UPDATE: The President of the University of North Alabama, Kenneth Kitts, called College Media Association’s censure an “effort to conflate an academic decision… with an attack on the First Amendment.”
Kitts’ Dec. 6 statement to the UNA faculty senate said CMA’s censure has given rise to “sensational headlines” about the university and its administration, and defended the school’s stance that rewriting Scott Morris’ job description was not retaliation for The Flor-Ala‘s negative coverage.
President of CMA Chris Evans said he was disheartened by Kitts’ statement. Evans maintains the university has been cherry picking information from CMA’s two month investigation into UNA and is not being truthful. Evans said the university, despite being asked, has still not provided evidence of a long term intention to change the media adviser position to require a Ph.D.
Morris agreed with Evans. “It’s embarrassing to watch this group of administrators make so many bad decisions on such a public stage,” he said.
ALABAMA — The University of North Alabama is ousting the student media adviser after the student paper published a story critiquing the school’s administration. The move has sparked sharp condemnation from journalism and First Amendment groups and the campus publications board.
In September 2018, The Flor-Ala reported the administration improperly withheld public documents about the resignation of the vice president of student affairs. A week later, the journalists, members of the communications department and The Flor-Ala media adviser Scott Morris met with University Provost Ross Alexander.
I wouldn’t be surprised if they told me to leave today.Scott Morris, Adviser of The Flor-Ala
According to Morris, Alexander was angry about the Sept. 6 article and the meeting was tense. On Sept. 26, the provost informed Morris that the student media adviser job description had been changed, and Morris is now unqualified for his position.
“I think it was just a quick knee-jerk reaction,” Morris said of the Provost’s decision, “it was a way to replace me.”
Student Press Law Center Senior Legal Counsel Mike Hiestand said many school officials see student media advisers as an easy target. “They understand the very close relationship that can exist between student media advisers and their students and will take advantage of that ‘weak spot’ by threatening the advisers’ jobs if the students publish something the school doesn’t like,” Hiestand said. “It’s underhanded and cowardly.”
The rewritten job description changes the position to a tenure track faculty position and requires a Ph.D., which Morris doesn’t have. This effectively eliminates Morris’s current position and turns it into a role in the student media adviser will teach classes and conduct research in addition to advising The Flor-Ala. Morris has worked in journalism for more than two decades and has held adviser position at UNA since 2014.
UNA’s student publication board released a statement on Nov. 30, voicing concerns over the university’s decision to change the media adviser position: “Students are best served by the current system under which they are advised.” It also points out that neither the current nor former chairs of the communications department were informed a change to the job was being proposed.
The statement also notes that the university has not given the staff of The Flor-Ala or other members of the communications department any follow up information.
The provost declined to comment. The university’s Director of Communications and Marketing, Bryan Rachal, also declined, deferring to the university’s press release.
“The University of North Alabama continuously strives to improve educational opportunities for its students. For more than three years, the University has been actively considering ways to improve how student journalists can be better served in both classroom and campus media experiences.” the press release reads. “A search has started for candidates who are interested in the new, tenure-track, Ph.D. position, which we expect to start in fall 2019.”
Morris said he doesn’t know if he’ll be allowed to teach through the rest of this academic year. The UNA statment said Morris will “complete his staff assignment as an at-will employee when the spring, 2019 semester ends, at the latest.”
Morris emphasized the last part of the sentence, saying, “I wouldn’t be surprised if they told me to leave today.”
Journalism and First Amendment advocacy groups condemn the change
The College Media Association represents more than 600 media advisers in the United States. On Nov. 26, CMA censured the university. The decision to censure is the “strongest possible condemnation of a university as being hostile toward the First Amendment.”
CMA President Chris Evans said his group has been trying to work with UNA to find a compromise where Morris can stay on as adviser. So far, the university has been unresponsive.
“Our goal is to apply some public pressure to spark some public dialogue,” Evans said.
The university press release says the decision to eliminate Morris’ position was a policy and personnel matter and falls outside of CMA’s influence. The press release called the censure “unwarranted, outside the scope of its authority, and inconsistent with its own investigation.”
Evans said the university has been actively trying to spin the story. He says they’ve selectively quoted CMAs own policy that adviser disputes with administrators caused by poor job performance, finances or other university actions “lie outside the scope of CMA and will not be addressed.”
“They feel CMA doesn’t have a right to look into this,” Evans said. CMA contends the change in Morris’ job description was not due to fault on his part, but retaliation against the student press.
If this is a back-handed attempt of retaliation against the adviser, then it is unacceptable.SPLC Staff Attorney Sommer Ingram Dean
In recent years, CMA has censured four schools, including UNA. The censure will be lifted if the school reworks its policies to stop meddling with student media and their First Amendment rights.
Evans does not see that happening any time soon. “We would like to work with them, but we don’t see them working with us,” Evans said.
UNA claims there have been discussions about rewriting the student media adviser role to a tenured track position since fall of 2014 – Morris was hired in September of that year.
“We don’t believe that they’re being truthful,” Evans said. CMA’s First Amendment Advocacy Committee conducted an investigation into Morris’ situation and their public records requests found no email or documents mentioning changing the media adviser job description before Sept. 26 of this year.
Morris said he and other members of the communication department, including the department chair, had no idea his job description would be changed until Sept. 26.
“The timing seems suspicious,” said SPLC staff attorney Sommer Ingram Dean. “If this is a back-handed attempt of retaliation against the adviser, then it is unacceptable.”
Morris and Flor-Ala Managing Editor Harley Duncan said UNA administrators have a history of blocking access to student media. On Oct. 25 a Flor-Ala reporter attempted to interview UNA Chief of Police Kevin Gillian, who said under university protocol he could not speak to student media unless it was approved by Rachal, the university’s PR person.
Faculty and staff are pressured to talk with the administration before speaking to the press. “Most of the faculty and staff are afraid to speak,” Morris said.
The Flor-Ala reported on the university’s media protocol on Nov. 7. Rachal decides whether to set up the interview with the faculty or staff member, answer the question himself or “examine the faculty and staff members’ responses before releasing them to the media.”
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education sent a letter to UNA President Kenneth Kitts about the unwritten protocol, saying, “In failing to enshrine in writing what is expected of members of it’s community, the University of North Alabama writes off its community members’ First Amendment Rights.”
What’s next for The Flor-Ala
The Flor-Ala continues its day-to-day activities. Morris is still present in the newsroom, but will not advise on stories about himself and the situation. For those, students are working with media advisers at other universities.
Duncan said the staff was in shock “for a week and a half” after Morris’ job description was changed. “He’s a great adviser and well qualified,” Duncan said. “We all loved him.”
Despite the negatives, Duncan said the experience has brought the staff of the paper closer together and taught them how to stay professional when working on stories close to home. “We are trying to stay as objective as possible,” Duncan said. “We wanted to see both sides of the story.”
Duncan doesn’t know if UNA will be able to fill Morris’ position anytime soon. He thinks the additional responsibilities of a tenure track faculty position with teaching and research expectations will take away from the new adviser’s ability to help students at the paper.
The censure and bad press probably will not make the job an attractive one, he added.
Morris said he is worried that a new person who lacks job security because they’re on tenure track will be easier for the university to bend to its will. “It will cause them to put pressure on the students,” he said.
If Morris is asked to leave before the end of the academic year, he will offer to advise as a volunteer.
Duncan said the staff is still motivated and Morris has been encouraging and told the students to report on the story like it was any other article.
“We use the free press to keep people accountable at this institution,” Duncan said.
Want more stories like this? The Student Press Law Center is a legal and educational nonprofit defending the rights of student journalists. Sign up for our free occasional News Roundup.