SPJ weighs in behind embattled Bridgewater State adviser

Dave Copeland is a published author, an accomplished professional journalist, and a creative teacher who incorporates new-media skills into his exams.

Dave Copeland

He’s the journalism adviser that most college students wish they had.

The incoming editor-in-chief at his campus newspaper calls him “irreplaceable.”

So naturally, his employer wants to get rid of him.

SPJ President John Ensslin

On Monday, the Society of Professional Journalists weighed in with a letter to Bridgewater State University, expressing concern over the college’s apparent intent to remove Copeland as adviser to BSU’s student newspaper.

(“Apparent intent,” because the college’s only public statement has been to announce that Copeland gave notice he was resigning. Which was kind of a surprise to Copeland.)

The type of watchdog journalism 4 out of 5 college administrators prefer. (Photo by Don Bergquist, used under Creative Commons license.)

Copeland has been advising The Comment for just a year. Under his coaching, the formerly sleepy newspaper has stirred awake — not always to the liking of those in power.

The back-story of how Copeland joined the walking dead is spelled out here — but the thumbnail of it is this:

BSU’s president, Dr. Dana Mohler-Faria, blew up at Copeland and his editor-in-chief in an April 25 meeting over two articles. One — questioning the need to raise student fees when college employment rolls were declining — was unassailable, the kind of watchdog reporting that student publications should be doing.

The second was, admittedly, a tough judgment call. The newspaper covered a rape awareness rally at which a student — identifying herself publicly by name — described her own rape while attending another college. The Comment elected to publish the name, despite an outcry from angry readers who believed the story placed the student in danger of retaliation.

In his letter, the SPJ’s John Ensslin said even a mistake in editorial judgment shouldn’t be grounds for canning the adviser:

While I would not have made the same decision the student made, I’m mindful that these are student journalists who are learning the hard way about the consequences of the choices they make.

Copeland is now the Schrodinger’s Cat of journalism advisers, neither verifiably alive nor dead. He should know his fate by August — that’s when contracts for the fall semester typically are issued (he is, of course, a non-tenured adjunct on a year-to-year lease). But the Bridgewater administration shouldn’t let him and The Comment dangle until then.

As the SPLC said in an April 26 letter to President Mohler-Faria:

This provides a leadership opportunity for you and your administration – rather than taking destructive action that will set back journalism and the students you are preparing for careers – to bring about a campus-wide dialogue about sensitive issues such as the portrayal of sexual assault in the media.

(As a clinic in how to turn a First Amendment controversy into a constructive discussion that improves conditions on campus, look at how The Eagle at American University handled the backlash over a vile 2010 column that made light of date rape. With student editors taking a lead role, the campus organized public forums where everyone was forced to confront the enormity of the date-rape problem.)



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