The Daily Tar Heel

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Thursday October 28th

Editorial: Reflecting on UNC's lack of transparency as communications staff depart

People sit on the steps and benches in front of South Building on Sunday, Sept. 12, 2020.
Buy Photos People sit on the steps and benches in front of South Building on Sunday, Sept. 12, 2020.

Two of UNC's major communications officials, Vice Chancellor for Communications Joel Curran and Director of Media Relations Joanne Peters Denny, announced within about two weeks of each other that they are leaving the University.

Curran will become the vice president of public affairs and communications at the University of Notre Dame after eight years at UNC. Peters Denny is leaving her role after five years, and according to UNC Media Relations, she is planning to join a top, global communications agency and return to working in health.

Media Relations told The Daily Tar Heel in an email that the timing was coincidental.

But their departures create an immediate gap in the communication of information to the campus community. It also gives us an opportunity to reflect on UNC’s lack of transparency over the last decade.

While Curran and Peters Denny are not to blame for the University’s culture of opacity, they certainly contributed to it. 

Under their leadership, University Communications has enhanced its overall content offerings across all platforms, launched numerous websites, opened the UNC Visitor's Center, streamlined the public records process and drove engagement with constituents. However, this was not achieved without questionable actions from both leaders.

Curran criticized a DTH article last fall as “a fine example of clickbait journalism,” and Peters Denny called student leaders' efforts to speak to the University "publicity stunts." These examples display the type of antagonism University communications officials had with campus community members and the media for close to a decade.

The job of a communications officer should be to facilitate the flow of information between the media and the public. This means answering the questions of the media and the public, rather than gatekeeping records and information.

The murky communications of the University have only exacerbated this issue. Last year, UNC was ordered by the North Carolina Supreme Court to release the disciplinary records for individuals found responsible for rape, sexual assault or related acts of sexual misconduct, four years after the DTH Media Corp filed its initial lawsuit. The University later filed for the case to be reviewed by the U.S. Supreme Court. At the time, Curran argued against releasing the records because he wanted to protect the privacy of students.

“We are asking the U.S. Supreme Court to consider ruling on the important question of whether federal law protecting the reasonable privacy rights of college students takes precedence over state public records laws,” Curran said in a statement.

But the initial lawsuit the DTH filed against the University was always about more than records. It was about asking for transparency to uproot the systemic issue of sexual assault on campus.

UNC tried to hold these assaulters accountable internally, and Media Relations officials fed that problem. 

The shady communication tactics were also evident in the way UNC mishandled the fallout from Silent Sam, which also resulted in the DTH suing the UNC System for violating Open Meetings Law. This was yet another case where it took legal pressure to extract transparency and clarity from the University.

The list of poor communication goes on. From Clery Act violations for failing to disclose crime statistics, to the lack of disclosure of advice about reopening campus during the pandemic, to the aftermath of not taking action on Nikole Hannah-Jones' tenure application — UNC has become notorious across the country for its consistent communications issues.

These instances of botched communication have become all too commonplace at UNC, and they often yield national media attention. Chapel Hill comes into the spotlight for revelations about the way the University is hiding something that should be public knowledge.

This campus should be a place of open dialogue, both in the classroom and in the community — and communications officials have a large role to play in that facilitation.

For nearly a decade, Curran and Peters Denny were here during many of the public relations crises of UNC. And, even if unintentional, they both likely played a role in the way the University responded to situations that attracted national media attention.

While their replacements are still unknown, we hope the roles of vice chancellor for communications and director of Media Relations are filled by people who understand the urgent need to shift toward more transparency and open communication at UNC.

@dthopinion

opinion@dailytarheel.com

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