Reading through Ron Johnson’s last evaluation as adviser to the Kansas State Collegian there is no mention of him as a “bad adviser.”
Instead, Johnson is praised by administrators for his service to student and professional media organizations. He is also recommended for a raise for averaging a “meritorious” rating over three years of evaluations.
Johnson, who served as adviser to the Collegian for 15 years, was fired from his position in May just two months after receiving the evaluation. The veteran adviser believes he was fired because several minority groups on campus voiced concern over diversity coverage in the newspaper ‘ an area Johnson had no direct control over.
“Advisers are in a tenuous position because universities don’t want to give them rights and don’t want to recognize the academic freedoms that advisers should have as teachers,” Johnson said.
While the story of an adviser who has been ousted by an angry administrator is not new, three cases during the past few months have placed a spotlight on the issue of administrators at public institutions firing advisers over content decisions students make — despite sometimes glowing evaluations they may have received before a controversy arose.
The story of Johnson and others like him leaves many advisers with questions about how they could be evaluated in a way that protects their rights and those of their students.
Administrators at three higher education institutions across the country — Kansas State, Barton County Community College in Kansas and Vincennes University in Indiana — have removed the advisers of student publications over what appears to be content-related issues, according to the former advisers.
Although courts have clearly ruled that public officials, including administrators and advisers, do not have the right to censor student publications at public institutions, some advisers are finding themselves evaluated on the work of their students and not how well they do their jobs or meet performance expectations. Advisers also are finding that it is important to have a clear, formal job description that spells out those performance expectations.
When Kathy Lawrence was hired in 1984 as adviser to a student newspaper at the University of Alabama, there were 53 responsibilities in her job description, but she clearly remembers number 16 — the only item underlined in the entire document.
“The director will leave all content decisions up to student editors,” she recalls.
Lawrence, who now serves as the director of student publications at the University of Texas at Austin and who is the current president of the national membership group called the College Media Advisers, said having an understanding with college administrators about the duties of the adviser — and how they will be evaluated on those duties — is essential long before a controversy arises.
“[Administrators] don’t all get it, and they certainly don’t agree with [the hands-off role of an adviser] in many cases,” Lawrence said. “From the very beginning, you need to let [administrators] know that’s the way it has to be.”
A content-based decision
In his case, Johnson said administrators at Kansas State University worked with special-interest groups on campus to attack the newspaper through its adviser.
“College newspaper advisers, in part, are in very difficult positions because we have to critique and coach our students and on the flip side of it, have to be First Amendment advocates for them,” Johnson said. “That’s not very popular. We live in an environment that is much more controlled on our campuses.”
While administrators at Kansas State deny that Johnson’s firing had anything to do with the student protests, they admit that the decision was based on a content analysis of the Collegian that compared it to several other college newspapers.
In administrators’ eyes, the award-winning newspaper and the work of its student editors were not up to par, so neither was Johnson.
“The pattern has been really consistent in terms of reporting and writing have gotten weak,” said Todd Simon, the director of the journalism school at Kansas State administrator, to the Associated Press in May. “It’s kind if like a coach; if the record is middling, usually you change coaches.”
The decision to fire Johnson was based on content in the newspaper and on the work of the students, not the work of the adviser, Johnson said. Administrators, however, did not see it that way.
Establishing a difference
James Tidwell, legal adviser for the Daily Eastern News at Eastern Illinois University, believes administrators are off-base when comparing advisers to coaches.
“You’re comparing apples to oranges,” Tidwell said. “[Advisers] don’t control the content of the paper, and it’s illegal for [advisers] to do so — [they’re] not the editor.”
Tidwell said when a player on a sports team makes a bad play, coaches have the ability to take them off the field. Advisers at student newspapers do not have that right, he said.
“In a lot of ways, I compare us to coaches, but we don’t go quite as far,” Lawrence said. “In that sense, a school could choose to make a change, but it has to be based on something more substantive than what the students control.”
Lawrence said advisers should be viewed more as cheerleaders — complementing on the performance of the staff and when necessary, giving advice on how to improve performance.
“In these ways, you are a coach,” Lawrence said. “But, you’re not calling the plays, the editors are.”
An adviser’s survival story
John Schmitt knows all to well how difficult the role of an adviser can be and the pressure some advisers face from administrators.
Schmitt, who advised The Peachite, a student newspaper at Fort Valley State University in Georgia, said he was fired in 1998 because administrators did not like the stories that appeared in the newspaper.
One award-winning story included allegations that the university vice president for academic affairs engaged in questionable financial dealings at her former university in New York. Another included claims that campus security may not have properly treated a student’s asthma attack. The student later died.
Like in Johnson’s case, Schmitt became the target of administrators after they found content in the newspaper they did not necessarily agree with.
Administrators said the decision to not renew Schmitt’s contract was based on “his job performance,” though Schmitt was previously evaluated as being an “outstanding” faculty member.
“If you look back, the first approaches were direct censorships [of the student newspaper], then [administrators] moved to other ways, such as withholding funding and [citing] bad punctuation,” Schmitt said. “Now they’ve got ‘If we can’t [censor] students, we’ll just go around them and get the guy who’s letting them do that.'”
With the help of the American Civil Liberties Union, Schmitt sued the university, claiming censorship and racial bias led to his dismissal. Schmitt is white and Fort Valley State is a predominantly black campus.
In 2002, Schmitt settled the lawsuit, and the state of Georgia reimbursed $117,000 of his legal fees. The university also compensated him $75,000, and agreed to adopt a publications policy to protect future advisers.
Schmitt said that if advisers are pressured to censor student publications, raising public awareness about the issue could be a solution to the problem.
“What tends to be what stops them is bad publicity. As soon as somebody shines lights on them, they take off in all directions,” Schmitt said. “Whether [student publications] have trophies or not, [administrators] are going to get rid of the adviser who’s allowing the students to do something [administrators] don’t want them to do. The newspaper is the students’. It doesn’t belong to the university, it doesn’t belong to the advisers.”
Schmitt, who now teaches journalism and mass communication at Texas State University-San Marcos, said stories that appear in student publications sometimes show the hands-off role of an adviser by their selection and focus.
“Frankly, I don’t like the music [students] like, I don’t pay attention to the movies they watch,” Schmitt said. “Britney Spears could die in a car crash tomorrow, and I would not cry ‘ those are not my interests, and my interests shouldn’t be the ones reflected in the paper.”
A fair evaluation
Because the First Amendment prevents advisers at public higher education institutions from being judged on the content of a student publication, many believe advisers should be evaluated on their relationship and interaction with the students.
Tom Rolnicki, executive director of the Associated Collegiate Press, an association for student media, said there is a gray area when it comes to determining exactly how an adviser should be evaluated.
“Can you judge someone on a lack of content?” Rolnicki said. “You can’t judge the adviser on the content that is there, but are there any expectations on content that isn’t there? That’s a tricky question.”
According to Tidwell, evaluations should be based on how advisers interact with students. He said students should play an active role in evaluating an adviser, making known whether they feel they have learned anything from the adviser and whether they have been taught how to develop their skills as journalists.
“If students do in fact screw up, the adviser ends up getting the brunt of the criticism,” Tidwell said. “[Student editors] have to try and be as open as they can in covering the campus and being sensitive to minority issues and making sure their news judgment does reflect a well-rounded attitude toward what’s news.”
Advisers also should be judged on how often they are available to students, and what kind of training program they have established for the newspaper, Tidwell said.
Whoever an adviser reports to does have the right to set performance standards, but those standards cannot be tied to what words the students print on a page, Lawrence said.
Making sure a job description is in place is key to avoiding any type of censorship issue, she said. Even more crucial is making sure both parties understand that description.
Experts say the description should clearly state that the adviser does not have control over content that appears in the newspaper. That way, it becomes easier to defend if a censorship issue should arise from administrators. Some suggest advisers also should perform critiques of the newspaper after it has been published to point out things students are doing correctly, and address things they might be doing wrong.
Advisers should also meet with administrators to reaffirm their roles at student publications before a problem arises, Lawrence suggests.
“Everyone has an opinion, school administrators and heads of departments have opinions,” Schmitt said. “They can say what they want, and the editors don’t have to heed it, but the poor adviser shouldn’t be caught in the tug of war.”
A commitment to the First Amendment
For Johnson, his fight for the rights of student journalists at Kansas State University continues, and so does his dedication toward making others aware of the First Amendment.
“The primary reason we’ve challenged this reassignment is because of the ramifications for advisers across the country,” he said.
Johnson’s firing, and the firing of advisers based on actions students make, sends a chilling effect to student journalists across the country, Lawrence said.
“The students then realize that if they’re not careful, then the adviser they care about could lose their job,” she said. “There is no such thing as not having some people upset. If you’re doing a good job of reporting, you’re going to make a lot of people mad.”