Dorm mold story leads to adviser’s termination, student journalists allege

WEST VIRGINIA — Fairmont State University’s newspaper adviser filed a grievance on Tuesday against the university in response to his dismissal in May, not long after The Columns student newspaper he advised published multiple articles critical of the university’s response to black mold on campus.

Jacob Buckland, the student newspaper’s editor in chief, said he believes adviser Michael Kelley was dismissed in response to his leadership of the paper. Kelley agrees.

When they began to cover controversial campus issues, such retaliation “was within the scope of possibility,” Tyler Wilson, the student newspaper’s managing editor, said. “We just didn’t expect them to do it because that’s insanely unintelligent on their end.”

But a university administrator said Kelley was not terminated. Rather, his contract with the institution had simply ended.

After students complained to Buckland and Wilson about mold on campus last fall, they tested three campus dormitories and wrote a story about the results.

Their tests, which consisted of swabs taken from “places that looked disgusting,” revealed the presence of a form of potentially toxic “black mold,” known as Stachybotrys chartarum, Buckland said. The Columns published its first article about the mold on April 13.

On May 11, the newspaper published the story of Breanna Blot, a Fairmont student who said she was hospitalized as a result of mold exposure from living on campus. She suffered hives and swelling that led her to vacate her on-campus housing.

Story prompts controversy

The Columns had already faced administrative pressure before publishing the mold articles. Two university staff members, Alicia Moore, director of housing and residence life, and J. Robert Baker, head of the department of language and literature, had already attempted to prior review other articles. The journalism department at Fairmont is part of the Department of Language and Literature.

Once the mold story was published, Baker “became hostile,” Buckland said.

During a meeting with Baker on April 23, Baker threatened not to provide funding to print the next issue of the newspaper if Buckland did not give him the mold test results, Buckland said. That same day, Baker said the staff could continue designing the paper as long as it contained nothing controversial, Kelley said.

In May, Baker also cut the newspaper staff’s stipends, Buckland said. Buckland’s stipend was the only one left uncut.

Wilson said that the newspaper brought in close to $900 in advertising revenue this past semester. The paper usually has the money to pay its staff members without those funds, he said.

“Now we have an additional $900 and everyone’s still getting cut back?” he said.

Buckland and Wilson said they believe Baker’s resistance to the newspaper’s coverage may have been caused by pressure from higher-up university officials to remove negative coverage.

Baker, Lavorata, and Moore did not respond to requests for comment.

As the newspaper’s adviser, Kelley said he aimed to give students a solid foundation in real-world reporting.

Part of his job was to build the journalism department from a minor to a viable major, said Kelley. During the 2014-2015 school year, the paper was redesigned and a uniform production cycle was established. Feedback from students and many staff members was positive, according to Buckland and Wilson.

University says Kelley not rehired

On May 18, Kelley received an email from Christina Lavorata, provost and vice president for academic affairs at Fairmont, informing him that his one-year appointment had ended.

However, Kelley said he thought his appointment was for three years — consisting of three nine-month contracts.

Kelley was not fired; rather, his appointment ended and it was decided that he not be reappointed, said Ann Booth, a university spokeswoman.

According to a contract signed by Kelley on October 21, 2014 confirming his hire as a temporary assistant professor of journalism, Kelley’s position was a temporary, full-time, nine-month position beginning August 11, 2014 and ending May 17, 2015.

Kelley said that he understood this to be the first of his three nine-month contracts. He said that he asked for the other two contracts from administrators, but ultimately did not receive them.

The search committee specified that his hiring was a three-year appointment during the selection process, said Kelley.

According to a May 21 email, Angela Schwer, professor of English at Fairmont and a member of the selection committee for Kelley’s appointment, said “it was my understanding also that we offered you a three year appointment.”

“To say I am dismayed by the termination of Michael Kelley’s contract is an understatement,” Donna Long, another member of the selection committee and a professor of English at Fairmont, said in a letter. She also stated in the letter that the job posting specified a three-year appointment.

According to copies of the original job posting, the position was a “nine-month temporary” position with a three-year appointment.

Fairmont has experienced “severe budget cuts” in the past several years, and therefore the university can only guarantee positions from one fiscal year to the next, said Cindy Curry, the university’s assistant vice president for human resources.

“In actual practice, most people do continue on,” she said.

Rehiring also depends on factors other than the budget, such as whether or not a program is “robust” or is losing students, she said, adding that Kelley’s offer letter supersedes the job postings.

“We set it up specifically that we weren’t making any implied promises of continued employment,” she said.

On Tuesday, Buckland and Wilson sent a letter to the Board of Governors, Fairmont’s governing body, calling for Baker’s termination and Kelley’s reinstatement, in conjunction with Kelley’s own reinstatement efforts.

If Kelley cannot return as adviser, Buckland and Wilson said the newspaper could fold.

“Michael’s dismissal is kind of like the icing on the cake for just general hostility towards a free and open press on our campus this year,” Wilson said. “Really, anything that has the truth in it has been attempted to be muzzled and stifled by senior-level administration on campus,” he said.

Contact SPLC staff writer Trisha LeBoeuf by email or at (202) 974-6318.