The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education last week picked the University of North Alabama for a spot on its highly competitive annual list of the 10 worst colleges in the nation for free speech. I know the history and track record of UNA’s campus newspaper, The Flor-Ala, so this is a truly sad achievement by the university’s administration. The primary case for inclusion began in September, when The Flor-Ala published a negative article about the university’s refusal to comply with open-records requests related to an administrator and a professor who were no longer on campus. One week later, student editors and the Flor-Ala’s staff adviser, Scott Morris, were summoned to a meeting at which a university administrator complained about that story. Two weeks later, the administration informed Morris that the adviser’s job description would be changed to require a doctorate and that the position would become part of an academic department. Thus, Morris is out of a job at the end of this semester. Morris, the Flor-Ala staff, and members of UNA’s Student Publications Board, including board chairman Glenn Stephens, a former colleague of mine, believe these actions are retribution for bad press. The administration denies that.
In addition to punishing Morris, the newly configured job description for student media adviser will enhance the administration’s ability to limit future negative coverage, in my view. Faculty members tend to be outspoken and independent. But I fear a faculty adviser of student media who has not yet been granted tenure, and knowing this current episode, would be naturally reluctant to enable administration-bashing articles when such a vital career decision looms. To be fair, UNA’s job revamp is not an outlier. A 2014 academic article by Carol Terracina-Hartman of Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania and Robert G. Nulph of Missouri Western State University (cleverly subheaded “Is there a doctor in the newsroom?”) reports that making the student media adviser job into a tenure-track faculty position is a trend among universities. (That’s not the case here at UA, by the way.) Upping the doctorate count is one part of impressing accreditors. But that 2014 study also raises this question: Is it a good idea? The authors report that a “strong majority” of the advisers for award-winning student media have 15 or more years of professional experience (which Morris does). But “university administrations often sacrifice professional media experience for doctorates in advertising new hires.” (The valid, underlying premise is that the pool of candidates with a terminal degree and years of newsroom battle scars is relatively small.) No one is saying an adviser with a Ph.D. wouldn’t know what they were doing. Far from it. But it’s a job best suited for someone like Morris who has been in the trenches of journalism a long time. UNA should prioritize that for the good of the students, but the administration has other motives here, which is a shame.
College administrations facing undesired stories often count on student media to lose reportorial momentum through the churn of graduation. The Flor-Ala’s best response isn’t an easy one, but it’s the same best response as elsewhere in journalism: Don’t quit till you get the story.