Advisory board: Firing of UT-Tyler adviser not a First Amendment issue

TEXAS — Students and administrators at the University of Texas atTyler remain at odds over the sudden firing of Vanessa Curry, long-timeadviser to the Patriot Talon.

Curry, who also serves as a journalism lecturer, learned ina meeting with journalism department chairman Dennis Cali on April 18 that sheno longer had a job at the university. Though she was suspended immediatelywithout pay as adviser, she was permitted to finish the school year in herlecturing position.

In need of brain surgery to repair a cerebral fluid leak —which had been causing her to go deaf in the right ear — Curry was initiallyworried that the sudden move would leave her without insurance for the upcomingoperation. She has since been able to reschedule the surgery — which wasperformed in late May — before her insurance expired.

While Curry expects to make a full recovery, Patriot Talon staff members are stillupset over how the case was handled.

In a hearing in front of the school’s Student Media AdvisoryBoard on May 12, Kamren Thompson, the newspaper’s editor in chief, expressedher support for Curry.

“It’s hard to believe that this has all happened,” Thompsonsaid in an interview. “Ms. Curry is the definition of a true educator, and theway this all unfolded has been so unprofessional.”

Thompson believes her former adviser was unjustly fired asan administrative response to the newspaper’s content over the past year, whichshe described as “edgy.”

On Feb. 22, the PatriotTalon published an editorial, “Secrets,secrets,” in which staff members called on the administration to put an end toits “cyclical bureaucracy.”

Curry said she was initially told by Cali that the decisionto release her was due to “serious complaints about my ability to work withothers.” She added, however, that Cali would not elaborate on the nature of thecomplaints or on who had made them.

“He said it had absolutely nothing to do with the content ofthe newspaper, but I didn’t believe him,” Curry said. “Throughout the schoolyear, he wanted me to tell the students what to write. That’s not my job as anadviser.” 

When she appeared in front of the SMAB, Curry reiterated herbelief that she had been fired without appropriate cause.

“In retrospect, there are things I wish I had donedifferently, handled with more grace, political correctness or a softer voice,”Curry said at the hearing. “But I can honestly say I have done nothing to bringshame upon myself, the Patriot Talon,the Department of Communication or this university.”

Some of the student journalists on the newspaper staff alsospoke up for Curry, according to a recording of the hearing.

“Without Ms. Curry, I wouldn’t have any of the skills that Inow have in journalism,” said Andy Taylor, print managing editor.

Web Managing Editor Lea Rittenhouse, who will serve as nextyear’s editor in chief, agreed, adding that “this entire thing has happenedwith a very closed-doors mentality, which is disturbing.”

Others, however, agreed with the actions taken againstCurry.

Libby Moore, a rising junior who worked for the newspaperduring her freshman year, said Curry was a “poor adviser and a poor influence.She was angry and aggressive toward students, and there were multiple timeswhen I witnessed her make others cry.”

Moore, who spoke out against Curry at the hearing, wasjoined by Cali, who presented evidence on the former adviser’s “overlyconfrontational decorum.” Cali cited an exit interview with a former businesscoordinator at the student newspaper, as well as student evaluations of Curry,in his presentation to the SMAB.

“When I looked at her fall 2010 student survey scores, I wasshocked at how low they were — in the two-three range on a seven-point scale,”he said at the hearing. “The comments that students made [about Curry] wereappalling.” 

Cali declined to be interviewed for this story.

Curry denied the claims of Moore and Cali. She said duringthe hearing that she was “deeply hurt by the false and defamatory comments Iread in the exit interview.”

Thompson, Taylor and Rittenhouse all said that Curry was anexcellent adviser, adding that she has never overstepped her bounds with thenewspaper’s content, contrary to what the administration has asserted. Inaddition to a May 2 editorial in which the students stood up for Curry, Thompson called her former adviser“one of the best teachers I’ve ever worked with.”

Out of protest of Curry’s departure, Thompson said she isleaving the newspaper once her tenure as editor in chief is up. She anticipatesthat others may follow suit.

Though the SMAB has no authority to hire, fire or disciplineuniversity employees, it did write in an advisory opinion to school officialsfiled May 23 that “the university carried out the termination of this contractclumsily, terminating Ms. Curry’s advisory role prior to the end of thesemester and before the final paper came out.”

However, the SMAB went on to offer that “we do not believethis is a First Amendment issue. We find no evidence of censorship bydepartment officials. The student journalists seemed to have a free hand incoverage and commentary, including an unchanged full-page editorial on thefront of the final edition of the PatriotTalon. The student journalists were allowed to speak freely in the studentnewspaper.”

Adam Goldstein, attorney advocate for the Student Press LawCenter, said the administration’s case against Curry is difficult to swallow.

“They’re saying that this has nothing to do with thenewspaper’s content, so they go ahead and get rid of her from the newspaper[immediately] but leave her in the classroom as a teacher,” he said. “I don’t believethat even they believe what they’re arguing.”

Currently, David Weinstock, an assistant professor ofjournalism at the university, is serving as interim adviser to the Patriot Talon. Thompson said studentshave been told that either Weinstock or another candidate will be hired asfull-time adviser by the fall.

Student journalists remain hopeful — but not optimistic —that the university will consider bringing back Curry.

For now, though, Curry — who had served as adviser for 11years and was named adviser of the year in 2007 by the Texas IntercollegiatePress Association — is focusing on making a full recovery from her surgery.

“In a journalism story, our job is to seek the truth,” shesaid. “If what’s happened to me was made into a journalism story, it’d be apretty bad one. They should be ashamed for how this was handled.”