Adviser group censures Western Oregon University over concerns for student media, administration relations

OREGON -- The College Media Advisers board of directors voted this month to censure Western Oregon University in Monmouth, Ore., for its dismissal of a former student newspaper adviser.

In a Jan. 12 letter sent to WOU President John Minahan, CMA President Ken Rosenauer wrote that the CMA, a national association that supports student media professionals, voted to censure after attempts to work with the university were rebuffed. Censure is the most severe action the CMA takes to reprimand an institution deemed hostile to students' free expression and to media advisers.

"Unfortunately, while President Minahan had seemed open and willing to cooperate and let us help them to better define the role of student media and advisers on their campus, he got to a point where he simply refused to talk with our adviser advocate," Rosenauer said.

Rosenauer said he hasn't heard from the university since the censure.

"Western Oregon University feels the issue has been resolved and has no further comment," Minahan said in an e-mail.

The censure stems from the dismissal of Western Oregon Journal adviser Susan Wickstrom in August 2007 after the paper reported about an online security breach. New copy editor Blair Loving came across a file on the university's public network that included sensitive student information -- including Social Security numbers and names -- and brought a copy of the file to the Journal. The newspaper staff informed the university of the security breach and published a story about it.

University officials searched the student newspaper's newsroom after hours without informing the staff and threatened Loving with expulsion for downloading the file in violation of the Computer Use Policy. For allowing the newspaper staff to keep a copy of the file in her locked office, Wickstrom's contract was not renewed.

There's no simple checklist for removing the censure, Rosenauer said. Since Wickstrom isn't interested in getting her position back, the issue comes down to policy and procedure.

"We're concerned about future advisers as they come into that job and that environment," he said.

The CMA first sent a letter to the university in January 2008 requesting that a CMA team be allowed to help develop governing documents for the student media and written guidelines for the adviser's duties. A formal letter of concern was sent in June.

Journal adviser Shelby Case said he'd like to have the CMA come to the campus to work with the newspaper. He started the job in September 2008 knowing it would be a year of transitions and rebuilding trust between the newspaper and administration.

"Bottom line, it's a transitional process, it's a healing process, so I'm hoping we can work with people and try to cooperate," he said.

An ad-hoc committee organized by the university following additional conflicts also recommended a review of student media policies.

"In short, there is a dysfunctional relationship between the student newspaper and the college administration," the committee wrote in April. The report concluded "the University administration responded ineptly and in a heavy-handed manner," but found no violations of First Amendment rights.

That is the kind of perspective the CMA hopes to change, Rosenauer said, because there is a First Amendment issue whenever university actions -- such as searching newsrooms or threatening advisers' jobs -- chill the free press environment.

"The shift in policy and procedure should reflect a change in attitude as well, that the university understands and appreciates First Amendment freedoms and how those freedoms should allow for an appropriate investigation such as the students there conducted," he said.

Since losing her position at WOU, Wickstrom has been freelancing while looking for a new job.

"I can't understand why WOU wouldn't want to work with the CMA, since the CMA sets the standard for every other Oregon public university -- the private colleges as well," she wrote in an e-mail. "I hope the best for them, especially the WOU students who are trying to make journalism a part of their education."

For More Information: 

  • CMA issues 'letter of concern' about student media at W. Oregon News Flash, 6/16/2008
  • Changes to Western Oregon media board on hold after editor's public plea News Flash, 10/5/2007
  • School searches newsroom Winter 2007-08 Report
  • Student reporter who discovered university security breach punished but not expelled News Flash, 10/5/2007

  • Ore., College Media Advisers, Monmouth, news, Oregon, Western Oregon Journal, Western Oregon University