On March 11, days before the first COVID-19 case arrived in Allegheny County, the University of Pittsburgh, Penn State, Carnegie Mellon and Duquesne University all declared that brick-and-mortar classes would be taught in an online format to keep large groups of students from gathering in the classroom setting in order to slow the spread of COVID-19.
Although the university had previously sent out emails regarding the virus, Point Park’s social media and mass emails remained silent regarding COVID-19 on March 11.
Around 5:30 p.m., Student Government Association (SGA) president Jake Berlin sent out a tweet on his public account, @PresJakeBerlin, stating the following,
“!!BREAKING!! Source confirms Point Park University will close as precaution for coronavirus COVID-19. No cases known on campus or in Pittsburgh. Classes will be moved to online format. Email announcement to be sent ‘Very soon.’”
This tweet was soon paired with a follow-up tweet stating: “This tweet is all of the information that I currently have…I am a journalism senior and made sure that multiple sources were thoroughly vetted before reporting anything…After meeting every day for the past week to discuss this, PPU has an obligation to inform us about housing.”
Point Park did not announce their decision on the cancellation of in person classes due to the coronavirus until the following morning at 9:40 a.m., when the president’s office sent out an email stating that classes would be closed for a brief time and then would return in an online format until the end of the semester.
Berlin revealed that he received two phone calls from Dean of Students Keith Paylo, telling him that if he did not cease contact with the students, he would be given a student conduct notice.
The Globe contacted Paylo, but he declined to comment on the situation and Berlin’s claims, and he referred all questions to Lou Corsaro, the managing director of Point Park’s public relations.
Corsaro responded with the following statement in regards to Berlin’s claim against Paylo:
“Point Park staff is working around the clock to make sure our campus community is safe, and that we are following guidance from federal, state and local governments. Managing all the different moving parts during a worldwide crisis like this takes an extraordinary commitment from students, faculty and staff. That is what we are focused on.”
On March 13, Berlin followed this up by announcing on Twitter that he had been given a student conduct notice regarding his communication with the students. The tweet read:
“Residents are without their REs. COPA and comm lack the infrastructure to complete their classes. Questions about commencement are rampant. Despite the chaos, Point Park has decided to spend its time giving me a Conduct Violation- for accurately reporting that the school was closing.”
Paired with the tweet was a screenshot of a student conduct notice, alleging that Jake “used social media in a manner that caused unnecessary stress to the university.”
The conduct notices that Berlin was charged with are as follows:
3i:Oper.- Operational Obstruction
Intentionally obstructs the operation and functions of the university.
Violates any other published university policy or regulation.
3l:Oper.- Conduct Unbecoming
Exhibits conduct unbecoming of a university student.
In the letter, it clarifies that the policy broken in his second charge was the university’s “Freedom of Expression” policy, which states: “Point Park University reserves the right to review a computer user’s individual home page for appropriate content. Content should reflect the mission, vision and standards of the university. The information posted must not be represented as an official opinion or viewpoint of Point Park University.”
Berlin’s tweets did not go without criticism or praise. Krist Munoz-Malave, a junior cinema production major, understood Berlin’s actions, but didn’t necessarily agree with his practice
“I think the president could easily say ‘I could have provided more information and I could have waited, but I felt like it was more important for the students to know,’” Munoz-Malave said. “I understand that and I sympathize with it, I just don’t necessarily agree with the idea of ignoring the fact that your actions have consequences.”
Munoz-Malave also spoke on Berlin’s very public handling of his student conduct violation on Twitter.
“I feel like right now is a national pandemic and President Jake Berlin is making it about himself,” Munoz-Malave said. “In the place of a national emergency, it just might be the time to take a back seat.”
Madison Mitchell, a freshman information technology major, thought Berlin was well within his right to share this information for the sake of student peace of mind.
“At face value it didn’t really look that great because why is a student saying something about the university? Where are his facts coming from?” Mitchell said. “After knowing the story a lot more, it was clear that this was like a moral issue of the university knowing that they were going to be closing and various people knowing about this but the university deciding to wait for absolutely no reason besides ‘Let’s wait.’ I think that he was completely right for making the twitter post and informing students.”
Mitchell also noted that this wasn’t the first time she had seen people offering information about the university’s closing before the university does. While she also received information from an international student hinting that Point Park closing the dorms was becoming more likely, she also referenced a post on a Point Park Parents page that had been screenshotted and shared among students.
In the post, a parent of a student tells the group that a housing employee advised her to start making plans for moving students out. This was posted before the university came forth with the information that they would be closing the dorms. The original author of the post was reached out to, but declined to comment.
In a statement sent to The Globe after his post-hearing interview, Berlin stated the following regarding his student conduct meeting held with JW Tabacchi, Director of Student Development:
“My phone call with JW [Tabacchi] devolved into bizarre, irrelevant comments which I feel were aimed to personally attack me (‘Your Constitution, which you still haven’t changed from USG…’). He said my tweet ‘pulled a mother away from her toddler as she had to deal with’ my post…He said, ‘People do not view you as a journalist,’ and ‘You have no information.’ I am most concerned with his assertion that I fabricated my reporting, as he said ‘I think you’re lying. I think you’re using your journalistic integrity to be a liar.’”
The Globe reached out to Tabacchi regarding Berlin’s claims, and he too requested all media inquiries go through Corsaro.
Corsaro gave The Globe the same response as he gave when previously asked about Berlin’s claims against Paylo.
At the time of The Globe’s publication, Berlin had requested an appeal to the warning he received at the end of his student conduct hearing. In his request email, the two following statements were also provided regarding the tweets and student conduct hearing:
“My discussion with JW [Tabacchi] was focused on semantics like ‘the definition of the word ‘closing’’ and ‘the extent to which the university is still operating.’ I think this conversation between us could be used to productively address campus issues such as political/media relations, the role of the president, and the role of student journalists…I have spoken to multiple journalism professors who believe I acted ethically and responsibly. This unnecessary blame is going to cause more frustration across the campus community, and I think we all would appreciate a swift resolution,” Berlin said.