Guiding an award-winning newspaper is not always enough toprotect an adviser’s job – something T.R. Hanrahan at Missouri Southern StateUniversity learned the hard way.
“In April, I picked up the schedule book for … fall of 2011,and all of my classes were listed as being taught by ‘staff,’” Hanrahanrecalled. “It was almost a month after that before they actually told me. Noreason was given, it was just, ‘We wanted to make a change.’”
In the five years Hanrahan advised TheChart, the paper has placed in the top 10 newspapers nationally atthe Associated College Press’s Best of Show awards three times. Last year’seditor in chief, Brennan Stebbins, won the Missouri Journalist of the Yearaward. Hanrahan himself was the Missouri College Media Association’s 2010Adviser of the Year. But none of these awards and accolades could protect hisjob.
“I didn’t all of the sudden in 12 months start to suck at myjob, so it kind of stinks,” he said. “So I’m not a bad teacher, I’m not a badadviser, and I think my students’ performance indicates that.”
College newspapers rely on advisers for guidance andsupport, but sometimes those advisers are in need of advice themselves. Asuniversity employees charged with ensuring students produce the highest qualitywork, advisers are often caught between a rock and a hard place when the threatof a sensitive story pushes them to choose sides. With a rash of adviserfirings and “removals” sweeping through colleges around the country, advisersare treading carefully.
Sally Renaud, national president of College Media Advisers,said in August her organization has investigated 12 adviser removals so farthis year.
“I know that anecdotally, we are overwhelmed with so manycases right now and we are always devastated because we know these people, theyare our friends,” she said.
A.J. Anglin, vice president of academic affairs at MissouriSouthern, said he could not comment on Hanrahan’s removal, but that there wouldbe no major changes to the way the newspaper or the communication department isrun.
“There’s limits to what I can say basically placed upon meby my administration, so I can only say so much, and that’s the rules,” saidJay Moorman, department head of communications. “It was painful to have all thestuff happen, and I’m ready to move forward.”
Although Hanrahan was not officially let go until April, hesaid he knew something wasn’t right and he believes the decision to fire himwas made months earlier.
“I felt pressure,” he said. “I’d been called into theacademic vice president’s office to discuss our policies – not content, but ofcourse every policy he brought up was attached to a specific story. I thinkthat the administration thought at some point that by putting a little pressureon me, I would go back to the newsroom and put pressure on [students] to backoff.”
When word got out that Hanrahan was being fired, the campusreacted immediately. Students organized a Facebook group and held across-campus march in solidarity. The faculty senate presented him with anofficial proclamation of thanks. Much of the support came from students outsidethe staff of The Chart, which Hanrahan said may surprise others but not him.
“It was a news story, and [the staff] had to remain outsideof it, so they didn’t take part in the formal demonstration,” Hanrahan said.“Instead, they had to cover it as news. But that support is coming from peoplewho aren’t journalists by trade, but respect the First Amendment and know wetried to do the right thing. And it was very touching and gratifying.”
Despite the outpouring of support, Hanrahan was not rehired.At the moment, The Chart does not have an adviser and Hanrahanis seeking employment. He hopes to advise another student publication.
At about the same time, about 400 miles to the south,University of Texas at Tyler adviser Vanessa Curry was getting her own walkingpapers.
“More than anything, I think they [school administrators]were just waiting for an opportunity to get rid of me, and that opportunitycame up this year,” Curry said. “They played like they were supporting thenewspaper, but they don’t.”
According to Curry, she was fired after a former co-workerleft the university and complained about Curry’s treatment of students duringan exit interview. The new communications department chairman, Dennis Cali,conducted an investigation, but Curry felt it was incomplete.
“He got some complaints and he followed those complaints,and only interviewed [people] who had complaints against the newspaper or aboutme as a teacher,” Curry said. “He never spoke to the (current) students orformer students that would have had something good to say about theirexperience at the university or at the Patriot Talon or in myclasses.”
Kamren Thompson, editor in chief of the PatriotTalon newspaper last year, found that many of the attributes listedas “complaints” in Cali’s investigation were what made her a good journalismadviser and teacher.
“Ms. Curry was a hard teacher. She expected a lot of herstudents. She forced us to think critically and seriously examine situations tocome to our own conclusions,” Thompson said. “She was there to help us learnand grow when we needed her, and she stepped back when she knew we could handlea situation. What more could you ask for in an adviser?”
But according to Donna Dickerson, interim provost and vicepresident for academic affairs, Curry was removed not only because of herperformance as an adviser, but also waning interest in UT-Tyler’s journalismdepartment.
“Ms. Curry’s contracts as lecturer and as student newspaperadviser were not renewed because of poor teaching evaluations and inappropriatebehavior in the Patriot Talon newsroom and classrooms,” saidDickerson. “We also had a declining enrollment in journalism classes and neededfresh and dynamic leadership in that area.”
This is not the first time the school has tried to removeCurry from the newspaper. Curry said that in 2002, administrators tried toremove her from her adviser position, but did not attempt to remove her fromher faculty teaching position in the communications department.
“They still don’t understand what student journalism isabout. It’s not public relations for the university,” she explained. “It’sabout teaching these students how to react in the real world, how to askquestions, how to be persistent about getting the answers and truth, accuracyand fairness.”
Although Curry was fired in the middle of the semester, the PatriotTalon still does not have a permanent adviser, although Dickersonsaid there is a temporary adviser in place and a “national search” for a newadviser, who Dickerson hopes will start in time for the fall or springsemester.
College of DuPage
Many advisers carry teaching duties on top of their role asadvisers, something Cathy Stablein had done for 24 years at the College ofDuPage in Glen Ellyn, Ill., as half of the two-person journalism and masscommunication faculty. She said she never had trouble balancing her commitmentto the student newspaper, the Courier, with her teachingduties – but school administrators thought otherwise.
“As of May 26, I was told that I would have to work oncritical program review for the journalism program and that I would not havetime to work on that as well as advise the newspaper,” Stablein said. “I wasnot asked, I was just told that ‘you will not be able to [continue advising]and you have to be out in about five days.’”
The department has seen a decrease in enrollment to thepoint that not all classes have the College of DuPage’s minimum number ofstudents, although Stablein said the college has the ability to change thoserequirements by department and has done so in the past. Because of the decreasein enrollment, the program is being placed under critical review.
“When a school makes decisions like this, it’s a strategicplan that something has value and something doesn’t have value, so what theyare doing is saying that this does not have the value that they want,” Stableinsaid.
Sue Martin, dean of student services, pulled Stablein fromher advising duties in order to focus on refocusing the department, butStablein was not consulted about these changes, nor were any other optionspresented.
“Technically there are two of us in the program, and I wouldthink that some of those duties should be split. Perhaps the other person mighthave stepped up and said, ‘Sure, I’ll take more of a load because this isimportant to our journalism program,’” Stablein said. “But I didn’t hear thosediscussions, and I was not asked. I couldn’t negotiate – they’d already ineffect what I call ‘hobbled’ me.”
From Stablein’s point of view, pulling her away from heradvising duties and putting the department under critical review is soundingthe death knell for the program.
“It is a step [toward eliminating the program]. I don’t evenhave to think that – it is a step,” Stablein said. “They will decide February 1whether they think the program is viable or not. So at that point, February 1,I’m fighting to keep my job.”
The school has assigned a temporary adviser to the Courier,and has placed an advertisement for a part-time adviser to work 10 hours perweek, with some work being performed over the phone or by email, a systemStablein says simply will not work.
“It’s not the hours a week, it’s how that time’s divided.The 10 hours doesn’t get divided up into 9 to 11 [every day], it’s minuteshere, minutes there, something like that,” she said, adding that studenteditors were concerned that not having an adviser in the office would detractfrom their learning experience. “It will weaken the paper, it will weaken the[adviser-student] relationship, and it’s definitely not good for teaching.”
Adviser removals are more frequent occurrences thanstudents, advisers and journalists would like, but this year brought an unusualspike over past years.
Some of these removals have been fairly “traditional.”Others, such as Johnson County Community College’s move to shift AnneChristiansen-Bullers from advising the newspaper to writing for the school’sP.R. department, are murkier: Marcus Klim, a member of Christiansen-Buller’sstaff last semester, claims she was removed to hurt the paper, butadministrators and the paper’s current editor-in-chief say it was an attempt tochange the department while still providing Bullers with a job.
At North Carolina State University, longtime adviser BradleyWilson was fired in August just weeks after a controversy involving anorientation publication he oversaw. Wilson’s colleagues and some studenteditors, however, said they don’t believe the move was in retaliation forcontent.
“We’d like to think in the world of academia we are a bitmore protected, but in fact we are not, especially if you’re not in a facultyposition,” Renaud said. “If you’re in a student affairs kind of position,you’re really susceptible to this kind of thing. You really don’t haveprotection.”
While the First Amendment protects against governmentpunishment of speech, it’s not clear that a fired adviser has a viable FirstAmendment claim, even if the connection between the firing and students’journalistic decisions is blatant. The Supreme Court has said thatgovernment employees cannot bring First Amendment claims for speech made in thecourse of their employment, because as employees, they are considered to bespeaking on behalf of the government, not as individuals.
At a public university, it’s possible for students tochallenge an adviser’s dismissal as a violation of their own First Amendmentrights, on the grounds that the firing is meant to intimidate or handicap themin the exercise of their own free speech. This legal theory has been attemptedonly a few times, and the history of success is mixed. Students at New Jersey’sOcean County College succeeded in a First Amendment challenge to the firing oftheir adviser, Karen Bosley, but students at Kansas State University were notas successful in bringing the same claim when their adviser, Ron Johnson, wasremoved.
Even in states where labor laws and tenure make adviserremovals difficult, advisers say some schools are finding new ways to push themout of the way.
“I think school administrators are getting smarter about howto go after an adviser,” Hanrahan said. “It used to be just, ‘Let’s get rid of‘em,’ and they’d leave a trail and it would lead back to an obvious contentissue or something that could be established. Now they are very careful.They’ll look at little things, like does your distribution happen on time –things that your adviser may not even control.”
Although each adviser removal happens under differentcircumstances, Stablein said removing an experienced adviser is often a“backdoor” way to censor student newspapers.
“It is a form of censorship by saying we’re going to takeaway one of the important tools that you need,” Stablein said. “Long-termadvisers have a lot of knowledge of the institution. Once you take somebodyaway from that, a new person doesn’t know that much at [that] point, so theywould have to learn,” leaving the paper in a bind until the new adviser learnsthe ropes.
That’s exactly what Thompson suspects is happening atUT-Tyler.
“It was ingenious, really. They didn’t take the paper away,but there is no doubt in my mind they plan to hire an adviser who is lessinterested in freedom of the press and more interested in universitypropaganda,” she said. “I would imagine such a small program without asupportive adviser will essentially dissolve.”
And that can take a while, given that Missouri Southern, UTTyler and the College of DuPage have not yet found permanent replacementadvisers.
“I have to have someone in place before school starts. Itmight be right before school starts, it might be that week, but there will besomeone in place,” Moorman said. “The Chart has a long, longhistorical tradition of excellence and freedom of speech, and I expect thattradition to continue. I want it to continue.”
Although Golden had similar reassurances about the future ofthe PatriotTalon, Curry said she has doubts about administrator support for thestudent press at UT-Tyler and elsewhere. She said the experience left a badtaste in her mouth about teaching and journalism.
“I’m concerned, and maybe I’m just gun-shy right now, thatthere isn’t a place that would hire someone with my background knowing that I’ma strong believer in student press,” she said. “Some of these students thatwere editors and stuff are not coming back. One of them is seriously sodespondent over this that she’s rethinking her whole career… and I’m not sosure I shouldn’t talk her out of journalism.”
By Emily T. Gerston, SPLC staff writer