Wisc. university fires newspaper adviser following series of disagreements

WISCONSIN — Marquette University will not renew the teaching contract of student publications adviser and journalism instructor Tom Mueller next year, following a string of conflicts between the student newspaper and the university administration.

University President Robert Wild, university spokeswoman Brigid O’Brien and Dean of the College of Communication Bill Elliott would not comment about why Mueller was fired because it is “a personnel issue,” O’Brien said.

“I cannot discuss the specifics of the decision not to renew Tom’s contract except the decision was mine as the dean of the college and mine alone,” Elliott said.

According to a Feb. 6 article in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel about Mueller’s dismissal, Elliott said the quality of the student newspapers that Mueller advises, the Marquette Tribune and the Marquette Journal, had declined in the 2003-2004 school year. The Marquette Tribune wone nine awards from the Wisconsin Newspaper Association at its annual convention this month, including a certificate of merit for general excellence.

At a meeting on Jan. 27, Elliott informed Mueller that he would be fired. Mueller said Elliott “gave only general, and phony, reasons, such as the quality of [the news] paper is off [and] the color design and printing is uneven,” as the basis for his dismissal. Mueller said he believes he was fired because the Marquette Tribune published stories that “campus nervous nellies feared had legal implications.”

According to the article in the Journal Sentinel, university administrators criticized the Tribune for reporting the address where an attempted sexual assault occurred.

Another story that caused controversy between the Tribune and the administration was published in November 2003, when the Tribune printed the name of a teacher with tuberculosis, according to Mueller.

“There have been a series of conflicts that have arisen between student reporting and the administration,” said Lawrence Soley, a professor at the College of Communication. “It’s difficult to distinguish that from Tom’s dismissal. He was certainly the adviser at the time [the stories ran] and the administration soundly criticized him for allowing students to run a story naming the professor who had tuberculosis.”

According to Mueller, dozens of students were receiving letters from the university saying that they had been exposed to tuberculosis and should go in for skin tests. Marquette University did not release the name of the teacher with the disease, and staff at the Tribune said the lack of public awareness was a health risk.

Libby Fry, former editor of the Marquette Tribune, made the decision to publish the teacher’s name after “weighing one against the other: one person’s right to medical privacy versus a rumor mill that could lead to all sorts of things,” Mueller said.

Elliott and Wild received a copy of a note that Mueller sent to Fry saying the journalism faculty supported her decision to publish the teacher’s name. Wild then wrote a letter to Mueller, saying that the note was “one of the most insufferable and self-righteous documents he had seen in his entire time as president,” according to Mueller.

The Society of Professional Journalists created a task force that will visit the campus to look into Mueller’s dismissal.

“If warranted, the task force strongly recommends that [the dismissal] not happen and discusses with the administration legal implications of doing that and how to better address issues without firing someone,” said Mac McKerral, immediate past president of the Society of Professional Journalists.

Mueller said he is going to determine what actions to take, if any, once the task force has looked into his dismissal.

–By Diane Krauthamer