A culture of intimidation and mistrust with student media at Fairmont State

Years of tension, frustration and miscommunication lurking beneath the surface of Fairmont State University’s student press boiled over this year with clashes between the administration and the staff of The Columns student newspaper over investigative articles about harmful mold on campus.

At Fairmont State in West Virginia — a public school with fewer than 5,000 students — multiple newspaper editors and advisers claim they’ve had to deal with administrative intimidation that goes beyond a healthy difference of interests between the press and the university.

The latest controversy, which is still ongoing, began this past spring, when Jacob Buckland, Tyler Wilson, and Brad Riffee, editors of The Columns, investigated allegations of black mold on campus.

Buckland and Wilson’s swabs in “places that looked disgusting” revealed the presence of a potentially toxic form of black mold in campus housing — stachybotrys chartarum.

The paper’s investigative coverage reportedly soon led to administrative intimidation and bullying, which the student editors said came primarily from the head of the department of language and literature, J. Robert Baker. Baker was the administrator who oversaw the student publications.

After several months of conflict between The Columns and the administration, on July 1, Baker was removed as supervisor of The Columns by the university’s president, Maria Bennett Rose.

Deanna Shields, dean of the College of Liberal Arts, is now overseeing The Columns.

Baker remains head of the department. He declined to say why he was removed from his supervisory position, and has denied all allegations against him.

Shields said in an email in July that she will “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.”

The future of the newspaper, however, took a drastic turn — in September, the student editors met with Shields and other administrators, including the university president. The meeting ended with Buckland, Wilson and Britany Mullins, former copy editor, resigning from their positions at The Columns.

Buckland and Wilson said they were told repeatedly that The Columns had “too much controversy and negativity” last year and needed to focus on more positive news.

“They see news and the student newspaper as playing the role of a PR front for the university,” Buckland said. “We see it as an actual newspaper.

The editors were also upset with Shields’ choice for The Columns’ replacement advisers.

Rachel Ellis, a former multimedia reporter for The Times-West Virginian, has been hired part-time to serve as the paper’s main adviser and Misty Poe, the general manager and managing editor of the Times-West Virginian will serve as assistant adviser.

Buckland and Wilson said they have concerns about the advisers’ potential biases. They claim that the Times-West Virginian’s coverage on the university was often sympathetic to the administration.

While the new advisers could not be reached for comment, university spokeswoman Ann Mazza said the student editors were asked twice to remain with The Columns.

In September, Buckland said there are only three Columns staffers still with the paper — not enough to regularly produce the newspaper, he said.

Former advisers and students claim that the controversy was just the latest in years of intimidation from the administration at Fairmont State.

Several student publications advisers, including last year’s adviser, Michael Kelley, claim that they were terminated or pushed out of their positions by administration.

“I think, when you have a series of well-credentialed advisers being pushed out of their positions, you have to start asking whether there is a toxic culture at this university,” said Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center.

“It’s believable that one adviser might have some sort of personality conflict with a supervisor, not multiple people. That suggests that there are bigger cultural problems at Fairmont State, starting with a lack of respect for First Amendment values,” he said.

Backlash over mold stories

Before the investigation into mold in campus housing, the paper and administration had mostly been on good terms in the 2014-15 school year, Buckland and Wilson said.

But after the first mold story was published, the paper encountered attempts at prior review and intimidation from administration, Buckland and Wilson said, including a time when Baker allegedly threatened to not print the paper if Buckland did not give him the mold test results the paper had collected.

The paper ultimately published two news articles about the mold — the other detailed health problems suffered by a sophomore due to mold exposure.

On May 18, one week after the second mold story was published, Kelley, the student publications adviser, said he received an email from Provost Christina Lavorata, saying his appointment was up and he had to turn in his keys.

Kelley — supported by multiple members of the selection committee that hired him — maintains that he understood he was hired for a three-year appointment consisting of three nine-month contracts.

Spokeswoman Ann Mazza said Kelley was not fired — rather, his nine-month contract was complete and it was decided that it not be renewed.

Kelley has brought a grievance against the school in relation to his termination that is still in development at press time.

In June, Buckland and Wilson wrote a letter to Fairmont State’s Board of Governors, calling for Baker’s termination and Kelley’s reinstatement. They received a response from board chairman Ron Tucker that said the board was reviewing the allegations against Baker and taking them “very seriously.”

Wilson said he doesn’t believe the board is actually investigating the situation. Tucker did not respond to calls and emails requesting comment.

National organizations like the College Media Association, the Society of Professional Journalists and the Student Press Law Center wrote letters in support of The Columns.

Several media outlets also picked up the story.

Discord over stipends

Former publications adviser Kevin Smith, who was at Fairmont State from 2004 to 2010, said he also experienced conflicts with administration, mainly during his last year as adviser.

During his tenure, the newspaper reported to the student publications board — a governing agency that appointed the editors, helped set the budget and handled any issues regarding the publication process, Smith said.

The board still exists “on paper,” but has not met in a long time because of a lack of candidates for the various editor positions at the student publications, Baker said.

“When I came into the chair, the primary function of the student publications board was to select the editors … that’s the situation I inherited,” he said.

There was no need to call the board when only one student applied to be editor, he added.

Revisions for the student publications handbook were drafted in 2010, but never completed, and the handbook has been out of use for several years, Mazza said in an email.

Smith said the board’s involvement in the student newspaper changed once Rose became president at Fairmont State.

Rose did not respond to requests for comment.

Previously, any decisions Smith wanted to make about student stipends had to go through the student publications board, he said.

But in Smith’s last year, he said that Baker began to demand approval over the stipends.

Baker said the newspaper adviser reported to him, as journalism is part of the department of language and literature.

Still, Lavorata, the provost, said the adviser has the ultimate oversight over the paper.

Typically, student newspaper editors have control over newsroom personnel decisions and input into the budget along with the paper’s adviser, LoMonte said.

In 2014-15, most of the Columns student journalists’ stipends were cut — but Baker and the journalists disagree on the circumstances surrounding the cuts.

This past spring, Kelley said Baker decided to lower the stipends, to which Kelley was “completely opposed.” The historical stipend amount for student reporters is $250 a semester, Kelley said, and he told Baker he would not agree to a cut below $200.

But Baker “pretty much” unilaterally cut the stipends for reporters to $150, Kelley said.

Meanwhile, Baker said in an email that historically, reporters have received a $150 stipend. He said Kelley had requested $250 stipends last fall, and Baker agreed, with the stipulation that the paper might not be able to afford to continue paying staffers that amount. After a semester, Baker said the publications budget did not have the money to continue paying reporters that amount and returned to $150 stipends.

The two parties both deny the other’s claim.

“Dr. Baker’s lying through his teeth,” Buckland said. “It’s always been $250 per semester, per reporter.”

Buckland has worked at the paper for two years, and this was the first time the stipends had been cut during that time, he said in an email.

In the spring semester, Wilson, managing editor, said his stipend was cut from $500 to $400. Buckland, the editor-in-chief, said his stipend was the only one that remained uncut — $750 per semester.

Requests to see the budget

Mazza, the university spokeswoman, said Baker, who has been removed as supervisor of the newspaper, is no longer the organization manager of the student publications budget — which he had been since July 2008.

No one but the organization manager has guaranteed right of access to the budget, said Debbie Stiles, budget director of the business office at Fairmont State. If the manager decides to share the budget — say, with the newspaper adviser or student editors — they can, but it is his or her right not to do so, she said.

In an email, Baker said that he has always consulted the student publications advisor and taken his or her advice, until this spring when the stipends were changed.

Baker said that no one has ever asked to see the budget — a claim that Kelley, Buckland and Wilson vehemently deny.

They maintain that they each made attempts to see the budget — both in-person and through email — to Baker and Enrico Porto, vice president of fiscal affairs at Fairmont State.

Those attempts were met with resistance and refusal, they said. In his time at Fairmont State, Kelley said he never saw a copy of the budget.

Buckland said he ultimately received a copy of the budget almost immediately after he sent a Freedom of Information Act request to Porto in June.

LoMonte said problems can arise when the editor does not have control over the budget — like in a recent case at Northern Michigan University, where student editors were delayed in receiving FOIA-requested documents by the paper’s board of directors, who denied them the money to pay the high fees associated with the requests. (The fees were eventually waived.)

“It’s not fair, and it’s not good management, to leave the editor in the dark about how much money he has to spend,” LoMonte said.

Smith said in an email that Baker did not attempt to control the budget until the 2009-10 school year — the school year after he was listed as the organization manager and the year when Smith said there was “general discontent” from administration over stories that The Columns published.

“[The title of organization manager] was bestowed upon him as a way by which administrators could access the pocketbooks of the student press and use it to leverage or punish journalists,” Smith said.

“Cut their salaries, the number of papers they print, when they print — all of that is about controlling the purse strings.”

Bryan Bumgardner, who served as editor-in-chief of The Columns in the 2010-11 school year, said he had the sense that Baker was caught in between multiple interests.

“I think people like John [Baker] legitimately tried, but I also think he was trying to balance ‘let’s have a student paper’ versus his bosses, who were saying ‘shut that stupid paper up — it’s making us look bad,’” he said.

Multiple advisers terminated

Kelley is not the first adviser to claim that his contract’s termination came as a surprise.

Smith, who worked for Fairmont State as student publications adviser and professor of journalism for six years, was told that his contract was not being renewed a week after he received the professor of the year award for the 2008-09 school year, he said.

After Smith’s colleagues went to the president’s office and demanded an explanation for his dismissal, he was given one more year as a temporary assistant professor.

In the 2010-11 academic year, Katie Wilson Cook, yearbook adviser, had her contract terminated.

Wilson Cook said that Baker informed her she would not have the job next year soon after she had taken a week off from her other job at the Times West-Virginian to go on a yearbook trip for the university. She said he did not explain why her contract would not be renewed.

Prior to that incident, Wilson Cook said that her yearbook dealings with Baker had gone well. Baker declined to comment on that accusation, saying it was a personnel matter.

Further allegations of intimidation, censorship

Sharon Brescoach, the journalism professor and adviser of The Columns from 2011 to 2013, said she also dealt with retributive actions from Baker.

“I was told what to print and what not to print by Dr. Baker,” she said in an email. “The conversations always began with ‘I’m not trying to practice prior restraint, but…’”

Brescoach said that she attempted to produce investigative stories, but all attempts were squashed.

“I always felt as if I had been in an extremely hostile work environment, but most people wouldn’t stand up,” she said. “Many people were afraid of retribution, including myself.” Baker denied Brescoach’s accusations.

Smith said that he and his staff had multiple run-ins with Baker and President Rose.

During Smith’s tenure in fall 2009, The Columns reported on the chairman of the Board of Governors at Fairmont State getting into a physical altercation with the football coach after a game.

“Suddenly, the [newspaper’s] website became an issue,” Smith said. Smith met with Rose, where he was told that The Columns had to put its stories on the school’s server, he said.

The Columns refused to move the newspaper off its server.

Bumgardner, who worked at The Columns during that time, said that Baker was opposed to the administration’s demand that the paper move its online publication to a university-controlled server.

Another spring, The Columns reported on a conflict of interest between the liaison for the presidential search committee and the president of the search firm — the two were close friends, said Smith.

“Of course, that created more angst and hardship,” he said.

In subsequent meetings with Baker and Rose, Smith said he was asked questions like how many newspapers were printed and where they were placed.

“I was president of the largest journalism organization in the country at the time [the Society of Professional Journalists],” he said. “I told them, do you actually think I’m going to ask my students to stand down and not do what they’re supposed to do and report these things?”

Smith said his role changed from adviser to protector in the last year of his employment.

He said he was out of town and got a phone call from the student editors, who said that Baker and members of the purchasing department of the university had started “going through drawers” in the newsroom, doing an inventory of the 12 cameras the newspaper used for reporting.

When Smith talked with Baker, he said he wanted to know where the cameras were, as they couldn’t find two during inventory, Smith said.

Smith said he had to track down the students who had the cameras for reporting purposes.

“I blew a gasket,” he said. “I believe it was a power play. It was an attempt to intimidate, by saying, for no other reasons, we wanted these cameras back so we could count them.”

Baker denied this and all other allegations of intimidation.

Buckland and Wilson said they suspect that the hostility towards the newspaper came from higher up than Baker.

“A lot of the interest wasn’t necessarily his own at first,” Wilson said.

“Once the articles got more hard-hitting, especially with the mold thing, he became [the mouthpiece] for a couple of the senior-level administrators.”

Bumgardner, who served as editor-in-chief of The Columns in 2010-11, said he never personally experienced demands not to publish.

He said Baker worked with him to make the paper better and had a genuine interest in maintaining its editorial legitimacy. Baker worked with him to do a full visual redesign of the paper and put standards in place, he said.

Bumgardner said he never dealt with the budget. He was primarily focused on the editorial process and keeping the paper alive, he said.

The newspaper lacked the kind of “robust” advertising department that would enable it to be independent, he said.

“Frankly, I’m still stunned that the paper is around,” he said. “I don’t know who in this place that’s kept this thing alive, because the university could have just stomped it out so easily. So somebody in this place is fighting for this paper, and I don’t want [it] to be lost in this hubbub.”

Future of journalism at Fairmont State

Fairmont State does not have a journalism program in the traditional sense, said Mazza, the spokeswoman. There is an 18-credit journalism minor.

Kelley maintains that he was hired to build the program back up to a major over his three-year appointment.

His grievance against the university regarding his dismissal is still pending. Buckland and Wilson are still waiting to hear the status of Fairmont State’s Board of Governors investigation into the allegations against Baker.

They said Rose, the university president, told them in their September meeting that there would be an investigation into Baker’s actions. Mazza declined to confirm that there is an investigation, saying that she cannot “comment further on any other personnel matters regarding Dr. Baker.”

With only a couple staffers left at The Columns after the editors’ mass resignations, the paper’s future is uncertain.

“It is anticipated that the Columns publication will continue — as it has for much of the past 75-plus years — with a new issue in the next month,” Mazza said in September.

But Buckland and Wilson said they believe the administrators’ actions have effectively shut down the newspaper since the remaining staffers will not have the resources to print the paper on its current schedule.

They, along with Britany Mullins, the former copy editor of The Columns, plan to launch an independent watchdog news site called The Broken Column. They want to continue to investigate the campus.

Wilson Cook said she was impressed with the students’ mold investigation this year, and administrators at Fairmont State should have praised their work.

“The students started acting like real reporters, long before they had to, and the university never really had that before, certainly not large enough to make them look stupid. And God, they’ve handled it badly,” she said.

“When they release a statement that says, you know, ‘we’ve handled it, the mold has been cleaned up’ — it’s basically saying there is no story…. it starts to make the students look like they’re hysterical, like they’re panicking. That’s not the case. They did the best job that they ever could have. Those students deserve awards, and their adviser deserves an award and a pay raise.” 

SPLC staff writer Madeline Will contributed to this report.