College newspaper advisers find job precarious

A warning to college newspaper advisers in Missouri: Teaching students to cover the news with the same zeal as the pros could mean a trip to the unemployment line.

Missouri Southern State University recently told its award-winning student newspaper adviser that he won’t be able to return in the fall. Thomas “T.R.” Hanrahan said the only reason given for his ouster is that the Joplin school “wants to go in a different direction.” The student-run Chart, a weekly, has been notably aggressive in its coverage of school President Bruce Speck, but Hanrahan said there’s “no evidence (his removal) was in response to that reporting.”

St. Louis University also removed its student newspaper adviser several years ago under similar circumstances. Avis Meyer, a former St. Louis Post-Dispatch editor and SLU newspaper adviser since 1975, remains a tenured professor at the private Catholic school, but has been barred from the offices of the independent U. News since 2008.

Loyal student editors continue to include Meyer’s name on the weekly paper’s masthead as a “mentor” alongside his replacement’s name. And his ouster by the Rev. Laurence Biondi, the Jesuit school’s president, hasn’t kept student journalists from huddling with Meyer every Wednesday night on a darkened downtown St. Louis street, page proofs in hand.

“We stand outside like I’m selling cigarettes from the trunk of my car in Mexico,” Meyer said. A university spokesman did not respond to an Associated Press request for comment.

Student press advocates say such apparent retaliation for hard-hitting news coverage is common on college campuses. While courts generally acknowledge greater free press privileges among college journalists than their younger peers, that freedom is far from absolute, said Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center in northern Virginia.

Advisers, not students, often bear the brunt of administrative anger, he said — especially, if like Hanrahan, they are at-will employees who lack tenure.

“There are two occupations in America that are more dangerous the better you are at them,” said LoMonte. “Journalism adviser and suicide bomber.”

The Arlington, Va., legal center doesn’t systematically track such cases, but receives an average of five to six reports of fired advisers each year, he said. The actual number is likely higher, according to LoMonte, since journalism advisers stripped of that duty but remaining on a university’s payroll are less likely to take their concerns public.

In late April, the student newspaper adviser at the University of Texas at Tyler was fired in response to unspecified complaints from sources the school would not identify. She lost her health insurance weeks before scheduled brain surgery.

And in Manhattan, Kan., Kansas State University students filed a federal lawsuit against the school after their adviser’s 2004 removal. A federal appeals court sided with the school three years later, ruling that the two women who brought the suit no longer had a First Amendment fight since they were out of school.

In Joplin, Hanrahan’s students broke the news in December of the hiring of an accounting professor who had been convicted months earlier of embezzlement in Ohio. He later resigned.

Missouri Southern student journalists also were the first in town to report on the planned closing of a campus child development center in 2009 — a move that was quickly reversed amid widespread protests.

And in 2008, the university’s student enrollment director ordered copies of the school paper to be removed from a high school recruitment fair because of a story on declining campus enrollment.

This week, students and faculty in Missouri Southern’s communications department honored Hanrahan as their teacher of the year. He was also named the top college journalism adviser in 2010 by a statewide professional association, and his students have won top honors in national writing contests.

“What’s baffling to so many students, alumni and professional colleagues is why would you replace a man who brought the school numerous awards, and won numerous awards for his work,” said senior Aaron DuRall, who organized a campus rally and “show of solidarity” for Hanrahan on Friday.

A university spokesman declined to comment, citing the private nature of personnel decisions. He referred to previous comments by the department chairman pledging that The Chart will “continue to be a voice on campus, and continue its award-winning style.”

Just how loud a voice remains to be seen. In both small and large communities, student journalists serve as public watchdogs in corners of academia where the local press is too busy or disinterested to pay attention, LoMonte said.

“The professional news media can’t be everywhere — especially not in today’s climate,” he said. “If the campus paper can’t candidly cover the institution, then nobody will.”

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