Bates College Administration Censors Student Reporters Covering Staff Unionization

A college administrator pressured the campus paper to take down a pro-union article and revise it to feature management-friendly talking points.

Students walk past Hathorn Hall in the Bates College campus in Lewiston, Maine, on Nov. 7, 2016. Photo: Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Portland Portland Press Herald via Getty Images

Bates College administration pressured campus newspaper The Bates Student on Wednesday to remove an article from its website featuring interviews with five Bates employees trying to unionize adjunct faculty and non-managerial staff.

The campus workers announced their attempt to unionize on October 5, citing low pay, poor working conditions, and declining staff retention. If the union drive succeeds, approximately 650 faculty and non-managerial staff will become a chapter of the Maine Service Employees Association-SEIU Local 1989, forming the Bates Educators and Staff Organization, or BESO.


The students’ original October 13 article detailed dire working conditions during the more severe months of the pandemic, Bates administration’s use of intimidation tactics, and the benefits of unionization. According to staff members at The Bates Student, the paper’s managing editor, who wrote the story, took her article down at the behest of Bates’s media relations specialist Mary Pols and the administration the same day it was posted.

The following day, an edited version of the story was published to The Bates Student’s website. In the new story, pro-union information and worker quotes were replaced with anti-union talking points and comments from Bates administration. The new version of the story highlighted that the “college has chosen not to remain silent on the unionization efforts” and quoted an email from college President Clayton Spencer that read: “No one can make an informed choice if they hear only one side of a story. That is simply not how deliberative processes or democratic elections work, particularly at an educational institution.” Spencer’s comment was featured online as the article’s pull quote.

A comparison of the two articles shows over 1,000 words were added to the edited story when it was republished. Current and former Bates students later uploaded a Google document highlighting the language added and removed from the original article, under pressure and direction from Pols.

“Mary works with the paper to get them quotes and information, as long as it doesn’t threaten the college. She’s the only point of access to get quotes from the college’s leadership and administration,” Amelia Keleher, the paper’s former managing news editor, told The Intercept. “I don’t believe there’s been another instance where she’s completely edited an article though. This case was unique, and especially strange, because there is not even an editor’s note on the article saying that it was asked to be taken down and reposted with edits.”

In a statement to The Intercept, Pols denied any claims that her edits censored student reporters or worker voices, noting that “The Bates Student is the paper of record on this campus. It is staffed by journalists who are also full-time students. It is never an act of censorship to ask that inaccuracies and misrepresentations be corrected and clarifications made.”

“Like responsible journalists everywhere, the editor and reporter at The Bates Student corrected the record and issued a thorough explanation for the changes,” Pols added, referring to a statement posted by Bates Student editor-in-chief Jackson Elkins, which was not appended to the republished article.

Student newspapers’ editorial independence often relies on the goodwill of college administrators. In most cases, their funding comes directly from administration, which means colleges can essentially shutter campus papers at a moment’s notice. This power dynamic is part of the current problem at Bates.

“Bates can cut back funding at any time, but the website is owned by students and in that sense it is independent of the college,” Keleher said. “It’s time for a conversation about the student paper operating more independently. And what would it look like not to have just one point of access to the administration.”

Changes to worker quotes demonstrate the administration’s heavy-handed edits. In the original article, Jon Michael Foley, a grounds and maintenance worker in favor of unionizing, described the risks of working indoors around unmasked students during the pandemic.

“It was scary. I had a pregnant wife at the time,” read Foley’s original quote. “I broke quarantine to come back to work just to immediately find that the second management looked away, everyone on campus was okay with [the risk posed on staff members].”

The new version, at Pols’s direction, removed Foley’s fear of exposing his pregnant wife to Covid-19 and softened his critique of management. Instead, the section framed Foley’s high-risk work as his patriotic duty.

“We had two weeks at home and I was tempted to stay buttoned up, but [I] decided that my Nanas had both worked the shipyards during World War II. My version of contributing to the world would be off loading trucks for Bates College,” said Foley’s new quote.

In a similar instance, Francis Eanes, a visiting Bates faculty member who supports the union effort, had originally been quoted to explain “numerous instances of managers and senior vice presidents” intimidating staff workers.

Eanes cited cases of management tightly monitoring staff and “seeding totally baseless claims about workers potentially losing their benefits … if they unionized.” Under pressure from Pols, most of Eanes’s quotes were deleted from the republished piece.

“Just like they are intimidating workers from exercising our right to unionize, now they’re violating student reporters’ editorial independence and the basic principles of press freedom,” said Foley, quoted in a press release signed by six current and former Bates students, including the story’s author. “They’ve crossed the line here, getting too carried away in using their power, so we need to ask this institution to live up to its ideals.”

This is not the first time Bates administration has come under fire for censoring student voices. Last May, pro-Palestine chalk drawings were met with backlash from the administration and investigated as an antisemitic hate crime by the local police. Gwen Lexow, Bates’s director of Title IX and civil rights compliance, emailed the entire student body expressing “deep concern about the impact” of the drawings on “Jewish members of our campus community.” Lexow’s email did not mention or address Palestinian or Muslim students.

“We feel that the administration has been trying to highlight certain voices and shut others down. When college president Clayton Spencer released a statement on the pro-Palestine chalk drawings, she was expressly pro-Israel,” Serena Sen, a junior at Bates and BESO student committee member, said to The Intercept. “It left students feeling like the administration was trying to stifle people.”

Now, in response to the administration’s recent actions, a group of student leaders have released a petition against censorship at Bates. The petition calls on the administration to allow The Bates Student to “repost the original article immediately, pledge to refrain from altering or suppressing student journalism in the future, and answer publicly for its behavior.”

“Ultimately we just don’t want worker voices suppressed. In this instance, that suppression happened through the student paper. Yes, for the students writing the story, they were suppressed, but more importantly it was the workers who were silenced,” Sen said. “In other instances, it’s been managers threatening workers. The core of our hope is to not stifle worker voices.”

The student leaders are also calling for Spencer and Vice President for Finance and Administration and Treasurer Geoffrey Swift to attend a question and answer session on October 20 in the hopes that the event will allow Bates students, faculty, staff, and community members to hold the administration accountable in an open forum.

“When institutions like Bates are allowed to censor these organizing efforts they become more secure that they can continue operating the same way, maintaining their power,” Keleher said. “But the more people read about organizing efforts, the more they feel empowered. We’ve seen that with the current effort at Bates. Students speak out, faculty speak out, workers speak out and that solidarity is powerful.”

Update: October 18, 2021
After this article was published, The Bates Student released a statement objecting to the framing of their story’s revision as censorship by the administration. Bates Student editor-in-chief Jackson Elkins and managing editor Elizabeth LaCroix wrote, “The staff of The Bates Student takes immense pride in our editorial independence. We are given full autonomy on what is and is not published. In the interests of informing the Bates community, we stand by the edits we made.”


Join The Conversation