NEBRASKA — Two faculty advisers in the media department at Wayne State College have been removed from their positions.
Max McElwain, former adviser to the campus newspaper, the Wayne Stater, was removed from his position July 11 and Maureen Carrigg, former adviser for KWSC-TV, received a letter of dismissal June 17.
On June 29, McElwain, a tenured professor, received a memo from the then dean of arts and humanities, Steve Elliott, stating a disciplinary meeting was being held after McElwain allegedly approved a fraudulent payment arrangement between staff members, which he would not have had the authority to do.
McElwain claims Elliott approved the arrangement in March 2015 and brought email records in support of his claim to the disciplinary hearing.
According to emails between McElwain and Elliott, who was named vice president for academic affairs in April, Elliott approved of the arrangement March 23. After the meeting, McElwain said he didn’t expect there to be significant ramifications.
“If they would have asked politely, I would have gladly stepped aside,” McElwain said.
The day before McElwain was removed, the Academic Freedom Coalition of Nebraska notified the Wayne Stater and McElwain they were being awarded the Intellectual Freedom Award for their reporting on tensions between the faculty senate and the board of trustees.
Throughout 2015 and 2016, the Wayne Stater staff reported on stories critical of the college’s administration. In September 2015, the newspaper reported on a nine percent tuition hike that coincided with a nine percent raise for the Nebraska State College System chancellor, Stan Carpenter.
The newspaper also revealed in 2015 that the lead consultant hired to assist with the Wayne State College presidential search, Charles Bunting, had previously worked with Carpenter for 15 years. Carpenter was tasked with negotiating the contract for a presidential search consultant.
In October, tenured professor Karen Walker was fired as professor of psychology and escorted off campus by security. The ordeal inspired student protests and a petition to the university administration to reinstate her.
Frank Edler, AFCON newsletter editor, said the annual award was given to the newspaper for its “courage and reporting in journalism.”
“The Wayne Stater has consistently done an excellent job at really trying to get to the truth of things,” Edler said.
McElwain said the college used a payment policy issue to “cherry pick” him and remove him from the position at the request of higher administration because of the content the newspaper previously published.
The Wayne Stater has a reputation for being an “edgy, hard news and investigative” newspaper, McElwain said, and said he believes the newspaper made the right decision by choosing to investigate the administration. Earlier this year, McElwain wrote a column published in the Wayne Stater, detailing the reporting process.
“Do I fear for my job?” he wrote. “State college faculty have been fired for saying a lot less than I am here.”
McElwain said he will continue to teach at Wayne State this school year but is planning on retiring next year.
Carrigg, the student broadcast news adviser who has worked for the college for 28 years, said she was removed from her advising position because the college noticed an incomplete on her graduate school transcript from 1988.
“I’d gone through the processes and whatever paperwork was there with my transcripts was accepted,” Carrigg said of her initial hiring and subsequent promotions. She said she received tenure in 1998.
She said she has not been offered a contract for this upcoming year and did not know about the incomplete until the college brought the issue to light in May.
“If I wasn’t qualified to teach, why was I allowed to teach for 28 years?” Carrigg said. “Why was I good enough for students up until my 28th year?”
She said the students produced some content regarding the firing of Karen Walker, but that their coverage mainly focused on sports.
Jay Collier, director of college relations at Wayne State, said the college doesn’t comment on personnel matters, citing an agreement between The Nebraska State College Board of Trustees and the State College Education Association that applies when a personnel decision is the subject of a challenge.
“It’s not a lack of transparency,” Collier said. “Given (the policy) how are we supposed to address any of the concerns?”
According to the policy, “public statements about the case by either the faculty member, the Advisory Committee members or college administrators should be avoided.” Collier said state faculty negotiate the contract every two years.
He said McElwain didn’t have a contract as adviser of the Wayne Stater and noted the professor of the workshop class associated with the newspaper serves as the faculty adviser.
He said the recent statements in the press depicting the removal of the newspaper adviser as an attempt to gain control over the publication are “not based in fact” and “could not be further from the truth.”
Collier said it is unfortunate that the timing of events is being viewed as an attempt to gain control over the newspaper and said McElwain was removed for “reasons independent of anything that had to do with the newspaper.”
“Wayne State has never interfered with the student press and never will,” Collier said. “It will continue to honor freedom of the press as it always has.”
Derek Pufahl, Wayne Stater editor-in-chief, said he was surprised when he found out about McElwain’s removal.
After the Stater articles were published, however, Pufahl said there was a feeling among the newspaper staff that the administration did not like what was being reported about the university. Pufahl and McElwain said they didn’t get any feedback from the administration after the newspaper’s investigations were published.
Although Pufahl said he doesn’t think one can draw the conclusion that McElwain was removed as a result of the newspaper’s content, the dismissal of two advisers in such a short time span is eyebrow raising.
“It definitely raises questions,” Pufahl said.
SPLC staff writer Kaelynn Knoernschild can be reached by email or (202) 974-6318.
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