By:
April 29, 2021

Trevor Martindale was watching comedian and political commentator Hasan Minhaj’s “Patriot Act” on Netflix when he got the idea for his college newspaper’s next investigative project.

In the “Patriot Act” segment, Minhaj described the increasing corporatization of higher education. Some colleges have placed a greater emphasis on growing their endowment and inflating administrator salaries instead of investing in their students’ educations, Minhaj argued.

“I thought that was really interesting,” said Martindale, the managing editor of The Crow’s Nest, the University of South Florida St. Petersburg’s independent student paper. “I’ve noticed some of those things, and I’ve heard many complaints from various people involved in the university along those lines. And so I thought it would be interesting for us to investigate.”

The opportunity to pursue such an investigation came when The Crow’s Nest adviser suggested the staff apply to Poynter’s College Media Project program. The initiative supports student media organizations seeking to launch their own campus news project. Included in the program is a $1,500 grant and regular training. Applications for the fall semester are now open.

The Crow’s Nest editor-in-chief Sophie Ojdanic said she saw the program as a good opportunity to hone the staff’s investigative skills and to secure funding for the paper’s reporting. In the past, large public records fees had hampered the paper’s reporting on their university. The paper once received a bill that was more than $900 and ultimately had to forgo the records since they couldn’t afford them, Ojdanic said.

“In The Crow’s Nest coverage of previous issues at the university, we were kind of blockaded by public records fees,” Ojdanic said. “We’re having to pay out of pocket because we just don’t get the funding from our university system for it.”

The team successfully pitched their idea — an investigation into USF’s finances — and started reporting in the fall. They originally envisioned stories covering three areas: financial aid, student health and wellness, and the USF Foundation, the university’s fundraising arm.

Financial aid was a natural starting point as it is what most students think of when they think of university finances, Ojdanic said. They also decided to explore student health due to news editor and project contributor Catherine Hicks’ interest in mental health reporting.

“Especially since we have COVID coming in and removing the social interaction of college and putting everyone online, it’s definitely an area that is suffering right now, and it’s somewhere that I think that the university had a responsibility to step forward,” Hicks said.

Their reporting in the fall included explainers of financial aid and student wellness resources, as well as breakdowns of the budgets of each office. Hicks said she has heard from other students who found the pieces helpful in clarifying where their tuition dollars were going.

“A lot of times, university students are so focused on their classes that they just pay their tuition and they don’t pay attention to things that they’re also paying for,” Hicks said. “One of my big goals was to bring awareness of that to them, as well as bring awareness of the types of financial decisions that the university is making.”

The Crow’s Nest news editor Catherine Hicks (Courtesy: The Crow’s Nest/Sophie Ojdanic)

This semester, The Crow’s Nest staff have turned their focus towards the USF Foundation and the school’s $513 million endowment. Their goal is to explore the extent to which the university has become corporatized and how that has affected students and faculty through elements like tuition costs and employee pay.

“In way more simple terms, it’s just analyzing how the university — especially private but sometimes public — has sort of geared itself towards becoming a business and focused on competition rather than student benefit,” Ojdanic said.

Through their reporting, The Crow’s Nest team has found that the cost of tuition at four-year public colleges has increased dramatically in recent years. Ojdanic said one of the most striking things she’s learned while reporting is that USF president Steven Currall makes more than $700,000 a year, including bonuses — more than the president of the United States.

At times, their reporting has been delayed by the university administration, who have been slow to respond to requests for interviews and information. For example, a story about university spending on virtual learning tools took a month to report after administrators repeatedly redirected reporters and gave them data that could not be easily compared.

“It’s complicated to form a connection with administration and make sure there is consistent communication and that everything is being done in a timely manner,” Ojdanic said.

The nature of the subject they’re reporting on also makes things difficult, Martindale said. The reporters have to navigate complicated university structures to find the information they want.

“Sometimes the makeup of the university and all that comes along with that is so convoluted and complex,” Martindale said. “The information can be pretty scarce, and there’s all these different obstacles, such as trying to email somebody who doesn’t want to give you the information that you want.”

Ultimately, The Crow’s Nest reporters say they want to increase awareness of how the university is spending students’ dollars.

“Transparency is very important and instrumental to this whole project,” Martindale said. “We also just want to expand the understanding of the university landscape and how exactly it works because I think most students have no clue how universities are structured and how they allocate their finances.”

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Angela Fu is a freelance reporter based in Birmingham, Ala. and a contributor to Poynter.org. She can be reached at afu@poynter.org or on Twitter @angelanfu.
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