Commentary: Resignation of student media director brings with it bigger problems

Ryan Cortes

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Ryan Cortes. Photo by Charles Pratt.

Yesterday, FAU’s student media director resigned.

He told me and a half-dozen others in an impromptu meeting that started off in silence — because Gaede’s boss wasn’t there.  Associate Dean of Students Terry Mena is running late. As usual.

Michael Gaede. Photo courtesy of Media Relations.

I’m sitting around a table with the TV station manager and a couple advisers. It’s quiet and awkward and uncomfortable, but to break the tension Gaede’s just passed out his resignation letter. You can tell he wrote it because it’s filled with Gaedeisms like ‘Adminisphere.’ He even talks to himself — in his letter.

“I said to myself, ‘self, you can do this.’ I should have listened to the angel on the other shoulder.”

While we wait, Gaede fills the room with more Gaedeisms:

“My friend Ken Baker is the publisher of the Moville Record and he has a saying above his desk: If I don’t piss off one person today, I’m not doing my job. And I kind of live by that,” Gaede says. “But I got to the point where there was maybe five or six people pissed off and I didn’t know how to handle that.”

Gaede’s fun and quirky and silly. Sit with him long enough and you’re bound to hear a dirty joke. You’ll laugh, I promise. Mena’s rigid and presidential and serious. Sit with him long enough and you might have to fill out paperwork. You’ll laugh, I promise. They don’t get along. Yes, Mena’s one of those five or six people.

So he strolls in and smiles.

And we’re off.

Mena begins, saying he’s going to step into Gaede’s position on an interim level, “pending the next steps of…” He keeps talking and I keep asking. But I don’t really care for his reasons. I care about Gaede, sitting and staring silently as his boss writes the history of it all. It’s easy to see why Gaede really quit. When he starts talking, he tries to explain it away: hates the heat, misses teaching, misses the grandkids, on and on.

I buy all of those reasons. I’ve been in his office, Gaede hunched over coughing like a crazed smoker, and I know he misses his family up north, and damn if he’s not a good teacher. I’ve seen it.

But that’s not exactly why he quit.

No, I found out why he really quit when he and I sat in the Union’s loading dock out back after the meeting. Our legs were dangling over the ledge and I was listening.

“The more I thought about it, the more I realized that I’m not the best fit for this,” he says, adding that he thought they were looking for “somebody with a little journalism education, knows the process, newsflow — but they’re really Student Affairs administrators.”

Terry Mena. Photo courtesy of Media Relations.

That’s interesting, given that before Gaede was hired, Mena was on record saying he wanted someone with print experience, with time spent in a newsroom, maybe even with some TV or radio work in the past. Not an administrator, in other words.

“I just wish I was a better administrator,” Gaede says. “I’m just not. I mean, it’s the wrong fit. I thought I could give it a shot.”

In his letter to us, Gaede mentioned that he’d written, reported, produced and managed in a TV newsroom since 1977. “It is light years away from the functions of this current job,” it reads, “and frankly, I’m not very good at it. So, it is time for a change for me.”

That’s because the job he signed up for wasn’t exactly, well, what he signed up for.

“I came in and they just went, Boom, here you go,” Gaede tells me. “And within three months — I really should have done this in October or November — I realized that I’m not going to be able to keep up here.”

But he waited and waited. December into January into February, and, he thought, progress would be near, things would change.

“The reason maybe I waited this long was I thought maybe something would click. Ah, ha. Here’s the way you do this. But I would start on something and they’d go, no, you have to do it this way.”

He stops and looks at me.

“Honest to God, Ryan, I didn’t get it,” he says. “At a certain point it was at a level where I’m not at. You know, people like Terry Mena, he’s a fucking genius at this shit. But I wouldn’t put him in the newsroom for two seconds.”

To be fair, when I ask Gaede if he feels misled, if the job was misrepresented to him, he shows pause.

“Maybe slightly,” he says. “I didn’t realize it was going to be that administrative, but you know when you’re getting a job you talk yourself into shit. I had no idea that the crash of that shit would be so intense.”

I was confused after all of it. First, Mena wants his student media director to be a newsroom veteran, then Gaede says his role wasn’t anything like that. So I called Frank LoMonte, the executive director of the Student Press Law Center. He’d advised the UP throughout the years, before Gaede even got here. What’s the job really require?

“A background in student affairs is not necessarily important at all to run student media because you’ll have plenty of oversight from other student affairs professionals,” he said. “What you need is someone who gets the unique culture of a newsroom. You need someone who is attuned to the fact that a news operation is fundamentally different from the chess club.”

And so now for the second time in two years Mena’s been appointed as the interim director — until next year when someone else quits — but here’s the interesting part: It may be his last.

The UP reported in April that Mena was a finalist for the Dean of Students job at the University of Colorado. He’s up for the same spot at Iowa State University. You can’t begrudge him for it — it’s a promotion and he deserves to go if chosen — but you can begrudge him for this exchange, something that happened in our meeting earlier, something I can’t get out of my head.

Me: Did you guys talk at all about you leaving? I know you’ve applied elsewhere — if you leave, what happens?

Mena: That’s a good question. We can only play on what’s available at this time.

Me: But did that topic come up at all?

Mena: Not at all. Because ultimately I’m here and once I….and I, as I’ve always told my staff, the minute I do find out that me, myself as moving in a different direction I will let you all know sooner than later. My direction has not moved and I plan to be here.

Oof.

Something else LoMonte said stuck with me:

“You want to look at where people are going from your operation,” he said. “If people are being grabbed up and hired away from bigger programs, that’s a good sign. But if people are just leaving because they’re just disenchanted with the working conditions then that is indicative of bigger problems.”

And let that be the real history of it all.