New York Times suspends student travel program with Putney company

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Putney Student Travel director Jeff Shumlin appears in a webinar describing the company’s opportunities for students in 2021. YouTube/Putney Student Travel

The New York Times has suspended a pricey program led by Putney Student Travel, the southern Vermont company that sends young people on trips around the world.

The partnership has played a minor role in a major media story that has played out since the Daily Beast reported in January that star New York Times reporter Donald McNeil Jr. used racist and sexist language during a 2019 trip to Peru. The expedition was part of the Times’ Student Journeys program, which pairs college students with a reporter from the newspaper, and is organized by Putney Student Travel.

McNeil, a science correspondent who led the Times’ coverage of the coronavirus pandemic, resigned earlier this month after facing public reprimands from his colleagues and bosses over his alleged conduct during the trip. 

On Sunday, Times media columnist Ben Smith reported that the Student Journeys program — already on hiatus due to the pandemic — would not resume next year, though it was not clear whether the decision was related to the McNeil incident. 

Eileen Murphy, senior vice president of corporate communications for the Times, told VTDigger, “We made the decision last fall to discontinue our Student Journeys program.”

Putney Student Travel director Jeff Shumlin declined to discuss the McNeil episode, saying only that the company still had a contract in place with the Times and that he hoped to work with the newspaper in the future, although there are no immediate plans to do so.

“It was not huge, but growing,” he said of the Times collaboration. “We hate to lose it, but I can’t really comment on how or why they cancelled, or if they have even cancelled. It’s a New York Times issue.”

According to Shumlin, Putney’s other expert-guided programs, which feature staff from the Smithsonian Institution, Harvard University and National Geographic, will continue.

The 70-year-old Putney Student Travel has been sending students around the globe since 1951, when its journeys included a 10-day ocean crossing by steamship and a tour of

VTDigger is underwritten by:

Switzerland, Italy, France and Holland. The company was founded by the parents of Shumlin and his brother, former Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin.

Putney has recently capitalized on the thirst for experiential adventures that are seen as a bonus for college applications, and nowadays its trips for middle-school and high-school students offer exposure to foreign language and service as well as basic exploration. A three-week community volunteering trip this summer in Fiji for high-schoolers costs $5,390, plus airfare.

The Times started its travel program for adults in 2012 and started working with teenagers in 2019, the newspaper reported. The New York Times partnered in 2019 with Putney on

history trips with themes such as “Israel and Jordan: Conflict and Peace”; “Iceland:

Energy and Climate Change at the Arctic Circle”; and “D.C. to Houston: Aerospace Technology and Space Exploration.”

Putney Student Travel ran some programs last summer in Vermont and now has gap year programs for college students underway, including some overseas trips this spring and summer. 

A federal Paycheck Protection Program loan last year, and another this year, have helped the school survive, according to Jeff Shumlin. This year, the school has added travel programs with experts from the Smithsonian to its roster. They’ll go ahead if the pandemic begins to subside.

“It’s going to be a slow build back to normal as it is for everybody,” said Shumlin.

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