A top Northern Michigan University administrator used private meetings to convince board members of the student newspaper to not fund an open records request seeking his e-mails, student journalists at the Marquette school allege.

Steve Neiheisel, the university’s vice president for enrollment and student services, denies those charges and said he didn’t know the records request would come before the board when he scheduled the private meetings.

But e-mails shared with the Detroit Free Press show there was discussion about the need for board action for about a month prior to the meeting.

Disagreements about what happened in those private meetings is the latest controversy surrounding the North Wind student newspaper. For much of the past year, it has been battling with the school’s administration over its coverage. That fighting reached its peak earlier this month when the newspaper’s board refused to rehire Cheryl Reed, the paper’s adviser, for next school year.

The student journalists and Reed claim the private meetings are just another example of the administration trying to squelch tough reporting.

This particular fight started back in the late fall, when student editor Emma Finkbeiner sent an open records request to the university seeking e-mails about the student paper from Neiheisel and other administrators and faculty.

The university came back with a fee of more than $600 for the records, sparking a series of discussions about paying for the records.

A board, made up of five students, Reed, Neiheisel, a faculty member and a community member, is in charge of the finances of the board and hires employees.

In mid-December, Reed sent the board a series of e-mails looking for funds to pay for the request, but nothing had been decided by the time students went on holiday break.

When they came back, Neiheisel’s administrative assistant sent the five student members of the board e-mails asking them for a 30-minute private meeting. The e-mails were sent on Jan. 12.

“He did not talk about the FOIA vote since the vote had not been discussed or on an agenda yet,” university spokesman Derek Hall told the Free Press in an e-mail. “He did not encourage, influence or pressure them in any direction on any topic.”

E-mail records paint a different picture.

According to e-mails shared with the Free Press, there were discussions on Jan. 13 about the need for the records request to be paid.

“Emma and I both informed you about needing to vote on the FOIA money,” Reed e-mailed board chairwoman Aubrey Kall, a student, late on Jan. 13. Neiheisel was copied on the e-mail. “The purpose of this board is not to stymie news gathering but to facilitate that. By delaying these issues, you are causing severe and serious stoppage of news gathering and possible demise of timely materials as part of reporting.”

Four of the five student board members sent the Free Press a joint statement on the meetings.

“Did we meet with Dr. Neiheisel in January? Yes. These meetings have been mischaracterized by a fellow student board member, the North Wind staff, and the journalistic advisor. We were given a copy of the bylaws, with some members receiving them for the first time, and we discussed our role as board members. We were not told how to vote on the FOIA request.

“Did an administrator influence our vote? No. Each of us made up our own minds. We are independent thinkers. We take issue with how our fellow student board member and the North Wind have characterized us as easily influenced, poorly informed, and impressionable.”

The fifth student board member, Mary Malaske, told the North Wind in an interview for a story last week, Neiheisel told her to vote against the open records request and spoke critically against Reed.

Malaske couldn’t be reached for comment by the Free Press.

The board eventually voted against paying the fees. Neiheisel voted against paying for the records, without mentioning some of the e-mails were from him. There was nothing included in the e-mails provided to the Free Press showing what they talked about or showing that Neiheisel told the students to vote no.

“Hindsight, abstaining would have been the best option,” university spokesman Hall said. “The vote result would have remained the same had he abstained.”

Reed said it’s all part of a pattern.

“It’s disconcerting that a university vice president and board member would engage in such clandestine meetings, never discuss these meetings before the board and then, according to student board member Mary Malaske, engage in disparaging comments about the journalistic adviser and the paper’s pursuit of public documents,” Reed told the Free Press. “To call a Freedom of Information Act request a waste of time and money, as he has been quoted, demonstrates a complete lack of understanding of the role of the newspaper and of a public university’s responsibility to act with transparency.”

Contact David Jesse: 313-222-8851 or djesse@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter: @reporterdavidj