Task force finds Wisconsin university adviser’s firing not related to content

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 last month, 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, the school informed Mueller that his 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.

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.

Kathy Lawrence, president of College Media Advisers and a member of the task force, 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, would 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.”

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.”

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.

SPLC View: Marquette University has had a checkered past when dealing with its student media.

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 after the school asserted its right to dictate editorial content after the paper attempted to publish an opinion column in favor of the importation of RU-486, a drug that induces abortion.

While the SPJ task force found Mueller’s firing was not an attempt to control content, it certainly does little to inspire confidence in the school’s commitment to a free student press. A “fresh start” is, indeed, long overdue. While the current price is high, we hope this latest controversy will inspire the university to make some needed reforms.