Damaged student - adviser relationships require communication, patience

Adviser-student relationships can hit rough spots, especially when it comes to issues like censorship and staffing. If you've had a bad breakup with your newspaper adviser lately, though, there are ways to mend your relationship. Resources and guidelines are available for help.

Strong relationships between advisers and students are important for guiding student journalists down the right path, said College Media Advisers Executive Director Ron Spielberger.

"A good relationship is one where the students see the adviser as a trusted person," Spielberger said. "They don't necessarily come to the adviser for 'what color pens should we buy for the office,' but they come to the adviser with situations that they may have trouble determining the answer to."

Some of these situations can include questions of ethics and steering students away from potential libel. Some can include simple administrative tasks, such as handling funds for the paper. But what happens when the adviser is perceived not as a trusted ally but as adversarial to the student staff?

McPherson's 'High Life' 

Student journalists at The High Life, the student newspaper of McPherson High in McPherson, Kan., recently had a run-in with their adviser, but meetings with the principal have helped ease the conflict.

After High Life staff member Jeni Arbuckle wrote an article for publication in the paper's Sept. 11 center spread about two pregnant teens at McPherson High, adviser Todd Brittingham, hired last year by the school, pulled the article, claiming it was too controversial. Instead of filling the blank space on the page with last-minute content, Editor-in-Chief Nikki Wentling decided to leave the space blank. She explained her decision in the next issue of the paper, saying the newspaper staff would not "hesitate from reporting on important and controversial subjects" in the future.

Soon after the censorship incident, Brittingham assigned the students a series of handwritten essays on court cases about First Amendment rights for students. According to Wentling, the assignments were out of the ordinary class routine and came across to the staff as punitive."I think he was just angry so he had us do those assignments," Wentling said.

According to Wentling, disagreements over the newspaper's production cycle led to inefficiency in the newsroom. Brittingham wanted students to turn in their articles earlier than usual for publication, she said, which led to stories becoming outdated when press time rolled around.

Brittingham's behavior in the classroom has troubled the students. On Oct. 29, Brittingham placed a video camera in the room and filmed the students while they worked, student editors said. According to Arbuckle, who spends her first three hours of the day in the newspaper classroom, Brittingham came to the room 20 minutes before the first class of the day to set up a Flip camera. He put the camera on top of a stack of papers, pointed it toward the work computers, and walked away.

"We thought, that's creepy," Arbuckle said.Brittingham refused to comment.

The students have spoken to their principal, Bret McClendon, in an attempt to find solutions to the conflicts. McClendon sat down with the students and Brittingham a couple weeks after the censorship issue, and he took notes while the students asked Brittingham questions and voiced their concerns about the article, the essays on the First Amendment cases and other questions they had.

"I think the critical element [to solving a conflict] is communication," McClendon said. "Communication between the adviser and the students, between the editor and the students and between the adviser and the editor. That's the most critical thing that needs to happen."

According to Wentling, the students reached a resolution with Brittingham after this meeting. The students' relationship with Brittingham seemed to be healing, and "the tension went down for everyone," Wentling said.

The students spoke with McClendon again after the camera incident. After these meetings, McClendon and Wentling said, everything returned to normal and the paper is operating smoothly.

Clark College's 'Independent'

Over the summer of 2009, student journalists at The Independent, Clark College's student newspaper, ran into conflicts with new adviser Dee Anne Finken. Finken was brought on as adviser after the former adviser, Christina Kopinski, was denied tenure in March, a decision she is still contesting.

A staffing controversy led to the filing of disciplinary sanctions against Editor-in-Chief Audrey McDougal, Managing Editor Nick Jensen and former Lead Copy Editor Amanda Martin-Tully. McDougal could not attend an Aug. 19 job interview with Finken and a candidate for a business manager position, so she notified Finken that she was sending Jensen and Martin-Tully in her place to take notes on the meeting.

When Martin-Tully and Jensen arrived for the interview, they barely got in the newsroom before they were escorted out by security, who had been called to the room by Finken.

McDougal, Jensen and Martin-Tully were charged with violating section 1.c. of the Clark College Code of Student Conduct, which is a charge of "failure to follow instructions." All three editors were sentenced to disciplinary probation for a year.

McDougal and Martin-Tully were offered a deal in which they would write a letter to Finken and Ted Broussard, interim associate vice president of student affairs and dean of student success and retention, in exchange for having their charges dropped, said Martin-Tully and Jensen. The letter would detail how they planned to work with Finken as their adviser. Jensen was not extended this option, he said.

"It wasn't even offered to me, but I probably wouldn't have done it anyway, because I think it's ridiculous," Jensen said.

McDougal wrote the letter and had her charge dropped and purged from her record. Martin-Tully agreed to a compromise under which all charges were to be expunged at the end of the semester. Jensen appealed his charge.

Finken's relationship with her staff is mixed, Jensen said. According to Jensen, the new staff members get along well with her, and older staff members are somewhat indifferent. Jensen described the newsroom as "sort of an icy, polite workplace."

"There haven't been big issues, but it hasn't been all cuddles and rainbows either," Jensen said.

Jensen said the paper got off to a slow start publishing this quarter. McDougal said that the paper has been operating fairly smoothly since then.

According to Finken, her relationship with the staff is going well with the exception of three students.

Accounts of the reconciliation process after the incident differ. Finken said she made attempts to sit down and talk to the students. Martin-Tully said that though she and Finken exchanged a few e-mails after the incident, Finken never responded to Martin-Tully's letter of resignation from her editorial position.

Martin-Tully resigned her position and transferred to Portland State University because she was not taking enough credits at Clark to qualify her for her salaried position on the newspaper. McDougal and Jensen also plan to transfer. Jensen and McDougal said they are not returning to the Independent at the end of the quarter.

"I only have so much time left [at Clark], and I don't want to spend it at that paper with that kind of environment," Jensen said. "I told [Kopinski] I would stay at the paper as long as I am going to Clark, but that's not the case anymore."

On the mend

Conflicts with advisers can be difficult to resolve. As Mike Hiestand, legal consultant to the Student Press Law Center said, finding a solution is up to students, since the adviser is not available for help.

"I think it's completely up to the students because in most of these cases the adviser isn't going to do it," Hiestand said. "She's the problem or he's the problem."

Students can improve their relationship with their adviser through increased communication. According to John Bowen, chair of the Journalism Education Association Scholastic Press Rights Commission, if students try to understand their adviser's point of view and remain open to discussion, they might be able to reach a compromise or solution.

"Honest communication can and has headed off conflict," Bowen wrote in an e-mail. "Students need to try to understand problems an adviser might face: threat of job loss, lack of time or information about the issue at hand. Sometimes conflict can be resolved through discussion and understanding."

Bowen said it is important for students and advisers to talk through issues and keep each other informed. He said conflicts can be avoided by developing trust between the adviser and the students.

"[Students] need to help advisers understand the importance of the stories they select and what help they need," Bowen wrote. "They need to know their advisers trust them, and they need to trust their advisers. That trust develops when all parties communicate and share concerns."

Sometimes the problem lies with the adviser's background and training, Hiestand said. If the adviser does not have training in journalism or journalism education, they may not be able to successfully connect with their students. Sometimes, Hiestand said, schools do not check the journalism education that a teacher has before they place that person in the adviser position.

"Almost always when you're in these situations, you find that they don't have any [teacher with journalism background]," Hiestand said. "They were maybe the newly hired chemistry teacher, and nobody else wanted to teach newspaper, so they just got dumped in it as the new hire."

Students may be able to help their adviser settle into the role by discussing with them the adviser codes of ethics of the College Media Advisers and Journalism Education Association. Sometimes, Hiestand said, advisers just don't understand what they are doing, and becoming familiar with codes of ethics and expectations for advisers may help.

If the adviser is aware of what their actions entail, then students may be able to pursue legal action.

According to Hiestand, the law at the college level is generally more protective of student rights than is the law at the high school level. Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier, a 1988 U.S. Supreme Court decision concerning administrative control over student publications, has placed some limitations on student journalists' rights at public high schools, but it said nothing about public universities.

"The law at the college level is pretty crystal clear that student editors have the right to make their own editorial decisions and all school officials, including advisers, have to keep their hands off," Hiestand said.

Bowen noted that staying informed about their legal rights can help student journalists if they run into trouble with their adviser or their administration.

"Students can ensure their own freedoms by knowing the law and how to apply it to various situations," Bowen wrote.

Talking things through with advisers and giving them resources for assistance have proven to offer the greatest chance for reconciliation.

"If you can in any way work this thing out by sitting down and talking, that is by far the preferable solution," Hiestand said. "I mean, advisers, students, there's kind of a co-dependency there. They're going to be in the newsroom and boy, it certainly is nicer to have a friend, a supportive person in the newsroom than it is somebody who you're always looking at twice, kind of wondering what they're up to."

advisers, reports, Winter 2009-10