INDIANA — Butler University has walked back the decision to replace the Butler Collegian’s adviser with the university spokesman, after a national outcry last week.
On Friday evening, the Collegian reported that the university replaced the spokesman, Marc Allan, with Nancy Whitmore, the chairwoman of the Eugene S. Pulliam School of Journalism.
It was a mutual decision between Whitmore, Allan and the dean of the College of Communications, Gary Edgerton, based on the “tremendous amount of public pressure,” Allan said.
Whitmore will serve as the interim adviser until a permanent full-time replacement is found. She did not respond to a request for comment on Monday.
The Collegian’s adviser, Loni McKown, was dismissed on Sept. 8, allegedly for forwarding an email from Edgerton to the paper’s staff as a news tip, without noticing that there was a confidentiality notice at the bottom of the email. McKown, who is still a journalism professor at Butler, is contesting her dismissal, saying that she was dismissed for doing her job too well and that Edgerton and other faculty members have long considered the paper to be “too investigative.”
The College Media Association’s Adviser Advocacy Committee is already looking into McKown’s case, said Chris Evans, chairman of the committee, in a statement on CMA’s website.
“If it turns out that college officials wanted her to censor students or conduct prior review — and if they fired her because she wouldn’t do either of these things — then we’d have a problem with that,” he said. “If that’s the situation, we’ll reach out to the college in an effort to set things right.”
Edgerton has said before that the Collegian has been and will remain an independent newspaper, with no prior review.
He could not be reached for comment on Monday, but he told the Collegian that he was comfortable with the initial decision to make Allan the interim adviser as it was “an uncertain situation that was a little bit of uncharted territory.”
“We always tried to the best we could and the best for the students and that really was our first and foremost thought,” he told the paper. “Now, if we were to go back and start from the beginning, maybe Nancy (Whitmore) would be the interim adviser.”
Collegian editor in chief Matthew VanTryon said he thinks this decision will benefit everyone involved and that he has a lot of respect for Whitmore.
“Nancy will be a wonderful choice to help us continue to do what we have done all along, which is to do good journalism — that is why I’m in the role I’m in, that is what the people on staff want to do,” he said.
Edgerton and Allan have consistently said that Allan has several decades of experience as a professional journalist and would have not interfered with the Collegian’s editorial freedom. They also made arrangements for student journalists to get advice from professional journalists in case of a potential conflict of interest with Allan.
Still, the decision to appoint Allan had shocked journalists and other college media watchers across the country. The College Media Association had condemned the decision as a blatant conflict of interest, as did the Society of Professional Journalists.
“There are obvious lines in what is and is not acceptable in journalism, and one must wonder whether the people making decisions for Butler University’s school newspaper and journalism school understand those very basic principles,” the SPJ statement said. “…Would the average person feel comfortable with one of President Obama’s press secretaries editing the New York Times?”
Allan said he hadn’t thought about how the arrangement would be perceived by the public. He was mainly thinking of how excited he was to work with the student journalists, he said.
Allan has taught journalism classes at Butler and since last year, has served as the public editor of the Collegian — a job modeled after the one at the New York Times, where he writes about journalistic and ethical issues that come up and how the students handled them. He said he’s not sure if he is continuing with that role.
“I’m sorry this became such a public issue,” he said. “I care too much about the program to see it hurt in any way, and if I had thought a little further about it, I would have said to the dean that this isn’t going to play well in public.”
Contact SPLC staff writer Madeline Will by email or at 202-833-4614.