In response to ‘Student mistakenly expelled due to University mental health policy‘ by Laura Abernethy (6 March 2014) and ‘Mental health – we must speak out‘ (Editorial, 6 March 2014).
On Thursday last week you published two seriously misleading and unbalanced items about the way the University handles mental health issues among students. The University welcomes constructive debate and will always respond to student concerns when they are justified. However, your reports perpetuated unfounded allegations and misunderstandings from anonymous sources, and contained demonstrable errors.
On behalf of the University, I wish to respond to The Saint on two counts: I should like to set out three important aspects of the University’s mission and record of supporting students with mental health issues; and I wish to take issue with The Saint’s editorial approach to the matter. I do not propose to work in tedious detail through the large number of misleading and inaccurate statements in your coverage: you already know – or should do – where you were mistaken.
First, then, let me say that support is provided to students not only by Student Services, but by various Units and potentially all Schools of the University, as well as by services of the Students’ Association, all of whom take their duties very seriously. In addition to the Pro Deans and Student Services, mentioned in your articles, there are Residence Wardens, Registry officers, the Chaplaincy, the Deans and others. Feedback from students who respond to the annual Student Barometer and International Student Barometer surveys suggests that the vast majority of users rate these services very highly; indeed St Andrews tends to be consistently in the top two to three universities polled.
That said, if students are unhappy with the support they receive, there are channels open to them to voice their concerns, starting with the DoRep (whose work this year on mental health matters has been exemplary) and the elected Students’ Association Welfare Officer, via the University’s Student Services ‘request for feedback’ web-page, all the way through to myself as senior University manager responsible for student welfare. I wish to stress that any justified complaint will always be heard, without prejudice. However, it is only right and fair that such queries and complaints should follow a proper and carefully prescribed process if we are to protect both the student and the member(s) of staff concerned. I would ask what process The Saint followed – that is to say, whether you demanded to see evidence and adequately assured yourselves of the validity of the very serious claims made by the sources underpinning your coverage.
It remains the case that the headline and central claim of your article is utterly false. No student was expelled, far less ‘mistakenly expelled due to University mental health policy’ as you alleged.
Second, your readers may not know – and you have done nothing to enlighten them – that dedicated University staff routinely and unquestioningly work long hours, track down students, put them in touch with appropriate services and support them, all in pursuit of our mission to provide an excellent academic education, and to support students who need help to pursue – and achieve – that academic goal for themselves. Yet in the context of your report it is important to point out that the University is bound by law in certain circumstances, for example in the matter of sharing information with a student’s family. Our students being adults, we would be breaking the law if we were to contact their families in circumstances other than those demonstrably presenting a clear and urgent threat to life. You do not seek to make your readers aware of this, despite the existence of clear guidance (which you might have consulted) on our website about how to deal with the case of a missing student, and about what information the University is able to share with parents.
Third, I wish to make it perfectly clear that our staff in the University, and specifically in Student Services, are highly qualified people who undergo regular professional development training throughout the year to maintain standards. Your article carries a completely unfounded allegation to the contrary, which is a very serious claim indeed. Hiding behind the notion that this allegation was the opinion of one of your anonymous ‘sources’ is a woefully inadequate excuse for weak journalism and editorial policy: any self-respecting newspaper would check the validity of such an assertion before appearing to condone it by giving it valuable column space. You have already acknowledged to me that The Saint does not believe this claim, yet you published it, without checking, and continue to give it credence and weight by allowing it to remain in the online version of your article, which as of today has been read by upwards of 4500 people.
This brings me to my other main point, namely the matter of The Saint’s editorial approach to the present issue.
Since (on the evidence of several communications received by the University) the irresponsible and inaccurate material published by The Saint was clearly causing significant anxiety among vulnerable students by Thursday evening, I took the unusual step of approaching you on Friday morning last week to demonstrate that your reporting was faulty. I asked you to address the factual errors in your texts, as well as their misleading elements, affront to staff and effects on anxious students whose confidence in their support arrangements was being needlessly undermined. In total, I drew your attention to more than 30 factual errors and points of concern in your articles. I noted that you had not given the University the opportunity to address the detailed claims and allegations in your articles before you published them.
Rather than removing the items from your website and issuing an apology, it appears that you have simply attempted to cover up the shortcomings of your report and editorial by tampering quietly with the original texts, introducing a couple of cosmetic changes and saying the items had been ‘updated’ with ‘clarifications’. In fact, these ‘clarifications’ are close to meaningless: both pieces remain thoroughly misleading, factually incorrect and unbalanced. You acknowledged to me on Friday that you recognised the most serious allegations in your coverage to be untrue, yet inexplicably you have still not removed these. A reasonable person would be entitled to conclude (on this evidence) that The Saint is not interested in students’ mental health at all, nor in basic standards of journalism, but in scaremongering, sensationalism and saving its own face.
There is some excellent writing in The Saint, and I am proud not only that St Andrews has a number of first-rate journalists in the making, but also that we remain a community which believes passionately in the freedom of the press. However, this episode raises serious questions about The Saint‘s editorial ethics and I find it hard to see how the University can cooperate in future with a paper that has acted in such a deeply untrustworthy manner.
By contrast, I am glad to say that many good channels of communication do exist between the University and student representatives, whose reasonable and truly representative approach enables open dialogue on all aspects of students’ wellbeing. My colleagues and I will be delighted to continue to work with Sabbatical Officers and others to achieve the best support possible for everyone in St Andrews who needs it.
I hope that when you have had a chance to reflect on your actions you will conclude that it is appropriate to own up to your mistakes and apologise, both to the vulnerable students to whom you have caused needless anxiety, and to the University staff, especially in Student Services, whose code of ethics and commitment to confidentiality mean that they are necessarily precluded from bringing evidence to defend themselves against such public attack.
Professor Lorna Milne