Adviser group censures Western Oregon University over concerns for student media, administration relations

OREGON — The College Media Advisers board of directors votedthis month to censure Western Oregon University in Monmouth, Ore., for its dismissal of a formerstudent newspaper adviser.

In a Jan. 12 letter sent to WOU President John Minahan, CMA President KenRosenauer wrote that the CMA, a national association that supports student mediaprofessionals, voted to censure after attempts to work with the university wererebuffed. Censure is the most severe action the CMA takes to reprimand aninstitution deemed hostile to students’ free expression and to mediaadvisers.

“Unfortunately, while President Minahan had seemed open and willingto cooperate and let us help them to better define the role of student media andadvisers on their campus, he got to a point where he simply refused to talk withour adviser advocate,” Rosenauer said.

Rosenauer said he hasn’t heard from the university since thecensure.

“Western Oregon University feels the issue has been resolved and hasno further comment,” Minahan said in an e-mail.

The censure stems from the dismissal of Western Oregon Journaladviser Susan Wickstrom in August 2007 after the paper reported about an onlinesecurity breach. New copy editor Blair Loving came across a file on theuniversity’s public network that included sensitive student information — including Social Security numbers and names — and brought a copyof the file to the Journal. The newspaper staff informed the universityof the security breach and published a story about it.

University officials searched the student newspaper’s newsroom afterhours without informing the staff and threatened Loving with expulsion fordownloading the file in violation of the Computer Use Policy. For allowing thenewspaper staff to keep a copy of the file in her locked office,Wickstrom’s contract was not renewed.

There’s no simple checklist for removing the censure, Rosenauer said.Since Wickstrom isn’t interested in getting her position back, the issuecomes down to policy and procedure.

“We’re concerned about future advisers as they come into thatjob and that environment,” he said.

The CMA first sent a letter to the university in January 2008 requestingthat a CMA team be allowed to help develop governing documents for the studentmedia and written guidelines for the adviser’s duties. A formal letter ofconcern was sent in June.

Journal adviser Shelby Case said he’d like to have the CMAcome to the campus to work with the newspaper. He started the job in September2008 knowing it would be a year of transitions and rebuilding trust between thenewspaper and administration.

“Bottom line, it’s a transitional process, it’s a healingprocess, so I’m hoping we can work with people and try tocooperate,” he said.

An ad-hoc committee organized by the university following additionalconflicts also recommended a review of student media policies.

“In short, there is a dysfunctional relationship between the studentnewspaper and the college administration,” the committee wrote in April.The report concluded “the University administration responded ineptly andin a heavy-handed manner,” but found no violations of First Amendmentrights.

That is the kind of perspective the CMA hopes to change, Rosenauer said,because there is a First Amendment issue whenever university actions — such as searching newsrooms or threatening advisers’ jobs — chillthe free press environment.

“The shift in policy and procedure should reflect a change inattitude as well, that the university understands and appreciates FirstAmendment freedoms and how those freedoms should allow for an appropriateinvestigation such as the students there conducted,” he said.

Since losing her position at WOU, Wickstrom has been freelancing whilelooking for a new job.

“I can’t understand why WOU wouldn’t want to work withthe CMA, since the CMA sets the standard for every other Oregon publicuniversity — the private colleges as well,” she wrote in an e-mail.”I hope the best for them, especially the WOU students who are trying tomake journalism a part of their education.”

For More Information: 

  • CMA issues ‘letter of concern’ about student media at W. Oregon News Flash, 6/16/2008
  • Changes to Western Oregon media board on hold after editor’s public plea News Flash, 10/5/2007
  • School searches newsroom Winter 2007-08 Report
  • Student reporter who discovered university security breach punished but not expelled News Flash, 10/5/2007