University dismissed student paper adviser, replaced her with university spokesman

INDIANA — The Butler Collegian’s faculty adviser has been dismissed from her position and replaced with a university spokesman, prompting concerns among the student editors and college media watchers.

Loni McKown, who had just started her sixth year as the student newspaper’s adviser, said she received a letter dated Sept. 4 that said she was no longer the Collegian’s adviser and could not advise any Collegian staff in any capacity. The letter said that if she failed to abide by that directive, she would face additional discipline up to and including termination.

McKown will continue to teach journalism classes at Butler.

Butler University spokesman Marc Allan has taken over the position as interim adviser this week. He said this is a “stop gap” measure — he might be in the position a couple months or throughout the year, he said.

He worked as a professional journalist for 24 years, he said, and since joining Butler’s public relations team 11 years ago, he’s been a freelance reporter. He also teaches journalism at Butler and has critiqued the Collegian “from time to time.”

“My job is public relations for the university, but I’m a journalist at heart,” he said.

Still, when the news broke, those in the college media world expressed dismay and concern — both that a university spokesman would be advising the student newspaper and that McKown, a well-respected and award-winning adviser, had been dismissed.

“This is not unusual for advisers of student media … to be under a microscope because administration, very naturally, doesn’t like student news media because it’s not PR,” McKown said. “This isn’t different from any other place, but I feel like I’ve been under the microscope.”

McKown recently had forwarded an email Gary Edgerton, the dean of the College of Communications, had sent to the college’s faculty members to the Collegian as a possible news tip. The email was marked confidential, which McKown said she hadn’t noticed.

McKown apologized to Edgerton and promised it would never happen again, but she was dismissed soon after that. She was not given an official reason for her dismissal. She said she thinks there is an underlying belief that she was directing the newspaper’s content.

“There is no prior review” of the Collegian, she said. “A lot of times, I don’t know what they’re putting into the student newspaper.”

It has been “often repeated,” she said, that Edgerton and other faculty consider her to be “too investigative” and her students as “too aggressive.”

Edgerton said that is untrue, although he said he could not discuss the reason behind McKown’s dismissal since it is a personnel matter.

“We’re proud of our student journalists, proud of the work they’ve done,” he said.

Still, McKown holds that she was dismissed for doing her job “too well.” And her situation is not unique among advisers, she said.

“My situation resonates with a growing trend that is problematic,” she said. “It’s why I’m willing to take a stand and fight for student expression and freedom of student press, whether it’s a public university or a private university. … The students are doing what they’re supposed to do. They’re practicing the craft … of journalism. It frustrates me that at places of higher education, this is not always understood. It saddens me.”

Collegian editor-in-chief Matthew VanTryon said he had a “fantastic” relationship with McKown.

“Her leadership, her mentorship, her advising is the reason I’m where I am as a journalist today,” he said. “It’s very unfortunate she has been removed from a position where she has been able to impact so many students’ lives.”

He said he also has a great relationship with Allan, who has been a mentor to him over the past few years and has helped him with stories. Still, he doesn’t want a university spokesman as the adviser of the Collegian.

“Marc Allan as a journalist is exceptionally qualified to be the adviser of the Collegian,” he said. “However, when you look at the role he plays at Butler — that creates a conflict of interest that you can’t avoid.”

Allan said he knows the students have concerns, and he will try to alleviate them.

He has already made arrangements for professional journalists to step in if there’s a potential conflict of interest, he said. The student journalists could get advice from the professionals “if they don’t feel comfortable coming to me,” Allan said, adding, “I will not know anything about it.”

Edgerton said he is aware of the potential for a conflict of interest, but the safeguards have been put in place to protect the student journalists and Allan knows that he has no say in the paper’s coverage. The Collegian will remain an independent paper, he said.

Allan’s tenure as adviser will be temporary, he said — “the idea is not to have him there any longer than he needs to be.”

“We’re trying to make the best of a difficult situation,” Edgerton said. “We will move to step two as soon as we can.”

VanTryon said he appreciates the safeguards put in place, but he knows there will still be an issue with the public perception of the situation and that it will be an “undeniable” conflict of interest.

“There is potential for there to be situations that come up for both Marc and for the Collegian staff that puts both of us in a bad situation,” he said. “As a journalist, I know there’s situations where PR and journalism do not mesh.”

Allan said he doesn’t foresee difficulties balancing his two roles. He’s been quoted in the Collegian only a handful of times in the past 11 years, he said.

“I’d never think of telling them what to write,” Allan said. “That’s the last thing I would do.”

Still, College Media Association President Rachele Kanigel said it’s an “untenable situation” to have someone who is both representing the university and advising the student newspaper.

“I think that in any other situation, he might be a fine adviser, but if the university is paying his paycheck to represent the university, then that is his first responsibility,” she said. “It just seems like it puts him into a conflict of interest every single day. How can students trust him? How can students go to him? Some of what they may be doing is investigating the university.”

Kanigel, who advises the Golden Gate XPress at San Francisco State University, said it’s unfair for the university to put Allan in that situation.

“Conflicts come up every day in tiny and large ways,” she said. “I can’t imagine the conflicts that I would have if I was representing the university. Students tell me what they’re working on, they ask me about headlines, legal issues. I couldn’t do my job for my students if I was also protecting the image of the university.”

Kanigel said McKown is planning to file a complaint with the College Media Association’s adviser advocacy program, which will then investigate the situation and attempt to mediate a “mutually satisfying solution” between the two sides.

McKown, she said, has been a “terrific college newspaper adviser” and has helped bring the Collegian to a new level of excellence.

During her time as adviser, the Collegian has won a national award from Investigative Reporters and Editors, a national Mark of Excellence award from the Society of Professional Journalists and a Pacemaker award from the Associated Collegiate Press.

Despite the pending investigation and the ongoing controversy, VanTryon said he plans to make sure operations at the Collegian continue as usual — and ethically.

“We’ll cover what we’re supposed to cover,” he said. “The way that we do things is not going to change.”

Contact SPLC staff writer Madeline Will by email or at 202-833-4614.