Under cloud of suspicion, Wyoming college proposes eliminating journalism program

Facing accusations of retaliation against the student newspaper’s adviser, Northwest College administrators now are asking the Wyoming college’s board to eliminate the journalism courses that support production of the newspaper.

The board of trustees of Northwest is scheduled to meet Monday to consider a series of budget reductions proposed by President Stefani Hicswa, including cutting journalism and two other academic programs starting in the fall of 2016.

Northwest is running a budget shortfall blamed partly on a decline in the state’s fossil-fuel-dependent economy; community colleges in Wyoming receive revenue from property taxes, and depressed property valuations diminish tax receipts. The college has been looking at belt-tightening measures including inducing senior employees to take early retirement.

Hicswa says the elimination of three targeted programs — journalism, film/radio/TV and farrier business management — will help shave about 10 percent from the college’s $22.6 million annual operating expenses.

The proposal comes at a time of renewed friction between college administrators and the award-winning student newspaper, The Northwest Trail. The newspaper has a history of aggressive coverage of campus news events, which in 2010 led to the retaliatory discharge of adviser Ron Feemster under Hicswa’s predecessor. The newspaper was recognized with the national College Press Freedom Award for continuing to publish even after Feemster’s firing.

Last month, an attorney for current adviser Rob Breeding told the college that Breeding was singled out for retaliatory treatment when his eligibility for tenure was delayed a year and he was told to complete additional graduate coursework in journalism despite substantial prior experience as a journalist and instructor.

According to the letter, Breeding’s relationship with the college soured after articles in the Northwest Trail that campus administrators criticized, including one questioning how the college reacted to on-the-job drinking by resident assistants. The college’s lawyer has denied the charge.

A college spokesman told Inside Higher Ed that the college intends for the Northwest Trail to continue operating even without a journalism program, but that no decision has been made about an adviser. (Presumably, Breeding will not be retained if there are no journalism courses for him to teach, though the college has not publicly identified positions it envisions cutting.)

On Friday, the Student Press Law Center sent a letter of protest to the trustees encouraging them to refrain from acting on Hicswa’s budget proposal until its motives could be carefully studied. The letter explained that any act by a public institution, direct or indirect, motivated to punish or deter lawful student speech is presumptively unconstitutional and could expose the college to liability. 

The letter stated in part: “[I]t is virtually impossible to sustain a high-quality student newspaper at a two-year college as a purely extracurricular activity in which participants neither receive any significant pay nor academic credit. There can be no mistaking that the elimination of journalism courses will end the production of anything approaching the reliably high-quality journalism for which the community depends on the Northwest Trail.”