Durham County

Duke has another union problem. What's behind this one?

A news industry union wants Duke University to cut ties with one of its alumni.
A news industry union wants Duke University to cut ties with one of its alumni. rgronberg@heraldsun.com

Duke University is facing union pressure to cut ties with an alumnus whose family helped pay for the construction and operation of its center for Jewish life.

So far, campus administrators have brushed off the NewsGuild-CWA, which represents workers at one of the country's largest newspaper chains, Digital First Media. The union campaign targets 2002 alumnus Heath Freeman, a former Duke football team placekicker who's gone on to run a New York City-based hedge fund, Alden Global Capital, that controls Digital First.

Union President Bernie Lunzer first wrote Duke President Vince Price on Jan. 10, asking then for a meeting "to discuss the implications of the university's continued cooperation" with Freeman given the job cuts the hedge fund has imposed at Digital First's papers.

Price responded via Vice President for Public Affairs and Government Relations Michael Schoenfeld, who on Jan. 18 wrote Lunzer to point out that Duke itself "is not affiliated with" Alden Global Capital, Digital First, or any of the chain's newspapers. He suggested pursuing the matter with them.

Campus officials haven't changed their position since, even after Lunzer wrote back on Jan. 31 to say their response "does a disservice to Duke University" and that "continued cooperation" with Freeman "risks damaging the reputation" of the institution.

"That short and succinct letter stands as our comment," Schoenfeld said recently, confirming that his Jan. 18 response to Lunzer remains the university's position. "If anybody has an issue with a particular company, they need to take it up with the company."

Lunzer's counter, aside from complaining about the university's position, upped the ante by asking Price to push Freeman to resign from the Advisory Board on Jewish Life at Duke and to consider returning his most recent contribution.

Citing otherwise unrelated controversies involving the University of Colorado's medical school, Vanderbilt University and the University of Southern California, Lunzer said there's ample precedent for a university to impose "an ethical requirement on the donor that [his or her] behavior be consistent with its own mission."

The union's beef with Freeman is clear enough, as Digital First has laid off staff by the score at papers like the Denver Post, the San Jose Mercury News and the Orange County Register, and is about to do likewise at the Boston Herald.

The newspaper industry in general is struggling financially because of the Internet-driven collapse of the market for print advertising, but the NewsGuild argues that Alden Global and Digital First are a special and egregious case.

The union contends Alden has no business plan for its properties other than extracting as much cash from them as possible, using staff cuts to prop up profits until it can sell its media holdings early next decade.

That sets it apart from other companies that are trying to "innovate, discover new revenue streams and generally work to find ways to make their newspapers survive," union activists said in Web posting.

Heath Freeman was the last of a trio of Freeman family children to attend Duke in the 1990s and early 2000s.

While he was still an undergraduate, his parents bankrolled the construction of what's now the Freeman Center for Jewish Life, on Faber Street between Duke's West and East campuses. The building opened in 1999.

Heath Freeman has chaired the Jewish Life advisory board, and according to one campus report contributed more than $18,000 to the program in fiscal 2016-17.

Lunzer's initial letter to Price alluded to the Freeman family as a whole, but his second honed in on Heath Freeman specifically and did not ask the university to cut ties with other members of the family.

The union president argued that Heath Freeman's actions in the news industry essentially undermine the work of the DeWitt Wallace Center for Media & Democracy, an arm of the Sanford School of Public Policy that serves as Duke's "hub for the study of journalism."

The Wallace Center says it exists among other things to "support watchdog and accountability reporting in the U.S. and around the world."

NewsGuild officials couldn't be reached for comment, so it's not clear what their next move is beyond publicizing the dispute and their broader complaints.

Duke is no stranger to dealing with unions, as portions of both its staff and faculty belong to unions and have contracts with the university.

It's also used to dealing with controversial alumni, among them such present-day figures as White House adviser Stephen Miller and Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens.

Ray Gronberg: 919-419-6648, @rcgronberg