Damaged student – adviser relationships require communication, patience

Adviser-student relationships can hitrough spots, especially when it comes to issues like censorship and staffing. Ifyou’ve had a bad breakup with your newspaper adviser lately, though, thereare ways to mend your relationship. Resources and guidelines are available forhelp.

Strong relationships between advisers andstudents are important for guiding student journalists down the right path, saidCollege Media Advisers Executive Director Ron Spielberger.

“A good relationship is one wherethe students see the adviser as a trusted person,” Spielberger said.”They don’t necessarily come to the adviser for ‘what colorpens should we buy for the office,’ but they come to the adviser withsituations that they may have trouble determining the answerto.”

Some of these situations can includequestions of ethics and steering students away from potential libel. Some caninclude simple administrative tasks, such as handling funds for the paper. Butwhat happens when the adviser is perceived not as a trusted ally but asadversarial to the student staff?

McPherson’s ‘High Life’ 

Student journalists atThe HighLife, the student newspaper ofMcPherson High in McPherson, Kan., recently had a run-in with their adviser, butmeetings with the principal have helped ease the conflict.

AfterHighLife staff member Jeni Arbucklewrote an article for publication in the paper’s Sept. 11 center spreadabout two pregnant teens at McPherson High, adviser Todd Brittingham, hired lastyear by the school, pulled the article, claiming it was too controversial.Instead of filling the blank space on the page with last-minute content,Editor-in-Chief Nikki Wentling decided to leave the space blank. She explainedher decision in the next issue of the paper, saying the newspaper staff wouldnot “hesitate from reporting on important and controversialsubjects” in the future.

Soon after the censorship incident,Brittingham assigned the students a series of handwritten essays on court casesabout First Amendment rights for students. According to Wentling, theassignments were out of the ordinary class routine and came across to the staffas punitive.”I think he wasjust angry so he had us do those assignments,” Wentling said.

According to Wentling, disagreements overthe newspaper’s production cycle led to inefficiency in the newsroom. Brittingham wanted students to turn in their articles earlier than usual forpublication, she said, which led to stories becoming outdated when press timerolled around.

Brittingham’s behavior in theclassroom has troubled the students. On Oct. 29, Brittingham placed a videocamera in the room and filmed the students while they worked, student editorssaid. According to Arbuckle, who spends her first three hours of the day in thenewspaper classroom, Brittingham came to the room 20 minutes before the firstclass of the day to set up a Flip camera. He put the camera on top of a stack ofpapers, pointed it toward the work computers, and walked away.

“We thought, that’screepy,” Arbucklesaid.Brittingham refused tocomment.

The students have spoken to theirprincipal, Bret McClendon, in an attempt to find solutions to the conflicts.McClendon sat down with the students and Brittingham a couple weeks after thecensorship issue, and he took notes while the students asked Brittinghamquestions and voiced their concerns about the article, the essays on the FirstAmendment cases and other questions they had.

“I think the critical element [tosolving a conflict] is communication,” McClendon said.”Communication between the adviser and the students, between the editorand the students and between the adviser and the editor. That’s the mostcritical thing that needs to happen.”

According to Wentling, the studentsreached a resolution with Brittingham after this meeting. The students’relationship with Brittingham seemed to be healing, and “the tension wentdown for everyone,” Wentling said.

The students spoke with McClendon againafter the camera incident. After these meetings, McClendon and Wentling said,everything returned to normal and the paper is operating smoothly.

Clark College’s’Independent’

Over thesummer of 2009, student journalists atTheIndependent,Clark College’s student newspaper, ran into conflicts with new adviser DeeAnne Finken. Finken was brought on as adviser after the former adviser,Christina Kopinski, was denied tenure in March, a decision she is stillcontesting.

A staffing controversy led to the filingof disciplinary sanctions against Editor-in-Chief Audrey McDougal, ManagingEditor Nick Jensen and former Lead Copy Editor Amanda Martin-Tully. McDougalcould not attend an Aug. 19 job interview with Finken and a candidate for abusiness manager position, so she notified Finken that she was sending Jensenand Martin-Tully in her place to take notes on the meeting.

When Martin-Tully and Jensen arrived forthe interview, they barely got in the newsroom before they were escorted out bysecurity, who had been called to the room by Finken.

McDougal, Jensen and Martin-Tully werecharged with violating section 1.c. of the Clark College Code of StudentConduct, which is a charge of “failure to follow instructions.” Allthree editors were sentenced to disciplinary probation for a year.

McDougal and Martin-Tully were offered adeal in which they would write a letter to Finken and Ted Broussard, interimassociate vice president of student affairs and dean of student success andretention, in exchange for having their charges dropped, said Martin-Tully andJensen. The letter would detail how they planned to work with Finken as theiradviser. Jensen was not extended this option, he said.

“It wasn’t even offered tome, but I probably wouldn’t have done it anyway, because I thinkit’s ridiculous,” Jensen said.

McDougal wrote the letter and had hercharge dropped and purged from her record. Martin-Tully agreed to a compromiseunder which all charges were to be expunged at the end of the semester. Jensenappealed his charge.

Finken’s relationship with herstaff is mixed, Jensen said. According to Jensen, the new staff members getalong well with her, and older staff members are somewhat indifferent. Jensendescribed the newsroom as “sort of an icy, politeworkplace.”

“There haven’t been bigissues, but it hasn’t been all cuddles and rainbows either,” Jensensaid.

Jensen said the paper got off to a slowstart publishing this quarter. McDougal said that the paper has been operatingfairly smoothly since then.

According to Finken, her relationshipwith the staff is going well with the exception of three students.

Accounts of the reconciliation processafter the incident differ. Finken said she made attempts to sit down and talk tothe students. Martin-Tully said that though she and Finken exchanged a fewe-mails after the incident, Finken never responded to Martin-Tully’sletter of resignation from her editorial position.

Martin-Tully resigned her position andtransferred to Portland State University because she was not taking enoughcredits at Clark to qualify her for her salaried position on the newspaper.McDougal and Jensen also plan to transfer. Jensen and McDougal said they are notreturning to theIndependentat the end of the quarter.

“I only have so much time left [atClark], and I don’t want to spend it at that paper with that kind ofenvironment,” Jensen said. “I told [Kopinski] I would stay at thepaper as long as I am going to Clark, but that’s not the caseanymore.”

On themend

Conflicts with advisers can bedifficult to resolve. As Mike Hiestand, legal consultant to the Student PressLaw Center said, finding a solution is up to students, since the adviser is notavailable for help.

“I think it’s completely upto the students because in most of these cases the adviser isn’t going todo it,” Hiestand said. “She’s the problem or he’s theproblem.”

Students can improve their relationshipwith their adviser through increased communication. According to John Bowen,chair of the Journalism Education Association Scholastic Press RightsCommission, if students try to understand their adviser’s point of viewand remain open to discussion, they might be able to reach a compromise orsolution.

“Honest communication can and hasheaded off conflict,” Bowen wrote in an e-mail. “Students need totry to understand problems an adviser might face: threat of job loss, lack oftime or information about the issue at hand. Sometimes conflict can be resolvedthrough discussion and understanding.”

Bowen said it is important for studentsand advisers to talk through issues and keep each other informed. He saidconflicts can be avoided by developing trust between the adviser and thestudents.

“[Students] need to help advisersunderstand the importance of the stories they select and what help theyneed,” Bowen wrote. “They need to know their advisers trust them,and they need to trust their advisers. That trust develops when all partiescommunicate and share concerns.”

Sometimes the problem lies with theadviser’s background and training, Hiestand said. If the adviser does nothave training in journalism or journalism education, they may not be able tosuccessfully connect with their students. Sometimes, Hiestand said, schools donot check the journalism education that a teacher has before they place thatperson in the adviser position.

“Almost always when you’re inthese situations, you find that they don’t have any [teacher withjournalism background],” Hiestand said. “They were maybe the newlyhired chemistry teacher, and nobody else wanted to teach newspaper, so they justgot dumped in it as the new hire.”

Students may be able to help theiradviser settle into the role by discussing with them the adviser codes of ethicsof the College Media Advisers and Journalism Education Association. Sometimes,Hiestand said, advisers just don’t understand what they are doing, andbecoming familiar with codes of ethics and expectations for advisers mayhelp.

If the adviser is aware of what theiractions entail, then students may be able to pursue legal action.

According to Hiestand, the law at thecollege level is generally more protective of student rights than is the law atthe high school level. Hazelwood v.Kuhlmeier, a 1988 U.S. SupremeCourt decision concerning administrative control over student publications, hasplaced some limitations on student journalists’ rights at public highschools, but it said nothing about public universities.

“The law at the college level ispretty crystal clear that student editors have the right to make their owneditorial decisions and all school officials, including advisers, have to keeptheir hands off,” Hiestand said.

Bowen noted that staying informed abouttheir legal rights can help student journalists if they run into trouble withtheir adviser or their administration.

“Students can ensure their ownfreedoms by knowing the law and how to apply it to various situations,”Bowen wrote.

Talking things through with advisers andgiving them resources for assistance have proven to offer the greatest chancefor reconciliation.

“If you can in any way work thisthing out by sitting down and talking, that is by far the preferablesolution,” Hiestand said. “I mean, advisers, students, there’skind of a co-dependency there. They’re going to be in the newsroom andboy, it certainly is nicer to have a friend, a supportive person in the newsroomthan it is somebody who you’re always looking at twice, kind of wonderingwhat they’re up to.”