By Jose Patino Girona
The visiting journalists from Africa were set to arrive at the St. Petersburg campus on Oct. 31 for a five-day visit. ASSOCIATED PRESS FILE PHOTO
TAMPA, FLORIDA — The University of South Florida St. Petersburg has reversed its agreement to host 14 journalists from countries in Africa because of concerns about Ebola.
The journalists had been invited by the U.S. State Department to learn about journalism in the United States.
The university has hosted the program — called the Edward R. Murrow Program for Journalists — since 2009. The decision not to host the students this year was made on Friday and announced later in the day in a letter to faculty, staff and students from Han Reichgelt, the university’s regional vice-chancellor for academic affairs.
Reichgelt said students and faculty had expressed concerns about the university hosting someone from Africa in light of the outbreak of Ebola in West Africa. That fear, he said, would ultimately translate into the visiting journalists not getting the attention and experience they have received in past years, he said.
In the letter, the vice chancellor wrote that, “We cancelled out of upmost (sic) caution due to concerns about transmission of Ebola virus, which has proved fatal for more than 50 percent of the people who have been infected. The CDC has declared these outbreaks of Ebola as the largest and most complex in history.’’
Reichgelt said he was “a bit surprised” with the reservation from the faculty and students. He said he personally felt comfortable with the steps that African nations, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other agencies had put in place to combat the spread of the Ebola virus.
However, faculty and students were still worried, Reichgelt said. Because the program depends on volunteers from the faculty and students, it would have been difficult for it to successfully work at the same level as previous years, he said.
“That would have been unfair to the visiting journalists if we put out a second-rate program,” Reichgelt said.
Reichgelt said the university also was pressed for time on making a decision. The visiting journalists from Africa were set to arrive in St. Petersburg on Oct. 31 for a five-day visit and the State Department needed an answer on whether the university was going to host the journalists.
Most of the students were coming from parts of Africa that have not had Ebola outbreaks, Reichgelt said. Two journalists, though, were coming from Liberia and Sierra Leone, two West African countries at the epicenter of the current Ebola outbreak, and another was coming from Nigeria, which has had some cases of Ebola, but not in the last seven weeks.
After the university decided on Friday not to host the students, the State Department asked over the weekend if the university would reverse its decision if the journalists from Liberia and Sierra Leone would opt out of the program, Reichgelt said.
The faculty and students still weren’t comfortable, Reichgelt said.
The United States Department of State’s Edward R. Murrow Program for Journalists was started in 2006 and has brought in more than 1,000 foreign journalists to the United States, according to the state department website. The program offers an opportunity for the foreign journalists to learn about the practice of journalism in the U.S. by attending seminars and other activities.
Universities involved in the program include Arizona State University, Syracuse University, the University of Georgia, the University of Minnesota, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the University of Oklahoma.
Reichgelt said it was a difficult decision for the administration to make.
“We are proud of what we’ve done with the Murrow program,” Reichgelt said. “That is where the sadness comes in.”
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