Spring of discontent
Growing number of adviser firings raise concerns about the future of entire programs
Guiding an award-winning newspaper is not always enough to protect an adviser’s job – something T.R. Hanrahan at Missouri Southern State University learned the hard way.
“In April, I picked up the schedule book for ... fall of 2011, and all of my classes were listed as being taught by ‘staff,’” Hanrahan recalled. “It was almost a month after that before they actually told me. No reason was given, it was just, ‘We wanted to make a change.’”
In the five years Hanrahan advised The Chart, the paper has placed in the top 10 newspapers nationally at the Associated College Press’s Best of Show awards three times. Last year’s editor in chief, Brennan Stebbins, won the Missouri Journalist of the Year award. Hanrahan himself was the Missouri College Media Association’s 2010 Adviser of the Year. But none of these awards and accolades could protect his job.
“I didn’t all of the sudden in 12 months start to suck at my job, so it kind of stinks,” he said. “So I’m not a bad teacher, I’m not a bad adviser, and I think my students’ performance indicates that.”
College newspapers rely on advisers for guidance and support, but sometimes those advisers are in need of advice themselves. As university employees charged with ensuring students produce the highest quality work, advisers are often caught between a rock and a hard place when the threat of a sensitive story pushes them to choose sides. With a rash of adviser firings and “removals” sweeping through colleges around the country, advisers are treading carefully.
Sally Renaud, national president of College Media Advisers, said in August her organization has investigated 12 adviser removals so far this year.
“I know that anecdotally, we are overwhelmed with so many cases right now and we are always devastated because we know these people, they are our friends,” she said.
A.J. Anglin, vice president of academic affairs at Missouri Southern, said he could not comment on Hanrahan’s removal, but that there would be no major changes to the way the newspaper or the communication department is run.
“There’s limits to what I can say basically placed upon me by my administration, so I can only say so much, and that’s the rules,” said Jay Moorman, department head of communications. “It was painful to have all the stuff happen, and I’m ready to move forward.”
Although Hanrahan was not officially let go until April, he said he knew something wasn’t right and he believes the decision to fire him was made months earlier.
“I felt pressure,” he said. “I’d been called into the academic vice president’s office to discuss our policies – not content, but of course every policy he brought up was attached to a specific story. I think that the administration thought at some point that by putting a little pressure on me, I would go back to the newsroom and put pressure on [students] to back off.”
When word got out that Hanrahan was being fired, the campus reacted immediately. Students organized a Facebook group and held a cross-campus march in solidarity. The faculty senate presented him with an official proclamation of thanks. Much of the support came from students outside the staff of The Chart, which Hanrahan said may surprise others but not him.
“It was a news story, and [the staff] had to remain outside of it, so they didn’t take part in the formal demonstration,” Hanrahan said. “Instead, they had to cover it as news. But that support is coming from people who aren’t journalists by trade, but respect the First Amendment and know we tried to do the right thing. And it was very touching and gratifying.”
Despite the outpouring of support, Hanrahan was not rehired. At the moment, The Chart does not have an adviser and Hanrahan is seeking employment. He hopes to advise another student publication.
At about the same time, about 400 miles to the south, University of Texas at Tyler adviser Vanessa Curry was getting her own walking papers.
“More than anything, I think they [school administrators] were just waiting for an opportunity to get rid of me, and that opportunity came up this year,” Curry said. “They played like they were supporting the newspaper, but they don’t.”
According to Curry, she was fired after a former co-worker left the university and complained about Curry’s treatment of students during an exit interview. The new communications department chairman, Dennis Cali, conducted an investigation, but Curry felt it was incomplete.
“He got some complaints and he followed those complaints, and only interviewed [people] who had complaints against the newspaper or about me as a teacher,” Curry said. “He never spoke to the (current) students or former students that would have had something good to say about their experience at the university or at the Patriot Talon or in my classes.”
Kamren Thompson, editor in chief of the Patriot Talon newspaper last year, found that many of the attributes listed as “complaints” in Cali’s investigation were what made her a good journalism adviser and teacher.
“Ms. Curry was a hard teacher. She expected a lot of her students. She forced us to think critically and seriously examine situations to come to our own conclusions,” Thompson said. “She was there to help us learn and grow when we needed her, and she stepped back when she knew we could handle a situation. What more could you ask for in an adviser?”
But according to Donna Dickerson, interim provost and vice president for academic affairs, Curry was removed not only because of her performance as an adviser, but also waning interest in UT-Tyler’s journalism department.
“Ms. Curry’s contracts as lecturer and as student newspaper adviser were not renewed because of poor teaching evaluations and inappropriate behavior in the Patriot Talon newsroom and classrooms,” said Dickerson. “We also had a declining enrollment in journalism classes and needed fresh and dynamic leadership in that area.”
This is not the first time the school has tried to remove Curry from the newspaper. Curry said that in 2002, administrators tried to remove her from her adviser position, but did not attempt to remove her from her faculty teaching position in the communications department.
“They still don’t understand what student journalism is about. It’s not public relations for the university,” she explained. “It’s about teaching these students how to react in the real world, how to ask questions, how to be persistent about getting the answers and truth, accuracy and fairness.”
Although Curry was fired in the middle of the semester, the Patriot Talon still does not have a permanent adviser, although Dickerson said there is a temporary adviser in place and a “national search” for a new adviser, who Dickerson hopes will start in time for the fall or spring semester.
College of DuPage
Many advisers carry teaching duties on top of their role as advisers, something Cathy Stablein had done for 24 years at the College of DuPage in Glen Ellyn, Ill., as half of the two-person journalism and mass communication faculty. She said she never had trouble balancing her commitment to the student newspaper, the Courier, with her teaching duties – but school administrators thought otherwise.
“As of May 26, I was told that I would have to work on critical program review for the journalism program and that I would not have time to work on that as well as advise the newspaper,” Stablein said. “I was not asked, I was just told that ‘you will not be able to [continue advising] and you have to be out in about five days.’”
The department has seen a decrease in enrollment to the point that not all classes have the College of DuPage’s minimum number of students, although Stablein said the college has the ability to change those requirements by department and has done so in the past. Because of the decrease in enrollment, the program is being placed under critical review.
“When a school makes decisions like this, it’s a strategic plan that something has value and something doesn’t have value, so what they are doing is saying that this does not have the value that they want,” Stablein said.
Sue Martin, dean of student services, pulled Stablein from her advising duties in order to focus on refocusing the department, but Stablein was not consulted about these changes, nor were any other options presented.
“Technically there are two of us in the program, and I would think that some of those duties should be split. Perhaps the other person might have stepped up and said, ‘Sure, I’ll take more of a load because this is important to our journalism program,’” Stablein said. “But I didn’t hear those discussions, and I was not asked. I couldn’t negotiate – they’d already in effect what I call ‘hobbled’ me.”
From Stablein’s point of view, pulling her away from her advising duties and putting the department under critical review is sounding the death knell for the program.
“It is a step [toward eliminating the program]. I don’t even have to think that – it is a step,” Stablein said. “They will decide February 1 whether they think the program is viable or not. So at that point, February 1, I’m fighting to keep my job.”
The school has assigned a temporary adviser to the Courier, and has placed an advertisement for a part-time adviser to work 10 hours per week, with some work being performed over the phone or by email, a system Stablein says simply will not work.
“It’s not the hours a week, it’s how that time’s divided. The 10 hours doesn’t get divided up into 9 to 11 [every day], it’s minutes here, minutes there, something like that,” she said, adding that student editors were concerned that not having an adviser in the office would detract from their learning experience. “It will weaken the paper, it will weaken the [adviser-student] relationship, and it’s definitely not good for teaching.”
Adviser removals are more frequent occurrences than students, advisers and journalists would like, but this year brought an unusual spike over past years.
Some of these removals have been fairly “traditional.” Others, such as Johnson County Community College’s move to shift Anne Christiansen-Bullers from advising the newspaper to writing for the school’s P.R. department, are murkier: Marcus Klim, a member of Christiansen-Buller’s staff last semester, claims she was removed to hurt the paper, but administrators and the paper’s current editor-in-chief say it was an attempt to change the department while still providing Bullers with a job.
At North Carolina State University, longtime adviser Bradley Wilson was fired in August just weeks after a controversy involving an orientation publication he oversaw. Wilson’s colleagues and some student editors, however, said they don’t believe the move was in retaliation for content.
“We’d like to think in the world of academia we are a bit more protected, but in fact we are not, especially if you’re not in a faculty position,” Renaud said. “If you’re in a student affairs kind of position, you’re really susceptible to this kind of thing. You really don’t have protection.”
While the First Amendment protects against government punishment of speech, it’s not clear that a fired adviser has a viable First Amendment claim, even if the connection between the firing and students’ journalistic decisions is blatant. The Supreme Court has said that government employees cannot bring First Amendment claims for speech made in the course of their employment, because as employees, they are considered to be speaking on behalf of the government, not as individuals.
At a public university, it’s possible for students to challenge an adviser’s dismissal as a violation of their own First Amendment rights, on the grounds that the firing is meant to intimidate or handicap them in the exercise of their own free speech. This legal theory has been attempted only a few times, and the history of success is mixed. Students at New Jersey’s Ocean County College succeeded in a First Amendment challenge to the firing of their adviser, Karen Bosley, but students at Kansas State University were not as successful in bringing the same claim when their adviser, Ron Johnson, was removed.
Even in states where labor laws and tenure make adviser removals difficult, advisers say some schools are finding new ways to push them out of the way.
“I think school administrators are getting smarter about how to go after an adviser,” Hanrahan said. “It used to be just, ‘Let’s get rid of ‘em,’ and they’d leave a trail and it would lead back to an obvious content issue or something that could be established. Now they are very careful. They’ll look at little things, like does your distribution happen on time – things that your adviser may not even control.”
Although each adviser removal happens under different circumstances, Stablein said removing an experienced adviser is often a “backdoor” way to censor student newspapers.
“It is a form of censorship by saying we’re going to take away one of the important tools that you need,” Stablein said. “Long-term advisers have a lot of knowledge of the institution. Once you take somebody away from that, a new person doesn’t know that much at [that] point, so they would have to learn,” leaving the paper in a bind until the new adviser learns the ropes.
That’s exactly what Thompson suspects is happening at UT-Tyler.
“It was ingenious, really. They didn’t take the paper away, but there is no doubt in my mind they plan to hire an adviser who is less interested in freedom of the press and more interested in university propaganda,” she said. “I would imagine such a small program without a supportive adviser will essentially dissolve.”
And that can take a while, given that Missouri Southern, UT Tyler and the College of DuPage have not yet found permanent replacement advisers.
“I have to have someone in place before school starts. It might be right before school starts, it might be that week, but there will be someone in place,” Moorman said. “The Chart has a long, long historical tradition of excellence and freedom of speech, and I expect that tradition to continue. I want it to continue.”
Although Golden had similar reassurances about the future of the Patriot Talon, Curry said she has doubts about administrator support for the student press at UT-Tyler and elsewhere. She said the experience left a bad taste in her mouth about teaching and journalism.
“I’m concerned, and maybe I’m just gun-shy right now, that there isn’t a place that would hire someone with my background knowing that I’m a strong believer in student press,” she said. “Some of these students that were editors and stuff are not coming back. One of them is seriously so despondent over this that she’s rethinking her whole career... and I’m not so sure I shouldn’t talk her out of journalism.”
By Emily T. Gerston, SPLC staff writer
Fall 2011, reports