Univ. of Texas at Tyler reinstates student newspaper adviser

The University of Texas at Tyler this month reinstated Vanessa Curry as the student newspaper adviser, two weeks after she was told her contract would not be renewed.

The university’s decision on May 3 followed efforts by the national Society of Professional Journalists and the Southwest Education Council for Journalism and Mass Communication to restore Curry in her position as adviser and journalism lecturer. Curry said she was told on April 16 that her contract would not be renewed.

“I’m very relived for the students’ sake and very happy that we were able to work something out,” Curry said following today’s meeting with President Rodney Mabry. “[The university] started rethinking and reevaluating some of the evidence, including my student evaluations. We agreed that there was a lack of communication and they relied on some misinformation that they shouldn’t have.”

Mabry called today a happy and exciting day for the university.

“I got a lot of additional information over that last several days and more from [Curry] today, and decided that we really didn’t have enough information on other matters to make the decision that we did,” he explained. “And we’re happy. We’re really excited.”

Curry, a former newspaper reporter, was recruited in 1999 to take on the adviser position at The Patriot while pursuing her master’s degree at Tyler. Even though she was never given an official reason why she would be let go, she suspected it had to do with her efforts to revitalize The Patriot.

“I was told by the dean that administration felt there too many errors in the newspaper, that the students file too many records requests, that we were too aggressive in seeking that information,” she said.

In the process of revamping the paper, Curry said, she taught students how to hold administrators accountable. She advised students about the Texas Public Information Act and showed them how to file open-records requests as a last resort for getting information.

The university criticized the new approach of The Patriot and had sought ways to curtail the paper, according to articles in the Dallas Morning News and the Tyler Morning Telegraph.

The Dallas Morning News quoted Provost David O’Keefe as saying that The Patriot‘s open-records requests “raised some concern at the level of administration. You should bear in mind, I don’t believe the students should be getting into that.”

Curry disagreed. “I feel that I should teach them as best as I can what it’s really like in the real world to be a real journalist,” she said. “Just because you’re a student journalist doesn’t mean that you’re not equal to the people who do it for a paid living.”

SPLC View: We have seen more advisers — at both the high school and college level — lose their jobs this spring (or in administrative doublespeak, they have been “nonrenewed”) than we can ever remember. And in most of the cases, it is because they have supported their students in doing “real journalism,” in covering the news even when the reputation of the school might suffer. The reality is that the law tends to be tilted in favor of employers and does not always offer adviser-employees as much protection as one would hope. As this case illustrates, however, public pressure does work, particularly when an adviser has established a program to be proud of and maintained an otherwise clean employment record. Kudos to the SPJ and SECJMC for lending their support.