Fairmont State administrator removed from newspaper supervisor position after allegations of intimidation

WEST VIRGINIA — Fairmont State University recently removed an administrator from supervising the school’s student newspaper, not long after allegations of intimidation surfaced surrounding the paper’s investigative articles about black mold on campus.

The president of the university, Maria Bennett Rose, chose to remove J. Robert Baker as supervisor, said Deanna Shields, dean of the College of Liberal Arts, in an email. Shields will oversee the newspaper, at least temporarily.

Baker will still remain head of the department of language and literature, said university spokeswoman Ann Booth. He was removed from his supervisory position, effective July 1.

Booth said she “didn’t believe” that Baker would remain the organization manager of the newspaper’s budget.

Baker, when reached briefly by phone, declined to comment on why the decision was made, but Baker has been heavily criticized for his actions towards the editors and adviser at the student newspaper, which garnered national attention.

The Columns student newspaper published two articles last April and May on their investigations into allegations of mold on campus, along with an editorial criticizing the administration’s reaction to the coverage. Their investigation revealed the presence of stachybotrys chartarum, a potentially toxic form of black mold, in an on-campus dorm.

One week after the last story was published, the students publications adviser Michael Kelley — who was hired in August 2014 — received notification that his one-year appointment was up.

Kelley, along with The Columns editors Jacob Buckland and Tyler Wilson, have claimed that Kelley was hired for a three-year appointment, and his firing was directly related to his support of the students’ investigative work.

Buckland and Wilson have alleged that Baker attempted to intimidate and threaten the newspaper in response to the mold articles.

In June, both students sent a letter to Fairmont State’s Board of Governors, calling for Kelley’s reinstatement as adviser and for Baker’s termination.

Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, said Baker’s removal from the newspaper might be a step in the right direction for Fairmont.

“I would certainly interpret it as a positive step to get a person out of the chain of command who has been unsupportive of student press freedom,” LoMonte said.

Buckland and Kelley agreed that this is a positive decision, but Buckland said there are still “a lot of unanswered questions” about the newspaper’s future.

Shields is evaluating the assignment of a new adviser for The Columns on a temporary basis “to ensure the future of the publication,” Booth said.

“[Rose] notified the provost and I, who decided that the best course of action would be for me, as dean, to oversee the newspaper, hire a temporary advisor, meet with the students as soon as they return in order to ensure a smooth transition, and develop plans for the future of the newspaper,” Shields said in an email.

Shields will not teach classes as Kelley had. It’s unclear who will be teaching next year’s journalism classes — Wilson said the courses are currently listed as being taught by “staff.”

“I think [Shields will] fill the gap well until a new student publications adviser with a background in journalism can be found,” Wilson said.

Booth said the university anticipates publication of the paper to continue at the start of the fall semester, as it usually would.

Still, Buckland expressed doubts that the paper will get a quality publications adviser in time for the next school year, which starts on Aug. 17.

“It won’t be someone who’s fit for the job,” Buckland said. “My fear is that it is going to be a professor who’s a suck-up to administration if they’re hiring on that short of notice.”

As of July 22, the position has not been posted on Fairmont State’s job board.

Without an adviser, The Columns would only be able to print about twice a year, due to time constraints of the staff, Buckland said.

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