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Director of student publications finalist Jim Knight addresses conflict of interest concern

Director of Student Media and Publications finalist Jim Knight wasted no time in addressing the “elephant in the room” Tuesday during his public interview.

Knight, a 1984 Central Michigan University alum, was the first of three finalists for the position to hold a public interview for the position, whose duties include overseeing and advising Central Michigan Life and The Central Review.

“Yes, my wife is (Associate Vice president of Communications) Sherry Knight,” Knight said in front of more than 40 students, faculty and media board members. “She runs the communications department here at CMU, and there are times when her office and what you do here … don’t always match up.”

Rather than deny any conflict of interest, Knight agreed his marital relationship was an obstacle, though it is one he said can be worked through.

“My take on it is we can find the accountability and transparency to make this work, (but) I can’t do that alone,” he said. “You can’t watchdog yourself, so you have to build in a system that makes it work, and that’s this room.”

Professor of Journalism Jiafei Yin told Knight she doesn’t doubt his personal and professional integrity, but is concerned about a shift in the public’s perception of CM Life due to his marriage.

“I don’t think you have control of public perception; that’s out of your hands,” Yin said. “Just the perception is probably going to compromise the integrity and credibility of CM Life, and I think that’s going to be a big sacrifice.”

Knight responded to Yin’s concerns by citing Bob Steele, director of The Prindle Institute for Ethics at DePauw University. He talked to Steele over the weekend about the job and the controversy surrounding it.

Steele said conflicts of interest happen in every newsroom – some big and some small. While these particular circumstances are notable, Knight said the question is whether what he can bring to the table is enough to make it work at CMU.

“What I’ve got to show you today is what I’ve learned, what I can bring to you, why I still care about CM Life 30 years after I’ve been here, why I still have passion and why I wouldn’t allow it to be a problem, because I would demand the accountability and accessibility,” he said.

Knight held editor-level positions at the Huron (Mich.) Daily Tribune, Annapolis (Md.) Capital-Gazette, Jackson Citizen Patriot and Ann Arbor News/annarbor.com. He is currently the manager of human resources communications at the University of Michigan.

He said his experience in the newsroom has given him an idea of what employers are looking for today from young journalists, which he believes will give CM Life reporters an edge over the competition.

“I’m here to make CM Life as strong as it can be, to help each and every one of you thrive in this business – not just survive,” he said. “Why would I put myself through this? Because I really believe I could make a difference.”

Knight has had experience analyzing metrics to determine reader preferences and said he would incorporate more interaction with reporters and readers through using polls and having reporters respond to comments online.

From a business standpoint, Knight said he would explore every possible source of revenue to keep the newspaper independent from the university and free of charge.

Knight’s close relationship with selection committee member Sandy Petykiewicz, former publisher of the Jackson Citizen Patriot, was also a topic of discussion, though Knight said he doesn’t believe the friendship should have forced her to exclude herself from the search committee charged with selecting the new director.

Dave Clark, editor-in-chief of The Big Rapids Pioneer, and Keith Gave, coordinator of The Washtenaw Voice, Washtenaw Community College’s student publication, will hold their public interviews today.

Clark will meet from 1 until 1:30 p.m. in the CM Life conference room, followed by Gave from 1:30 to 2 p.m.

The candidates will also meet with Kathy Simon, assistant director of CM Life, and take a campus tour.

The Media Board will choose the final two candidates, and Provost Gary Shapiro will have the final decision.

The job opening comes after Neil Hopp, director of student media and publications, made plans to retire this year, concluding nearly 50 years in journalism.

One Comment

  1. I may have a different perspective on this issue than many people. I am in what in many ways is the enviable position of being a student newspaper adviser who does not work for the university the newspaper covers; instead, I work for a separate 501(c)(3). Non-university employees also make up a majority on the foundation’s trustees. We’ve received our share of conflict-of-interest criticism due to having moved out of our former off-campus office and into a university-owned space, but I think my job is made much easier by working for a separate organization.

    That’s not to say that there aren’t ways to deal with the potential awkwardness of being a newspaper adviser who’s paid, hired and possibly fired by the school. I know plenty of people who seem to navigate it just fine, and if I were in that position, I’d do my best to do the same. But there is a certain amount of conflict inherent in the position being discussed no matter who’s in it.

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