DULUTH — A data request made by student journalists has revealed expletive-laden emails from University of Minnesota Duluth staff sparked by a dispute over office space.
The almost 900 pages of staff emails, many sent by staff members of Kirby Student Center, include comments comparing The Bark student news organization to the “Ministry of Propaganda” and stating that if The Bark wants to “play hardball,” then one Kirby staff member has “one f--- of a cutter,” a reference to a specific type of baseball pitch.
“It was extremely disappointing and disheartening to see what administration, who are supposed to be working with us, have to say about us,” said Hunter Dunteman, a managing editor for The Bark and a senior at UMD. “I understand that people have their own feelings. I don't think that a publicly discoverable email is the place to be chatting about those feelings.”
The comments were made after the Kirby Student Center notified the student newspaper in late July 2020 that it would need to move out of its office space in 11 days.
The student journalists, upset after receiving that news on such short notice, penned a letter to student leadership and posted it on social media. Kirby staff later extended the newspaper’s stay in its office until Aug. 1, 2021.
The ongoing eviction situation has led to rising tensions between Kirby staff, UMD journalism faculty members and student journalists at The Bark, with numerous exchanges happening among the groups over the summer.
The letter posted to social media raised the ire of some staff in the emails.
On Monday, May 3, The Bark published an article on its data request findings. The story was by Dunteman, Managing Editor Michael King and Madison Hunter.
Hunter said what stung the most about the findings in the data request was when Kirby Student Center Assistant Director Jessi Gile Eaton compared The Bark to a “very wrong” group like the “Ministry of Propaganda,” as well as when Eaton said The Bark was doing “the very thing that generated the concept of #fakenews in the first place.”
“It’s just very shocking to me and hurtful and sad,” Hunter said of the email.
Eaton was referencing the letter The Bark posted on social media, calling it “s----- journalism,” saying that “they cherry picked what they wanted the story to say and made their opinion into fact.”
On Wednesday, May 5, two days after The Bark’s story was published, Eaton apologized for her words in a letter written for students who have since contacted her. In the letter, Eaton thanks those reaching out to her for holding her accountable for her “incredibly bad judgment and behavior.”
“First and most importantly, I would like to apologize for the incredibly inappropriate and unprofessional message that I sent to my colleague,” Eaton said in the letter. “There is no excuse for the language I used, and I am deeply embarrassed and ashamed by its stridency and profanity. Simply put, it was not appropriate, I regret it, and I am very sorry.”
She later adds: “My commitment to you is that I will do my best to rebuild the trust that has been broken between me and The Bark, UMDSA, and any other students. I’m acutely aware that that commitment will only be met through action, and not words, and I ask that you continue to hold me accountable for my actions as you have done here."
Email exchange raises alarm
The data request was filed Aug. 3, 2020. On March 15, UMD Director of Marketing and Public Relations Lynne Williams sent all applicable data directly to Izabel Johnson, who was serving as a managing editor of The Bark at the time of the initial request and is now a reporter for the Duluth News Tribune (Johnson contributed to this story).
Since Johnson was no longer employed at The Bark at the time of Williams’ response, she forwarded the 865 pages of data to her former student colleagues.
Emails revealed in the data showed exchanges between Kirby faculty and staff members surrounding The Bark’s operations, budgets, advisers, office eviction and more dating back to July 2018.
After Eaton informed The Bark in July that the newspaper needed to move out of its space, which was to be used for UMD’s expanding “Bulldog Beginnings” program, Associate Vice Chancellor for Student Life Corbyn Smyth forward the news to Vice Chancellor for Student Life and Dean of Students Lisa Erwin.
Erwin’s response was: “Thank you for letting me know. This seems pretty straightforward. I think this could be controversial, however, and if it is, I can honestly say I wasn’t involved.”
Mark Nicklawske, freelance journalist and outgoing editorial adviser for The Bark, said that, to him, that was the most concerning piece in the data request.
“Somebody who's in charge of student activity not knowing what's going on is, to me, really shocking,” Nicklawske said. “Someone in Lisa Erwin’s position needs to take responsibility for a major decision … obviously she knew it was going to be a controversial decision, but she did nothing to stop it and in fact, washed her hands of the whole thing.”
Eaton's email was in response to Mat Gilderman, the former business adviser for The Bark, who’s also the communications manager for Kirby Student Center.
Gilderman had sent Eaton and Kirby Student Center Director Jeni Eltink a first draft of the response he wished to send to The Bark after they posted the letter calling out Kirby staff for the short notice on the move.
Eaton then responded saying the letter was well-written, but to wait to send it.
A second draft of his letter sent to Eaton and Eltink voiced sympathy for The Bark and apologized on behalf of the student center for asking them to move on short notice.
He wrote in the second draft: “I can appreciate going to social media out of pure frustration after being asked to move instead of talking directly with me first, but I genuinely hope it wasn't because you didn't feel it was worth your time to talk with me.”
Gilderman explained in both the drafted and finalized letter that Kirby staff were scrambling to keep up with changing plans during the pandemic and got “sidetracked” with other projects instead of requesting The Bark to depart from its office sooner.
“Pretty quickly we realized we might have to 'eminent domain' Bark office space. It sucked even CONTEMPLATING THAT, especially now that it was the 11th hour,” Gilderman’s draft read.
A little less than an hour later, Eaton responds by saying the letter is good, but that she has no desire to make nice.
“Making nice is what has caused this problem in the first place,” the email read.
Eaton then makes reference to The Bark’s recent budget deficits and mentions unprepared presentations made by the group in front of UMD’s Student Service Fee committee, which allocates funding to student groups and organizations at the university.
“Twice in five years, they sent unprepared editors in chief to the SSF committee and forced (Smyth) and me to intercede on their behalf then had the unmitigated balls to b---- that they didn't get enough money,” she said in the email. “We had zero obligation to do either of those things; after I left as the office manager, we had zero obligation to help them with the SSF at all. You and I were/are marketing advisors, not financial. Read the f------ agreement. NOT. OUR. JOB. But we did it anyway, and this is the thanks we get. No good deed, indeed.”
“Her point was they stopped paying for (those financial services) after 2019,” UMD spokesperson Lynne Williams said in response to Eaton’s assertion that Kirby wasn’t obligated to help them with financial advising.
In other words, The Bark has not paid the $10,000 it owes Kirby each year for advising services, Williams said. That administrative support fee was previously $20,000 but Kirby cut in half when The Bark was facing financial difficulties.
The Bark’s current student business manager, Grace Henriksen, confirmed the newspaper hasn’t paid the $10,000 fee this year, but she added no one has reached out to her requesting payment for that.
“I’m not sure if it was intentional or just one of those many things that took a back seat this year with everything going on,” she said.
At the end of fiscal year 2016, the newspaper was $32,000 in deficit. Kirby paid for $11,000 of The Bark’s support costs and then paid $12,000 to help bring the newspaper’s budget back to zero, according to Williams. During that time Eaton served as the newspaper's business advisor.
The student newspaper has since paid Kirby back for that loan.
'Their s--- best be out of my office'
Continuing on the discovered emails, Eaton reiterates the idea that she will not apologize to The Bark, but that she still wants the group removed from the office space.
“Come midnight of August 1, 2021, their s--- best be out of my Bulldog Beginnings office, or I will personally see to it that it goes,” she said.
Eaton ends the email with the following: “I have moved from shocked to deeply hurt to angry to real f------ I want to have a conversation with them. I want them to say it to my face. And then I want to call them on it, not try to wheedle to make them feel nice. I have hit peak D on this ain't no feelings left, or at least none they will have the satisfaction of seeing. If they want to play hardball, I have one f--- of a cutter. I don't think we should throw them a nice, juicy one right down the middle.”
Gilderman responded to Eaton by saying that she is “1000% right.” Later adding: “And I know we disagreed on letting them back into their office, but I’m with you 100% on this.”
Williams in an interview said that the university has opened an investigation to review what happened with the Kirby Student Center staff. Any findings and disciplinary actions that result from that investigation will be public data.
Typically, Williams handles the public data requests the university receives. Asked what she made of the contents of the request that caught The Bark’s attention, Williams said her initial reaction was that they were inappropriate.
“I'm not surprised that when the students received email exchanges that they wanted to have follow up,” she said. “It’s clear that the tone or the language used there is not appropriate. Obviously the university does not condone those statements or that approach.”