When school officials fire or remove a student newspaper adviser, student journalists – and student publications – are forced to do the adviser shuffle

When longtime Kansas State University Collegian adviser Ron Johnson was removed by the university’s administration, the student newspaper staff was left stunned and angry.

”There was a lot of chaos and people saying I can’t believe this happened,”’ former Collegian Editor in Chief Katie Lane said. ”We weren’t sure what to do and what to write pertaining to Johnson’s reassignment. We were afraid [that] what we would write would get him in any more trouble.”

Johnson, who had been the paper’s adviser for more than 15 years, was told in May 2004 that he was being dismissed, although he would continue to work as a professor in the school of journalism. He said he felt the staff was ”shell shocked” after learning of his dismissal.

The reaction of students at the Collegian is not uncommon. When advisers at colleges and universities are reassigned, it is up to what is left of the paper’s staff to produce the newspaper –without an adviser — get used to a new adviser and attempt to cover the adviser’s removal as objectively as possible.

Staff members at other student newspapers have also said they felt upset when they learned their adviser has been fired.

For the students at Kansas State University, their concerns ranged from covering the case and the lawsuit — filed by Johnson and former editors Lane and Sarah Rice in June 2004 — objectively and not getting Johnson in any more trouble.

The staff also was afraid that not covering certain campus events would hurt them. Johnson had been dismissed as adviser after the paper had been criticized for not covering the Big 12 Diversity Leadership Conference, a multicultural event on campus. Members of the Black Student Union protested the paper and demanded Johnson’s removal.

Todd Simon, former director of Kansas State University’s A.Q. Miller School of Journalism and Mass Communications, has claimed that it was not the lack of diversity stories in the paper that prompted Johnson’s firing, but a decline in ”overall quality.” He said he compared the Collegian to other college newspapers and found it to be lacking.

But Johnson, Lane and Rice claim Johnson was fired because he was not more involved in the content of the student newspaper.

Free press advocates say that even if the ”overall quality” of the Collegian was the basis for his removal, the action makes Johnson responsible for content decisions he did not make and had no legal right to make.

Lane said Johnson was ”worshipped” at the paper, and that his dismissal was a shock and surprise to the paper’s staff.

”Everyone thinks he’s an amazing adviser,” Lane said.

At another college newspaper in Kansas where the adviser was removed by the school, Barton County Community College, the reaction of the staff was almost the same as at Kansas State University.

”It was pretty shocking because we were doing pretty good,” said Zach Beaker, former editor in chief of the Interrobang at Barton County Community College. He said since former adviser Jennifer Schartz was hired, there had been more people on staff, the paper was better and the paper had recently won a national award and several local honors.

”In the beginning it was kind of a photocopied newspaper and she built it up into a program,” Becker said. ”It was pretty tough when she was removed because everyone really liked her, she was a friend and a teacher.”

Schartz’s contract was not renewed in April 2004, but she was never told why. Under Kansas law, untenured professors do not have to be told why they are being fired. In her lawsuit, filed in April 2005, Schartz said she was removed because she allowed the staff of the Interrobang in March 2004 to print a letter in the paper that criticized the college’s former basketball coach.

Schartz was sent a letter from the college’s lawyer, Randall Henry, informing her that ”the administration has decided that no letters to the editor will be published which are by and large personal attacks upon other members of the Barton County Community College Family.”

Schartz responded, saying that as a college adviser she did not exercise any control over the paper’s content and would be violating the student’s First Amendment rights by practicing prior review.

As part of her lawsuit, Schartz maintains that she helped to build the paper and the school’s journalism program.

For the staff at the Trailblazer at Vincennes University in Indiana, it was a struggle to start their school year without their adviser, Michael Mullens, who was transferred to the English department in May 2004.

”The transition into the new school year was next to impossible,” former Trailblazer Editor in Chief Ryan Wilson said.

Wilson said that because he learned of Mullen’s removal over the summer, it was difficult to reach the paper’s staff, most of whom were at home for the summer, and tell them of their adviser’s dismissal.

Mullens, who was a journalism professor before his transfer to the English department, sued the university in February 2004, alleging his First and 14th Amendment rights were violated.

He alleges that he was transferred because the university’s administration was upset over stories printed in the paper, including an April Fool’s Day edition.

Ryan said the paper tried to cover Mullen’s firing and lawsuit against the university, but said it was a difficult process.

”We tried the best we could, we had some editorials about it, but with the new staff coming in it was hard to do,” Wilson said.

Breach of trust

The president-elect of the Society of Professional Journalists, Dave Carlson, said the people who become college newspaper advisers do it because they are passionate about journalism.

”Most people who do this for a living do it because they love doing it,” Carlson said. ”It’s not a high-paying job.”

College Media Advisers President Kathy Lawrence said the relationship between a newspaper staff and the adviser, if it’s a good one, makes it upsetting for those involved when an adviser is removed without the staff’s approval.

”Students and their advisers who are doing a good job have a warm and supportive relationship, and if a student is worried some content may anger some administration, they may feel that writing about that subject will cost that adviser their job,” Lawrence said. ”Students will be reticent to do that and it has a chilling effect.”

For the staff of the Collegian at Kansas State University, there was a fear that content decisions they made would land them in more trouble with student groups on campus

”There was a lot of fear about decisions we made and a lot of fear that if we didn’t cover something, somebody’s going to get mad,” Rice said.

Jennifer Haberkorn, former editor in chief of the Marquette Tribune at Marquette University in Wisconsin, said the staff was worried about what they printed after their adviser, Tom Mueller, was removed as adviser in January 2005. University administrators had told Muller and the paper’s staff that Muller was being reassigned because the quality of the paper had declined.

Mullens, the newspaper staff and university officials had previously disagreed about some of the content in the paper.

”The staff was surprised and kind of felt a little bit responsible because we were told he was fired because of the paper’s quality,” Haberkorn said.

The student newspapers in Kansas, Indiana and Wisconsin are not the only ones in the last several years to see their adviser fired over the paper’s content, however. Lawrence said College Media Advisers has seen many of these cases spring up in the past few years.

Although these advisers were fired over the content of the paper, college media experts agree that an adviser should not have prior review or editorial control over the paper.

”Over the past two years we’ve seen a number of threats made to advisers and some very sad circumstances,” Lawrence said.

CMA has censured some of these schools, including Barton County Community College and Kansas State University. Lawrence said the censure means that advisers are discouraged from working at the school, which can make it difficult for the paper to find a new adviser.

Fighting back

There are courses of action that student journalists can take if they feel their adviser was fired or punished because the administration disliked the paper’s content.

Lawrence suggests that student newspaper staffs first discuss the situation with the school’s administration. If the administration is unresponsive, students can write about the situation in their paper and contact other media outlets and make them aware of the situation.

”In other adviser advocacy cases, students have been powerful forces,” Lawrence said. ”They are the ones whose First Amendment rights are violated when these things happen.”

If media attention or negative publicity does not change the school administration’s minds, students can always contact organizations such as the Student Press Law Center and the College Media Advisers and see what legal options are available, Lawrence said.

But Lawrence said filing a lawsuit should be the student newspaper staff’s last resort.

”The tough thing in these situations is that it takes a while for things to happen in the courts,” Lawrence said. ”The students graduate and they move on with their lives.”

Moving on

After all of the legal battles have been fought over the adviser’s removal, a new adviser still must fill the shoes of the old advisers, which can create additional problems.

At Vincennes University, the paper’s new adviser, Mark Stalcup, who was hired to replace Mullens last year, said his first year was difficult. He has had a hard time getting the paper’s staff to trust that he will not censor the content of the paper, he said.

”There are times when I don’t think I am ever going to get through to them,” Stalcup said. ”[The staff] has gotten themselves into a position where they are utterly convinced everybody’s trying to censor them.”

Mullens said he knew the paper’s staff struggled with having a new adviser and adjusting to a new way of doing things.

”One of [the paper’s staff members] told me, You’ll always be my adviser,”’ Mullens said.

Since Stalcup came to Vincennes in July 2004, he said he has helped the students through a newspaper theft, arranged to get new computers for the newspapers, fought a student government association that cut the newspaper’ funding and battled an administration unhappy with an April Fool’s Day edition of the paper.

Stalcup added that he is frustrated that people think the newspaper’s staff is suffering without Mullens as their adviser.

”All I keep hearing is that these kids are having their education suffer,” Stalcup said. ”I don’t doubt there are forces that want to see the paper shut down,” he said, but added that he does not engage in prior review of the newspaper and has tried hard to build the program. Stalcup said he wants to publish the paper twice a week instead of once and get a Web site running.

He said he knows it was difficult for the students to lose their adviser, but says they need to move on in their education.

”The students have talent and ability and they have had to learn under the toughest of situations,” Stalcup said. ”Last year was a rough year, but they are good students and I think we’re going to have a strong paper.”

The staff at the Collegian has also had to readjust to new advisers. The paper went for months without a permanent adviser; instead, Director of Student Publications at Kansas State University Linda Puntney advised the newspaper, and then a new adviser would come and advise every week. A new adviser, New York Times copy editor Kimetris Baltrip, was recently hired for the 2005-2006 school year.

Rice said having the rotating advisers was not a permanent solution.

”It was a good opportunity for us to have professional advice and everyone got a lot out of it,” Rice said. ”But we did lose that sense of consistency we had at the Collegian.”

The staff at the Tribune holds out optimism that a new adviser, once appointed, will be able to help their newspaper grow.

”We were told by the administration that this would be a positive change for the paper and maybe that will hold true,” Haberkorn said. ”It will just be another adjustment period for us.”