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140 Years of The Vermont Cynic

STORY BY EAMON DUNN

PHOTOGRAPHY COURTESY THE SILVER SPECIAL COLLECTIONS LIBRARY

On any given day during the academic year, thousands of students make their way through the University of Vermont’s campus. Set against the vibrant colors of autumnal leaves, heavy piles of snow, or the sweet smell of blooming flowers, they run late to class, carrying a laptop in their tote bag and a coffee in hand. Students are there to attend class, of course, but beyond that, they also go to band practices or niche club meetings. And a collection of these students go off to report on different events or meet with a source for their latest story. They write opinion pieces or report on the university’s latest breaking news, whether it be covering a board of trustee meeting—or an article about why you should smile more. These students are the members and lifeblood of The Vermont Cynic, UVM’s student-run weekly newspaper. The publication was first introduced to the UVM community in the spring of 1883, and this year, is celebrating its 140th anniversary.


However, The Cynic we read now is very different from how it first started. Originally named The University Cynic, the publication was far from a traditional newspaper. It published poetry and pieces of literature, resembling something closer to what we might consider a literary magazine than a newspaper. (Now UVM runs student work in a separate entity, The Gist.) Among the poems and essays published in the original issues of the Cynic, there were also book reviews and a section devoted to science. In the beginning, the Cynic didn’t allow women editors to work for them. Until women were allowed to become members of the staff in 1901, they ran a separate on-campus annual publication called Women’s Number.

The Cynic’s first issue!

Additionally, these first issues had no ads. In the early 1900s, advertisements were added. Among articles about sports games and University politics, you could find advertisements for things like Turkish Cigarettes and local businesses. A number of them are still around today. The Hotel Vermont, for example, which continues to stand tall in downtown Burlington, was frequently advertised in The Cynic’s pages. For a while, before the inception of the internet and access to major news outlets, The Cynic also acted as a main source of news for the student body, covering not just campus and local news, but reporting events from across the world. The paper has also been an outlet for UVM’s community to express its grief, frustration, and hope.

During the first World War, The Cynic reported on the impact of the war on campus. One 1917 headline read, “Martial Spirit Rules University of Vermont’s 114th Commencement.” When WWI came to an end in November of 1918, The Cynic published a piece about a parade of faculty and students celebrating the coming peace. Leading up to the second World War, The Cynic published pieces about the conflict overseas and gave voice to the sense of anxiety about whether the United States would join the war or establish its separation from it. When Congress finally did declare war in December of 1941, it made the front page of the paper.


During World War II, The Cynic wrote about the conflict in almost every issue it published. One piece—echoing the advice of Dean Mary Jean Sumpson— encouraged students to buy more war

stamps. Dean Sumpson articulated that this act allowed students in Vermont to play their part in defense against the Axis powers. During the war, the university’s Athletic Department started preparing a physical program geared toward defense needs (by providing physical fitness

classes for both civilians and service men). How did the word get out? The Cynic. And finally, following the end of the war, as peace-time enrollment began to rise to the highest levels since the USA joined the Allied forces, The Cynic celebrated the return to normal by writing about the incoming class on the front page.

Over a decade later, after the assassination of JFK, the paper paid a final tribute to the president, putting a photo of him during a visit to Vermont on the front page. That week’s issue also ran various political cartoons and quotes from his time in office alongside the photo of a grieving student on campus. Later in the ‘60s, when Martin Luther King Jr. was killed, the paper ran multiple photos of him. One, on the cover, showed King in his casket, with the following question written underneath: “Did he die in vain?”


Amidst the Vietnam war, the paper published several pieces, from ROTC protests to photos of soldiers who had died in battle. The paper refused to shy away from the issues on everybody’s minds. One edition even published a photo of a Vietnamese prisoner being executed, “Apparently today’s techniques and mentalities differ little from the ways of Napoleon’s imperial forces,” the caption reads. In the ‘80s, the paper published news of Vermont receiving funding to combat the AIDS/HIV epidemic devastating the country. The Cynic also published pieces on gay liberation and when Vermont courts ruled in favor of civil union.


Following the September 11th terrorist attacks, The Cynic became an outlet for students to find resources and express their sorrow and anger. The paper published pieces directing students toward grief counselors and opinion pieces about how the attacks will impact the student body as they move forward. “Attacks End Innocence, Age a Generation,” one opinion piece is titled.


In another called, “Students Reflect During Time of Crisis,” opinion writer Ruby Ferm writes, “Our lives go on, but distracted, saddened, and angry.”


It’s in these moments of great tragedy that we see the importance of The Cynic. Whether it be to voice the immense grief of students as they process earth-shattering events or call into question the doings of their government, The Cynic has been a powerful platform for students to make themselves heard and cope with the stressors of college life and the world around us.

Of course, in addition to responding to major world news, The Cynic also reported on collegiate events, highlighting the community of UVM. For years, it ran special issues for Senior and Junior weeks, as well as running stories on the homecoming and military balls. Less grand UVM traditions also made their way into the paper. A 1936 issue of The Cynic reported on the annual fountain fight, a tradition that has since died out. Students from UVM’s sophomore and freshman classes competed in various activities and games—all in fun—to determine class supremacy. According to the article, after the fight was over, all students formed a line and started a snake dance down the hill to Church Street. For much of its time in publication, the paper also had a strong sports section.


Reports of UVM’s various athletic successes and failures often made their way onto the front pages. In a 1935 issue, before the annual grid class—a football game that determined the state championships—the sports section, headlined in big block letters, wrote, “Bury Middlebury.” The Cynic also highlighted UVM skiers, running a special “Student Ski Guide’’ when the NCAA ski finals were held in Stowe. That year, the university hoped the home-field advantage might help them secure a win. Ultimately, they placed second in the 1986 competition.


But UVM offers more than just sports. The paper also acted as an outlet for student creativity, releasing a “Fashion Supplement” featuring stoney-faced students on the cover, wearing era-appropriate colorful jackets and rigid sunglasses.


Throughout its years, the publication has placed for multiple Associated College Press awards and took the first prize for a Best of Show Award for a special edition in 2014. The Cynic has also placed for 6 and won 3 Pacemaker awards, often considered the Pulitzer Prize award equivalent of college journalism. Alumni of The Cynic have gone on to work in various journalism and media positions around the country. One of The Cynic’s most notable alumni is three-time Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Eric Lipton, who graduated from the University of Vermont in 1987 and went on to work for publications such as The New York Times and The Washington Post.

After over 100 years of print publication, this year The Cynic switched to being an entirely online publication, something it started doing in hybrid with printing in 2001. With stories published electronically consistently reaching hundreds of views, the publication still has a strong base and offers students the opportunity to have their work read by a large audience. With the switch to being entirely digital, writers have more leeway with the lengths of their pieces, which has helped foster a better working environment for all members of the staff. Yet, the barren Cynic paper stands still haunt campus, demanding we remember a physicality that will not be forgotten. However, if there’s one thing told by the story of The Cynic, it’s that the paper is always adapting. It grows and shrinks and morphs to meet the needs of the students it serves. Although it’s heading into a new chapter, the goals of the publication haven’t changed.


In the first issues of The Cynic, one editorial reads, “If the name on our cover means [anything], it means we shall honestly speak the convictions of our mind; it means all things conflicting with the interests we represent, we shall constantly and consistently combat.” And that’s what The Cynic has done in the 140 years since its inception: Provide students with an opportunity to speak their minds, express their grievances, and uplift their community.


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Eamon Dunn is a junior English major at the University of Vermont where his work won a Marion Albee Award for excellence in composition. He’s the editor of the Culture section at The Vermont Cynic and works as a tutor in the Undergraduate Writing Center.

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