Statement from Dean Lorraine Branham regarding the 2014 Fall Workshop

October 17, 2014

Yesterday I made a decision that has put us in the middle of the national conversation about the Ebola virus and the irrational fears about how it is spread. After a discussion with Multimedia Photography and Design Chair Bruce Strong and Vice Chancellor Eric Spina, it was decided to rescind an invitation to Washington Post photojournalist Michel duCille, who was in Liberia last month covering the Ebola crisis. It was not a decision that we made lightly and we certainly understood that in doing so we opened ourselves to criticism about stoking fears among the public and spreading ignorance about the disease and how it is spread. This is not what you want to do as the dean of a premiere journalism school. But concern for our students, faculty and staff outweighs any concern I have about how this decision will be viewed by others.

The photojournalist in question is a three-time Pulitzer Prize winner and a long-time friend of the school who has regularly participated in our Fall Workshop, which begins this weekend. Both he and his wife, Nikki Kahn, who is also a photojournalist, had been invited to participate. We were all looking forward to his visit. Then Bruce Strong learned from a concerned student that duCille had been in Liberia last month covering the Ebola crisis. My first question was: Has it been 21 days since he has been back in the U.S.?

Turns out it was exactly 21 days as of yesterday. And during this time he has been taking his temperature several times a day (a high temperature is an early indicator of infection) and there was no indication that he had contracted the virus. In fact, he had visited the CDC this week and was on Capitol Hill yesterday covering the congressional hearings on CDC handling of Ebola.

If it were just about me, that would have been good enough, given what I had read about the disease and how it is spread, and the fact that he had gone 21 days without symptoms. However, I knew that might not be good enough for many others in our community. And just yesterday, according to a report published in the Washington Post, new data now raises questions about whether or not 21 days is long enough to rule out Ebola.

I have a responsibility to faculty, staff and most importantly, our students – and their parents. While I don’t want to contribute to the fears about the disease, I believed we needed to exercise due caution. I also knew at least one student was already worried about his visit and that those concerns would quickly spread to other students (and then their parents), as well as staff and faculty. We did not want to create a panic. 

The Newhouse School—in particular, associate professor Ken Harper—has long had a connection to the people of Liberia. We have trained citizen journalists and provided them with needed equipment; we spoke out on the imprisonment of FrontPage Africa editor Rodney Sieh and helped to secure his release; and, most recently, Harper created a website at the request of Liberian officials that tracks the spread of Ebola in Liberia. 

Ultimately, I felt it best to ask Mr. duCille not to come to the Fall Workshop. But I decided to seek the advice of university officials before rescinding our invitation since I knew it would affect not only Newhouse but Syracuse University as well. Vice Chancellor Spina concurred with the decision after talking with county health officials and some local doctors. Everyone agrees that there was probably a very small risk to our students. Still, our health experts suggested an “abundance of caution” and we decided to take that advice. I was unwilling to take ANY risk where our students are concerned.

As you can imagine, Mr. duCille is not happy with us and he has made his anger and unhappiness known to fellow journalists. The Vice Chancellor and I spent last night fielding calls from the press and “defending” our decision. I hope this doesn’t have an adverse effect on the fall workshop. I feel badly about Mr. duCille but I still think we made the right decision. Meanwhile, I have invited Mr. duCille and his wife to visit us in the near future to talk about his Liberia trip and our decision to rescind his invitation. I hope he does because I think it can be a teachable moment for our students and an opportunity to hear his point of view. I know he worries that many Americans are overly fearful about the disease and that SU’s decision will contribute to those irrational fears. Journalism, we both agree, should shed light, and not perpetuate ignorance. But this was NOT a journalism decision. This was a student decision. And I reject Mr. duCille’s suggestion that our decision, made out of concern for students, faculty and staff, diminishes us as a journalism school. I know he is angry and disappointed by the decision, and I know some of you may be as well. The period of time he has been back was key for me. If it had been five or six weeks there would have been no question about it. But given the many open questions about how the disease is spread and how long the incubation lasts, I felt we had no choice but to ask Mr. duCille to visit us at a later time.

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