Cathy Cole file

Cathy Cole, vice president for enrollment and strategic communication at the University of Montana, fields questions related to student enrollment during a City Club Missoula meeting in September.

A suggestion that University of Montana faculty consult with administrators before speaking with the media has been walked back after criticism from UM faculty.

At the Oct. 10 Faculty Senate meeting Cathy Cole, UM’s vice president for enrollment and strategic communications, shared a list of ways faculty could “help recruit more Griz to the family.”

Alongside such tips as wearing UM gear and participating in prospective-student events, one bullet point in an early draft of the document advised faculty: “If the press calls, call us. If a member of the media calls you, please call (UM spokesperson) Paula Short or Cathy Cole immediately. We will help you prepare for the interview.”

Cole explained Wednesday that this had been standard practice at previous institutions where she'd worked. “If the media calls, you work with your communications people because often we can walk them through standard questions and give them some tips on how to relax in an interview.”

The media relations policies for both UM and Montana State University allow faculty members to respond to media inquiries about their research, teaching and areas of expertise. They also state that faculty should notify public relations staff about the contact afterwards, and refer questions about university-wide matters to them.

The suggestion was included in a version of the list posted before the meeting, but was not mentioned by Cole and didn’t spark discussion among faculty members at the time.

But in a follow-up message, included on the agenda for the Nov. 14 Faculty Senate meeting, Cole wrote that Faculty Senator Jule Banville, a Journalism School professor, had taken issue with this suggestion.

“In light of feedback from Senator Jule Banville before the Senate meeting, I had intended to remove that bulleted item from the document before my presentation. (University Faculty Association) President Megan Stark today pointed out to me that it had been included and was, while well intentioned and meant to be helpful for those who many not work with the media often, seen as perhaps a bit controlling or less than supportive of the First Amendment.

“I understand the concerns and apologize for my mistake,” she wrote. “I have removed that item from the attached document.”

Stark, an associate professor at the Mansfield Library, thinks Cole handled it well. “To her credit, she offered what is a very sincere apology, which I appreciated.”

But Cole, in an email to the Missoulian, wrote that her note “was not in any way an apology letter, it was more a clarification letter. In between the time I submitted my first document, I had a few robust exchanges with some of the journalists on campus and I totally understood what they were saying. I changed the copy and sent the new, revised document over to the (executive committee of the Senate) office for inclusion. However, I did not check that it was the correct version before I began speaking.”

As vice president for enrollment and strategic communication, Cole has been working to turn around UM’s years-long enrollment decline and, amid ongoing fiscal and administrative challenges, present a positive message to the public.

“I haven’t asked anybody to pivot to the positive with just media,” she said, “I’ve asked them to pivot to the positive, period.

“We have to say, ‘Hey, UM, we’re on the rise.’” But at the same time, she said, “There’s no downplaying where we are as an institution. We face that reality every day, we deal with those problems as they come to us.”

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