces were blasting in the heat of summer.

One UVM employee called the conditions life-threatening; another said her coworker overheated so much that she vomited; international student residents, prevented from returning to their home countries because of COVID-19 restrictions, reported sleeping on the ground outside just to be able to get through the night.

The university’s overall response to these concerns was, the newspaper reported, to ignore them.

No other story in the history of VtCynic.com has garnered so much attention in a single day, week or month. As of today, the story has more than 17,000 views, just three weeks after being posted.

Other stories have been just as vital.

In June, the Cynic reported on a profanity-filled, public Facebook post by UVM’s director of student life, Daphne Wells.

The UVM administrator, who leads a department tasked with improving the student experience, said she considered a particular group of students who identified as women of color to be “Muh’fuggas” and “Anti-Black.”

Wells’ Facebook post received hundreds of comments. The Cynic story received thousands of views.

These works of journalism have been completed under the leadership of the Cynic’s summer editor-in-chief, Kate Vanni, who has been supervising a small cadre of reporters: young women who have carried out outstanding works of public service through their reporting.

Their efforts have had a significant impact.

Less than 24 hours after the Cynic posted the story about students and staff suffering in the dorms, where testing of the furnace had pushed interior temperatures to 91 degrees even though outdoor temperatures were in the 60s, the university’s department of residential life reversed course and said it would, after all, provide air conditioners to students who need them.

Similarly, Wells, who had publicly and repeatedly defended her Facebook comments as just, took down her controversial post not long after the Cynic wrote about it.

A third high-profile story involved a staff uprising around issues of race against Richard Cate, the university’s vice president for finance.

UVM staff members accused Cate in early June of being part of a system of white supremacy when he announced pay cuts that UVM workers said disproportionately impacted lower-wage employees and people of color.

In the view of several UVM staff members attending an online meeting with Cate, the vice president’s response to their concerns showed no understanding of the pain being experienced by employees who identify as BIPOC—Black, Indigenous, People of Color.

One staff member said the failure of Cate, a white man, to recognize that UVM pay cuts did not impact all employees equally amounted to a kind of “all lives matter” attitude.

Kate Vanni, Cynic editor-in-chief for summer 2020

Vanni said Cate’s response to staff members’ outrage was “very concerning” and worthy of attention.

“Richard Cate is in a position of a lot of power,” she said. “And the fact that he isn’t dismantling a narrative that many people are begging the university to notice and take down, it shows the privilege he has, and I think it’s irresponsible.”

Summer 2020 is the first time in institutional memory that the Cynic has had a multi-person news team outside of the regular school year.

The creation of the team was spearheaded by Sawyer Loftus, who in the spring was elected editor-in-chief for the 2020-21 academic year.

Loftus said he didn’t want the Cynic’s news coverage to stop while he worked as an intern this summer at VTDigger.org. Vanni, who will be a junior in the fall, was the clear choice for the summer leadership position, he said.

Loftus has mainly stayed hands-off this summer, but did contribute in one significant way to the Cynic’s recent charge toward accountability journalism.

After Vanni published her story about the 91-degree dorms—which included details about an unfulfilled promise from the university to supply a student with a fan—Loftus posted a scathing “letter from the editor” in which he raked university leadership over coals even hotter than the university dorm rooms. 

In a missive titled, “Need a fan? We’ll get you one,” Loftus wrote in part:

What we are seeing here is that UVM will not take care of us, nor will they admit guilt. 

What we are seeing here is an utter failure in our University leadership. 

Quite frankly, I’m disgusted by the clear disinterest University leadership seems to have in responding to this critical situation.

In the letter, Loftus provided information for local residents to donate fans to the Cynic to deliver to students. He concluded, “As journalists, we have a fundamental obligation to reveal injustice, but as fellow students, we have an obligation to care for one another.”

This ethos of exposing wrongdoing lies at the center of both editors’ way of being, and it’s emblematic of the assertion I’ve made before: Journalists, when they do their jobs well, can be super-heroes.

In an interview with both editors scheduled to air at 1:05 p.m. Thursday, July 23, on WRUV-FM, Loftus said he won’t be letting up in the coming academic year, regardless of whether students, including Cynic staff members, return to campus or attend school online and from a distance.

“We have a job to do, regardless of where we are,” Loftus said. “The Vermont Cynic is foremost a journalistic endeavor to explore the stories that the University of Vermont has to offer from a variety of different communities.

“I think the stories that you’re seeing this summer, stories like us exposing what I would call university wrongdoing, or university missteps, are going to continue—because that’s our job. But we’re also going to try to tell more stories about how students are adapting to this virtual life. I think that what we’re about to enter into is pretty unprecedented.

Sawyer Loftus, Cynic editor-in-chief for fall 2020 and spring 2021

“So you can expect us to be there.”

It’s worth noting that university officials have begun avoiding the Cynic journalists as the paper has rolled out these stories.

Neither Cate nor Wells would speak to the Cynic. Vice Provost Annie Stevens did not respond to the Cynic’s request to discuss her involvement with high temperatures in the residence halls.

Loftus said that university officials’ failure to engage with the student press would never derail The Vermont Cynic’s efforts.

“Not everyone is going to agree with what we write or like what we write, but, quite frankly, we’re not in it for everyone to enjoy what we write,” Loftus said. “We’re in it to tell truth and report facts and be a vehicle for democracy.

“And we’re going to continue to do that.”

With journalists like these at the helm, this coming academic year should be an interesting—and revealing—time for UVM.

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