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Tribune adviser dismissed; some question legitimacy

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Celia Downes, Jackie Palank & Bridget Thoreson

The university will not renew the contract of Student Publications Adviser Tom Mueller for next year, according to Mueller.

Mueller, who advises The Marquette Tribune and The Marquette Journal, said College of Communication Dean Bill Elliott told him of the decision in a Thursday morning meeting. Elliott's reasons included the quality of the Tribune, citing uneven color printing as a factor, according to Mueller.

Elliott declined to comment.

Mueller has been adviser to the Tribune and Journal for nearly four years. He has taught at Marquette for nine years as an adjunct journalism instructor.

Though the decision about his contract came Thursday, Mueller said he had worried about such an action since University President the Rev. Robert A. Wild sent him a letter 13 months ago.

Wild's letter concerned a note from the journalism faculty to then-Tribune editor Libby Fry defending her decision to publish, in a November 2003 Tribune article, the name of a faculty member who contracted tuberculosis, Mueller said.

The administration "has always expressed concern" over the newspaper, Mueller said.

According to Director of University Communication Brigid O'Brien, Wild is not able to comment on personnel matters.

Other journalism faculty members said they were aware of the alleged tension between the Tribune and the administration but were surprised to hear about Elliott's decision.

The faculty "are surprised it was happening at this time, but you're aware of that tension between the paper and the university," said Jim Scotton, chair of the journalism department.

"We were pretty well shocked," said Associate Professor of Journalism Bill Thorn.

Erik Ugland, assistant professor of broadcast and electronic communication who teaches a media law course, said journalism faculty members hope the firing was not a retribution for published material.

"If (the firing) was motivated by concerns over content, then the autonomy of student media could be jeopardized," Ugland said. "But if this is not a content-related decision, then it should be treated like any other dismissal of a faculty member."

Ugland said the role of a student media adviser differs by school.

"At some universities, (advisers) review material before publication," Ugland said. "However, the more common approach is for the student media adviser to act more as a consultant than an editor—someone student editors can turn to and ask questions of."

The Tribune takes the latter approach.

"An adviser's role is to help guide the students," said Mac McKerral, immediate past president of the Society of Professional Journalists. "Advisers to student media were never intended to be people who would exercise censorship or prepublication review."

Fry said during her time on the Tribune staff, Mueller was always willing to help staff members with their questions or concerns.

"I appreciate the fact he let us make our own decisions and learn from our mistakes — keeping it a student-run newspaper," Fry said.

Mueller said when he was hired full-time, he was told only that he would teach journalism courses and advise the Tribune and Journal.

The Society of Professional Journalists is hoping to join with other national journalism organizations to investigate whether Mueller's dismissal was a form of censorship of the Tribune, according to McKerral.

"In the past when we've been contacted by advisers who have been removed from their positions, SPJ has created a taskforce to first do fact-finding and then to hopefully find ways and make recommendations for ways that the independence of the student media can be protected," McKerral said.

Over the past three years the Tribune has won three awards from the Society of Professional Journalists' national competition, as well as various local-level SPJ awards.

This article appeared in The Marquette Tribune on Feb. 1 2005.

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