Advisers’ dismissals have had inconclusive results

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When student publication advisers are dismissed, as the Tribune's will be at the end of this academic year, the journalism program and student media can face serious challenges. In some cases, the newspaper, journalism program and staff morale improve, but in other cases dismissing an adviser under controversial circumstances damages a university's reputation.

The adviser change at Hampton University in Hampton, Va., has, accompanied by a task force, improved the newspaper, according to Talia Buford, the editor in chief of the Hampton Script.

The Script endured controversy in the fall of 2003 when JoAnn Haysbert, acting university president at the time, wanted a letter she wrote printed on the front page next to an article about a school cafeteria receiving citations for health code violations.

But the letter was moved to another part of the paper, Buford said. And as a result, the entire issue was confiscated by the university. In response, the university formed an 11-member task force, of which Buford was a part, to create an editorial policy for the newspaper. The administration had promised not to confiscate any more issues.

Buford was happy with the results.

"We got our free speech out of it," she said.

But in the process, two of the paper's three advisers were fired because "the administration wanted to start with a clean slate," Buford said.

"The administration said the advisers weren't fired for anything (the paper) did," she said, but added there was some skepticism in the newsroom.

Still, there was little bitterness, Buford said. Despite a delay to find new advisers, things have gone "fairly well," she said, and the new advisers have been helpful.

But a positive outcome like that at Hampton University does not always occur. The journalism program at Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kan. faced difficulties after the dismissal of Ron Johnson, adviser to the Kansas State Collegian, according to Sarah Rice, editor in chief at the Collegian.

In the spring of 2004, the Collegian failed to report on the Big 12 Conference on Black Student Government, raising questions about the diversity coverage at the paper, said Rice, the Collegian's then-managing editor. This led Todd Simon, then director of Kansas State's A.Q. Miller School of Journalism and Mass Communication, to evaluate the newspaper's content. Shortly after, Johnson was reassigned to teach other classes.

According to Cheryl May, director of media relations for Kansas State, Johnson wasn't reassigned due to content issues with the Collegian. Instead, May said, the tenured journalism faculty voted 7-1 not to retain Johnson as adviser, citing his poor interpersonal relationships with faculty, staff and students.

But the newspaper staff was upset that its popular adviser had been fired.

"They were already shook up with the events with the Black Student Union," Rice said. "Everyone loved Ron."

Johnson's reassignment led to criticism from journalism organizations.

College Media Advisers — which works to help student media improve their operations — censured Kansas State, and the Society of Professional Journalists put out an advisory against the school.

Because of the censures, Rice said, no adviser has yet been selected to replace Johnson, and so "advisers-in-residence," alumni of Kansas State, have filled in while the search continues.

"No adviser of quality would come here," Rice said.

The College Media Advisers censure, which discourages faculty and professors from applying to the university, will stand until the program has satisfied the organization's demands to let students produce all content without faculty review, according to Kathy Lawrence, president of College Media Advisers and director of student publications at the University of Texas in Austin.

The university needs to take steps to safeguard future advisers, according to Johnson, now an assistant professor of journalism and mass communication at Kansas State.

"Nothing's been done to protect anybody following in my footsteps," he said.

Over the last few years, newspaper advisers at Vincennes Universty in Vincennes, Ind. and Barton County Community College in Great Bend, Kan. have also been fired, and others have resigned.

Regardless of how well a newspaper fares after its adviser is fired, dismissing an adviser for content problems speaks to a disturbing trend in college media, according to Mark Goodman, executive director of the Student Press Law Center.

"It's modeling a system of journalism more reflective of pre-war Iraq than America," Goodman said. "There's always been a problem with advisers becoming scapegoats. Universities don't see the problem with punishing the adviser."

Advisers have also dealt with added pressures from universities to provide more favorable coverage of the university.

"Most pressure on the adviser is subtle, more private," Goodman said.

Part of the dispute between university and adviser lies in the adviser's role.

"Advisers are there to advise, not to review content," Lawrence said.

This article appeared in The Marquette Tribune on Feb. 8 2005.

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