SPJ panel concludes Wisc. adviser’s firing was not attempt to control content

WISCONSIN — Calling it an opportunity for a “fresh start,” a Society of Professional Journalists task force said the firing of the student newspaper adviser at Marquette University was due to a series of “miscommunications” between the student newspaper, adviser Tom Mueller and the private university’s administration.

But the majority of the task force members emphasized in their report, released in April, that they do not believe that the firing stemmed from an administration “overly involved in the newspaper’s operation” or an attempt to control content.

On January 27 Mueller was informed by the dean of the college of communication, Bill Elliott, that Mueller’s contract as a journalism instructor and the adviser to the Marquette Tribune would not be renewed for the next year. The decision came after more than a year of occasional disputes between the student newspaper and college officials, who, Mueller said, were concerned about the legal implications of some of the stories published in the Tribune. One of the stories included the address of an off-campus apartment building where a sexual assault had occurred; another story contained the name of a faculty member who had contracted tuberculosis.

The Society of Professional Journalists routinely asks task forces to investigate student media issues at college and university campuses. The Marquette task force, which was appointed in early February, included Dave Aeikens, SPJ region 6 director; Gordon Govier, of the Madison, Wisc., professional SPJ chapter; Callie Martell of St. Cloud State University; Maryann Lazarski, SPJ adviser at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee; and Kathy Lawrence, president of the national College Media Advisers organization.

The task force agreed in its report that “much of the strain between Mueller and the administration seems to stem from the administration’s concern that something in the paper will get the university sued.” To combat these concerns, the task force offered six recommendations for the university to implement, including completing student media bylaws and writing a job description for the adviser — efforts that were started by the university but “languished,” according to the report.

Absent from the task force’s majority report is an indictment of any individual party at the university or a recommendation that it reconsider the decision to fire Mueller. Lawrence wrote the report’s minority opinion, in which she recommended that Mueller be given a one-year probationary contract extension. During that time he should be given “clear direction and … well-reasoned evaluations,” Lawrence wrote.

“The [task force] recommendations for the future are fine — they’re right on target,” Lawrence said. “But I think it’s just really unfair that we have an adviser who didn’t have a job description, who didn’t get evaluated and who never received any kind of feedback about areas in which he needed to improve. I don’t think it’s fair that that person is just out on the street and we say, ‘We hope they do better next time.'”

Mueller said the recommendations, if implemented at Marquette, will help future Tribune advisers.

“Here you have the task force of a national organization saying these six things should be done,” Mueller said. “I hope that’s impetus to do them.”

Mueller has contended since his firing that an already tense relationship with the administration was exacerbated by a letter he received from University President Robert Wild, in response to a letter of support Mueller sent to Tribune Editor in Chief Libby Fry. Wild wrote that Mueller’s letter was “among the most insufferable and self-righteous documents” he had read during eight years at the helm of the university.

The task force agreed with Mueller, calling Wild’s letter “obnoxious and out of line in a number of ways,” although it stopped short of suggesting the letter was anything more than “criticism.”

Two previous incidents at Marquette have resulted in accusations of censorship. In 1989, the university fired the Tribune business manager and suspended the editor in chief and the student publications advertising director after the Tribune printed an ad from the National Organization for Women about an abortion rights rally. In 1993, four student editors and six editorial board members resigned due to criticism from school officials over an opinion column in favor of the importation of RU-486, a drug that induces abortion.

Aeikens said that although the task force did not find that Mueller’s firing was made in order to punish him or control the newspaper’s content, he added that there was noticeable “friction” between the administration and the newspaper that could be eliminated by the recommendations.

“There wasn’t any evidence of [school officials] saying, ‘You can’t run this’ or ‘We want you to cover this.’ We didn’t find anything like that. And had we seen that, our suggestions might have been different,” Aeikens said. “But there’s certainly some issues that need some ironing out. And I think things will run smoothly.”

Bill Elliott, dean of the college of communications at Marquette, called the task force’s review “fair and objective” and said the evaluation was “very helpful.”

The SPJ board approved the task force report on April 30.

Elliott said two committees have been put in place at Marquette to work over the summer on the student media bylaws and an adviser job description. A search for an interim adviser will begin after July 1, he said.

–By Campbell Roth

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