Missouri student newspaper that uncovered university’s ‘improper’severance contract to receive press freedom award
ARLINGTON, Va. — The student newspaper staff of a Missouri universitythat ignored intimidation and threats touncover the details of a lavish $620,000 contract given to their formeruniversity president has been named a recipient ofthe 2000 Scholastic Press Freedom Award.
Representatives of the staff of the Muleskinner,the student newspaperat Central Missouri State University, inWarrensburg, will be presented the award at the Associated CollegiatePress/College Media Advisers national conventionin Washington, D.C., on Saturday, Nov. 11.
The award, sponsored by the Student Press Law Center and the NationalScholastic Press Association/AssociatedCollegiate Press,is given each year to the high school or college student journalist orstudent news medium that hasdemonstrated outstanding support for the free press rights of students.
The Muleskinner’sbattle started after it sought access to thecontract that the CMSU Board of Governors signed with EdElliott, the school’s retiring president. After noting that some provisionsin the contract appeared unusual, the newspaperstaff filed several requests for information under Missouri’s open-recordslaw. They then spent days sifting through thepages of university documents they received and ultimately publisheda series of stories that caught the attention of peopleacross the state.
Their research revealed that Elliot was to be paid $621,000 over threeyears for fundraising and other work, despite the facthe was given a leave of absence for the first of those three years.The severance contract also provided Elliott with healthinsurance for him and his wife (including all-expenses paid trips tothe Mayo Clinic for annual physicals), the purchaseand expenses (including fuel) for a new $40,000 automobile (which Elliotwould be allowed to purchase for $4,000 at theend of three years), a fully equipped office with a $15,000 budgetand a secretary, computers for his home to be upgradedevery year that would become his property at the end of his contractand a one-year, renewable, unrestricted $77,000 traveland entertainment allowance.
As part of its coverage, the newspaper published the full contract onits Web site.
The more the Muleskinnerstaff dug into the story, the less cooperativeand more openly hostile school officials became.University officials denounced student reporters in public meetings,threatened their adviser and refused to answerquestions in interviews. As a result, Muleskinnerreporters begansending questions to board members by certified mail.
On one occasion, a board member recognized one of the reporters at thepost office and loudly berated her for wasting histime.
As the pressure grew, the Muleskinnerpublished editorials emphasizingthe importance of free statement for all studentson the CMSU campus.
Based on the Muleskinner’scoverage of the former president’scontract, the state auditor examined CMSU’s records andfound a number of “improper compensation and perquisites” in Elliott’scontract.
Missouri State Auditor Claire McCaskill praised the staff of the Muleskinnerfortheir work.
“I am pleased college newspaper reporters see it as their job to watchwhat’s going on with their university’s finances,”McCaskill told the St. Louis Journalism Review.“The contractwas excessively generous for Mr. Elliott. I have never,ever seen a contract like this in which the spouse [of a former employee]is entitled to so many benefits.”
In August 2000, the CMSU Board of Governors voted 4-3 to void Elliott’scontract.
Despite its reporting achievements, the newspaper’s success has notall been sweet. Shortly after the story about thepresident’s contract broke, university officials told the Muleskinner’sadviserthat it would not be renewing her contract forthe 2000-2001 school year.
University officials have admitted that there was bad blood betweenthe Board of Governors and the newspaper but denythat it resulted in the decision not to rehire Barbara Lach-Smith,who had advised the Muleskinnerstaff for six years.
Officials say the university did not renew her contract because theyhad earlier decided to change her position into atenure-track job. Lach-Smith filed a lawsuit in June claiming thatthe school illegally retaliated against her because of theMuleskinner’saggressive reporting.
Student Press Law Center Executive Director Mark Goodman, who will presentthe award to the Muleskinnerstaff at theconvention, believes that the newspaper’s tenacity and commitment toproviding its readers with a full and accurate story –even when it became apparent that some school officials would do whatthey could to block their efforts — should be asource of inspiration to other student reporters.
“The battles and hardships faced by the Muleskinnerstaff in bringingthis important story regarding the use of publicfunds to light make clear that freedom of the press is something thatshould never be taken for granted,” said Goodman.”During these days when the news media seems to be everyone’s scapegoat,the Muleskinnerreminds us all of the vitalrole played by a strong and independent press — be it professionalor student.”
For additional information contact:
Mark Goodman, Executive Director
Student Press Law Center