Nonprofit backs student media

Editor’s note: The following letter was sent Aug. 19 to President Votruba and several other NKU administrators from the Student Press Law Center in response to Student Media’s move from Student Affairs to the College of Informatics.

Dear President Votruba,

The Student Press Law Center is a nonprofit source of research, information and advocacy in support of the student media nationwide. The SPLC monitors and reports on the well-being of the student media at the college level, and intercedes where it appears that the independence of students’ editorial voice is at risk.

We are writing to express our concern over the way in which the transfer of governance of Student Media to the College of Informatics, and the replacement of veteran student media adviser Gayle Brown, was carried out. This process was conducted in a tone-deaf manner seemingly oblivious to the message of intimidation that the sudden and unexplained removal of a popular journalism adviser carries. Ms. Brown and her students deserved better.

Gayle Brown is held in extremely high regard among the close-knit community of student media advisers. She is often called upon to provide training and mentoring to less-experienced advisers, and the shelf full of awards won by The Northerner during her tenure attests to her success at coaching young journalists. She has been an outstanding ambassador for your university. It is, to say the least, shortsighted for the university to have cut adrift, with so little apparent justification, a person with an exemplary record who has given such dedicated service.

Removing a journalism adviser for anything short of gross misconduct or incompetence – neither of which is a factor here – is a uniquely delicate matter that must be done, if at all, with a profound appreciation for the baggage that such a decision carries. Within the journalism community, it is well-understood that being a skilled adviser who encourages tough, inquisitive journalism is a recipe for a short lifespan. The annals of the Student Press Law Center are filled with stories of advisers discharged, demoted or transferred for no greater “crime” than standing up for the editorial autonomy of their students. In just the last few months, we have witnessed nakedly retaliatory firings of college media advisers at the University of Texas-Tyler and Missouri Southern State University, just to name two. Retaliatory discharges happen with such regularity that the professional organization College Media Advisers maintains a standing committee to investigate them; the committee has responded to 12 cases in the first seven months of 2011 alone. Of course, Ms. Brown’s removal may ultimately prove to be free from a speech-infringing motive – but if so, it will be in a distinct minority.

Because the adviser’s role is so intertwined with the students’ constitutionally protected right of expression, a university must take special care that its treatment of the adviser does not send a signal of intimidation. It is especially important that the process of replacing an adviser be a transparent one that dispels any suspicion of ulterior motives. Regrettably, the process at Northern Kentucky lacked the transparency necessary for students, and the public, to have confidence in its fairness.

From the beginning, neither Ms. Brown nor her students were brought into the discussion of moving governance of Student Media into the College of Informatics; the decision simply was presented to them as a “done deal.” When decisions are made for the benefit of students and with the students’ best interests in mind, students normally are made a part of the discussion. When decisions are handed down from the mountaintop without public airing, they are inherently suspect.

The most charitable thing that can be said about the search process is that it was conducted in a classless and unprofessional way. If the decision was made to reclassify the adviser position so as to require credentials that Ms. Brown lacked, then it was a sham to allow Ms. Brown to believe – until the day the results were announced – that she was in a good-faith competition for a job for which the University had decided she no longer qualified. Had Ms. Brown been told honestly from the start that her candidacy would not receive serious consideration, she would have gained several months’ advantage in the search for another position. As a loyal NKU employee who has given the university creditable service for many years, Ms. Brown was entitled to at least that minimal courtesy.

Moreover, the process appears to have been engineered to be intentionally opaque to those most impacted by the choice, the students. It is quite commonplace for students to be given input into the recruitment of an adviser, precisely because the adviser-editor relationship is so distinctive; indeed, we are aware of ongoing searches at the College of DuPage in Illinois and at Florida Atlantic University in Florida, just to name two, in which student editors are voting members of the adviser search committee. No such consideration was afforded the students at NKU.

As you can imagine, when a college removes and replaces an adviser without apparent cause and with no buy-in from those most affected, suspicions about the motivating factors will proliferate. This is particularly unfortunate because it handicaps Ms. Day – a blameless person who appears excellently credentialed – in gaining the trust and credibility she needs to succeed in her new position.

It is our strong impression, supported by some internal departmental correspondence we have reviewed, that what befell Ms. Brown was tantamount to a “takeover” of student media by the College of Informatics. There certainly are valid pedagogical reasons for housing the governance of student media in an academic department with trained journalism faculty rather than in Student Affairs. If what is intended by the move is to provide student journalists with the fullest educational experience – and nothing more – then the move is of course unobjectionable. We hope this is the case. But if what is intended is that faculty of the College of Informatics will exert greater editorial control over decisions that rightfully (and legally) belong to students, then problems are inevitable.

At the college level, students have a high degree of First Amendment protection for their editorial judgments, even in a publication funded and housed by their university. State employees, including journalism faculty, may not substitute their judgment for that of student editors.

To repair the damage done by this botched process, it is essential that Northern Kentucky make things right be bending over backward to respect the autonomy of students to make their own editorial judgments. If a protective publications policy is not already in place, then one should be enacted establishing clear boundaries – advisers advise, they do not decide – consistent with First Amendment principles as well as with the code of ethics of College Media Advisers, the standard-setter for the field. The Student Press Law Center has its own model publications policy as well as samples of “best practices” policies from around the country, and we are happy to serve as a resource in formulating one for Northern Kentucky.

We hope that you and your administration will give the students your strongest assurance – through words and through actions – that the removal of Gayle Brown does not signal any retrenchment in the essential editorial independence that sound journalism teaching requires and the First Amendment demands. If the university is prepared to enforce clear standards protecting the students’ editorial autonomy, then the SPLC stands ready to work with you toward making NKU student media even stronger than it is today.

Yours truly,

Frank D. LoMonte
Executive Director
Student Press Law Center