NEEL: The Cavalier Daily shines light on issues for 130 years

The paper’s uncompromising reporting, probing editorials and debate-filled opinion pages nourish activism at UVA

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The newspaper’s work prompted the occasional controversy from the earliest days of the publication’s life.

Sophie Roehse | Cavalier Daily

Over the course of its 130 years, The Cavalier Daily has made a positive and lasting impact on student and community activism at the University by informing its readers of important issues through its reporting and by offering a forum for debate on its opinion pages.

These dual functions have been at the core of The Cavalier Daily’s mission from the very beginning. Regular readers of The Cavalier Daily will not be surprised to learn that the newspaper’s work also prompted the occasional controversy from the earliest days of the publication’s life.

For example, the March 6, 1891 edition of the newspaper, then called College Topics, included an article titled “Whither Are We Drifting.” This article took issue with perceived disparate treatment accorded to students by Faculty Chairman William M. Thornton in disciplinary matters.

The article highlighted the case of a first-year student who was reported to have accidentally broken a window in Wright’s Hotel while returning “slightly intoxicated” to the University from town. At first, Chairman Thornton determined that the student should be expelled. He agreed to revoke the harsh punishment, however, when the student’s fellow fraternity members pledged to abstain from drinking. Raising a series of issues with Chairman Thornton’s handling of this disciplinary matter, the author of the article concluded by asking, “What would have been done had the man not have belonged to a fraternity?”

John B. Minor Jr., at the time an assistant to his father, the venerated law professor, wrote a lengthy response that appeared in the March 13, 1891 College Topics. Defending the faculty chairman’s use of discretion in the disciplinary matter, Minor further asserted that such criticism of a representative of the faculty “by the students in a college paper is both improper, disrespectful and injurious to the best interests of our dear old University.”

College Topics and The Cavalier Daily’s editors over the many years that have followed would give others ample cause to share Minor’s concern for the University’s public image as a consequence of critical coverage in the newspaper. As one of those editors 40 years ago, I held a different perspective. In my view, U.Va.’s reputation is sufficiently strong that the long-term benefit to the University of resolving a perceived problem by shining a light on it far outweighs any short-term discomfort the light might engender.

Admittedly, spotlighting a problem can take people in unexpected directions. For example, in 1958, students were feeling increasingly aggrieved by the administration’s enforcement of new traffic regulations on Grounds that resulted at times in a student’s suspension or loss of driving privileges. The Cavalier Daily published an editorial on Nov. 14, 1958, questioning the fairness of hearings before the administration’s subcommittee on traffic, where a student defendant was not permitted to present directly to the entire subcommittee a defense to the alleged driving infraction.

On Tuesday evening, Nov. 18, 1958, 1,500 students, many in coats and ties, gathered in Madison Bowl to protest the University’s traffic regulations and other administrative actions. Despite pleas for calm by Student Council President Fred Alexander, The Cavalier Daily reported, some students burned an old car and hung an effigy Dean B.D.F. Runk. Students then launched unsuccessful raids to gain entry to the nurses’ quarters at McKim Hall and then to Mary Munford Hall, the women’s dormitory, prompting police to disperse the crowd with tear gas and arrest three students.

During the 1970s, when I was a student, we had our own share of protests, some recounted elsewhere in today’s newspaper. In 1976, The Cavalier Daily received first place in the student journalism category of the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award for its outstanding coverage of the challenges faced by black students at the University. Aided by Cavalier Daily reporting and editorials, student activists in the 1970s prompted senior administrators and faculty to resign their memberships in Farmington Country Club because of its exclusionary membership and guest policies based on race and religion not abandoned by the club until years later. In response to a Black Student Alliance proposal, the University in 1976 created the Office of African-American Affairs.

More recently, student activists at the University joined faculty, staff and alumni to fight successfully for the 2012 reinstatement of President Teresa A. Sullivan. A June 24, 2012 rally on the Lawn in support of Sullivan — the third such rally in six days — attracted 1,500 people two days before the Board of Visitors reversed the decision to demand Sullivan’s resignation. The Cavalier Daily shined a light here as well, making public email exchanges between the Rector and Vice Rector, obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request. The emails revealed that, prior to Sullivan’s ouster, the two Board members were anxious for the University to embrace online learning quickly, a sentiment not shared by Sullivan.

Over the many years, the issues of importance to students, faculty and staff necessarily change. The Cavalier Daily remains one constant on Grounds, faithfully chronicling those issues of the day, providing an editorial voice and offering a forum for vigorous debate. We are all the better for it.

Richard Neel is an attorney from Fairfax County, Virginia. He served as Editor-in-Chief of The Cavalier Daily in 1979-80.

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