Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Firing the Tribune Faculty Advisor: Issue Raised Again

In Bruce Murphy’s column in the currently online Milwaukee Magazine, Murphy asks “Did Marquette University Sully Its Reputation?”

Last February, Marquette University dumped Tom Mueller as faculty adviser for the student newspaper, the Marquette Tribune. William Elliott, then dean of the College of Communication, said he had made the decision, which had no relationship to content in the Tribune.

Mueller said the university’s administration was not happy about two stories that ran in the newspaper, including one about an alleged sexual assault on campus. (Crime on campus has been a sensitive subject for the administration.)
Murphy then quotes with approval Kathy Lawrence, President of a group called Media Advisors, who wrote Marquette President Fr. Robert Wild as follows:

“Marquette enjoys a solid reputation for its quality higher-education programs. So why would you allow such a reputation to be sullied among such groups as the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication, CMA and other circles by a pattern of repeated dismissals of student media advisers who work to foster the responsibilities and duties of journalism in their students?”
Murphy’s story is at best incomplete, and may in fact be downright misleading.

The Society of Professional Journalists investigated this entire issue, and released its report this past April. The most succinct summary of their findings is the following statement from their Report:

The departure of Mueller in May and Elliott’s pending retirement June 30 might offer the newspaper and its communications department a fresh start. We are prepared to make a number of recommendations we think could avert future problems for whomever is selected to advise the newspaper and the interim dean selected to replace Elliott. While our investigation has disclosed some incidents that give us concern, we do not believe the evidence is strong enough to suggest that the university administration is overly involved in the newspaper’s operations or is trying to control content. We do, however, urge the university to take a deep breath and make certain it has decided not to renew Mueller for the right reasons. His dismissal has, at best, created a perception problem for the university that it does not support its campus advisers. And at worst, the action may be unfair if the decision to let him go was simply based on one particular story, an article the students prepared that included the name of a teacher who had been diagnosed with tuberculosis. [emphasis added]
Bottom line: it’s not blantant censorship on the part of Marquette. But then the University didn’t cover itself with glory either.

Contrary to what Murphy implies, a key issue was the naming, in the Tribune, of a faculty member who had tuberculosis. The response of the Administration was not merely negative, it was downright hostile. Fr. Wild wrote an intemperate letter to Mueller, dated December 15, 2003, saying that a document Mueller wrote “. . . has to rank right up there as among the most insufferable and self-righteous documents I have had the occasion to read during the eight years that I have been president here.” (See pages 16-17 of the SPJ Report.)

Wild’s letter goes on to berate Mueller for a possible violation of the privacy of the faculty member who had tuberculosis, but then changes direction and admits having checked with the General Counsel and learned that no legal violation of privacy rights had occurred, since the Tribune didn’t learn of the faculty member’s sickness from any restricted professional source. Three members of the Tribune staff were in the professor’s class, and were told they needed to be tested for this reason.

Indeed, a memo from Mueller to three Tribune staffers dated November 25, 2003 states that the Journalism faculty unanimously endorses the actions of the Tribune in publishing the name. (See page 18 of the SPJ Report.) Reliable sources in the Journalism Department confirm this. Indeed, a meeting was held in January, 2004 to review this Tribune decision. It included not only Journalism faculty but members of the local media (from Channel 12 and the Journal-Sentinel), and it concluded that the Tribune acted responsibly.

Given the fact that people who had come into contact with this faculty member needed to know that they should be tested for the disease, it would in fact be downright irresponsible not to identify the person.

Wild’s letter (a response to this memo) strongly objects to Mueller’s support for the student journalists. It reminds Mueller that Marquette University is the publisher of the Tribune, and instructs Mueller that:
. . . your very role as Student Publications Advisor is that of a quasi-publisher. You are not simply in such a role as the friend and advocate of student journalists; you have responsibilities to this university as an institution.
Wild is right about the fact that Marquette University is the publisher of the Tribune, but dead wrong about the propriety of publishing the name of the faculty member. He wrote, in sum, a quite ill-considered letter.

Still, the Administration appeared to be sincere in its concerns about the performance of the Tribune. The Report notes:
While some encounters, probably should have been handled more carefully and tactfully, it is not out of line for administration to question the certain aspects of a paper’s performance. The concerns seemed to surround around ethics and accuracy, which under the current structure would be appropriate. (See page 6 of the SPJ Report.)
There were other issues. The reporting of a sexual assault was indeed an issue, but it was contentious because the paper published the address at which it occurred. But since the address was a building with 30 units, no violation of the victim’s privacy occurred.

While Marquette had a right to be concerned about the legal, ethical and journalistic performance of the student paper, the simple fact is that on these two key issues (the faculty member with tuberculosis and the address of the sexual assault victim) the Tribune was right, and the Administration was wrong. Administrators should, at a minimum, have gotten the opinions of Journalism faculty before they got their undies in a bundle.

As long as Marquette supports and subsidizes the Tribune, conflicts of this sort are going to happen. The University can hardly ignore ethical and legal issues that arise because of a paper that it publishes. On the other hand, any attempts to intervene in the affairs of the paper are necessarily going to seem ham-handed and motivated by the bureaucratic interests of University administrators.

Which is why the University should sever its connection with the Tribune, kick it off campus, and let it function entirely as it sees fit. Plenty of examples from other universities show that this is a perfectly viable way to run a student paper.


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