The Hot Seat

Is a teacher getting canned for helping the student paper be a watchdog?
July 21, 2005

When you think of high-turnover jobs in journalism, the head of CBS News or editor of The New York Times may spring to mind. But being faculty adviser to the student paper at Peru State College may be the really tough job, as the college is dumping its adviser for the second time in five years.

Druann Durbin, an assistant professor of English at Peru State, recently became the second faculty adviser to the Peru State Times to be let go under Ben Johnson, the current president. Peru State maintains that the decision to drop Durbin from the faculty after next year when her contract expires, and not to renew her as faculty adviser to the paper for her final year, had nothing to do with critical articles. 

Durbin, who had worked with the paper for four years, vehemently disagrees. “It’s very clear that you’re not allowed to criticize the administration here,” she said, noting the dismissal of the previous adviser in 2000. 

Durbin, who was about to come up for tenure review, was told in April that she would not be welcomed back after the 2005-6 academic year. She thinks the timing coincided conspicuously with an article in the Peru State Times on March 7 about the dismissal of two Peru State coaches. The article noted that turnover of coaches at Peru State is high, and quoted the former baseball coach, Mark Bayliss, as saying the college would not give him any reason for its decision. 

Peru State officials say the college had no problems with the story. “The president found that story to be very well written and balanced,” said Alex Greenwood, director of marketing and public affairs.

Greenwood said he could not comment on personnel decisions, but that the position of faculty adviser to the paper is evaluated on a yearly basis, and that Peru State is looking at other options for an advising structure, perhaps including eliminating the faculty adviser position altogether.

Durbin said she was told that a “needs improvement” mark in the “scholarly and creative activities” category led to the decision that she would not be reviewed for tenure, and that next year will be her last on campus. “This was the first time they said that,” Durbin said of the comments about her performance.

“They’ve always commended my professional development.” All three of Peru State’s senior faculty members in the English department signed a letter to the Board of Trustees of the Nebraska State College System saying they are “mystified by this non-renewal.”

Mark Goodman, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, said that, if Durbin was dismissed because of the paper’s content, it would be illegal. Still, he said, it is increasingly common that institutions say “ ‘We don’t like what they’re publishing, so we’re going to do something about it’,” Goodman said. “It turns a student newspaper into a PR sheet.”

Student journalists felt strongly enough about Durbin that about a dozen of them staged a protest on her behalf in late April. Clad in yellow “Save Dr. Durbin” t-shirts, the students got about 250 signatures on a petition, from a residential undergraduate student body of about 1,100. “She was a great adviser,” said a Peru State Times reporter, Ashley Albertsen. 

“She told us to ask tough questions that people care about, because people deserve to know what’s going on at their school,” Albertsen said. Nobody has told the paper’s staff why Durbin is being removed, she said, adding that it is not the first time the president has not been forthcoming with information. She said the paper has had trouble landing interviews with Johnson and other high level administrators in the past. “If you have to write at a school paper that the administration won’t talk to you, there’s something wrong with that,” she said. 

Scott Norby, a lawyer who represents the Nebraska State Education Association, a local affiliate of the National Education Association, is examining Durbin’s case. Norby did the same for Matt Mauch, a previous faculty adviser who was told, after only a year, that he would be dismissed. That time, Norby agreed to represent Mauch after becoming convinced that the administration had reacted to Mauch’s involvement with an investigative story about the sexual assault of a student on campus. 

Mauch, however, was not in a position to “hang around and enjoy three or four years of federal litigation,” Norby said. He added that in Mauch’s case, Johnson admitted to having screened faculty members’ e-mails, and a student editor left the president's office in tears. “I’ve dealt with this administration for five years,” Norby said. “In my judgment, it is an environment of chilling and intimidating free expression of ideas.”

E-mails obtained by Inside Higher Ed suggest a rocky history between Johnson and the Times. In 2002, Johnson was asked by a student reporter for budget figures for a story. “Don’t wear yourself out with this stuff. Give approximations, etc. He’s not the IRS,” Johnson wrote in an e-mail to the administrative staff.

He went on to criticize a perceived lack of professionalism in the student’s interview style, writing: “I ridiculed him for always starting with, ‘Do you feel.’ ” In an e-mail message to the student, he reminded him that “this hard time I am giving you will result in you being a better journalist … And stop asking those TV talk show-type ‘feeling’ questions.”


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