Conflict of Interest?

Butler U replaces professor who was advising the student newspaper with university spokesman. While university says the arrangement is temporary, many question the ethics of the move.

September 11, 2015
 

The adviser for Butler University’s student newspaper was suddenly replaced this week with a university spokesman, drawing widespread criticism from journalists in both student and professional media for what they view as a clear conflict of interest.

Loni McKown, a professor of practice at the university’s journalism school, has been the Butler Collegian’s faculty adviser for more than five years. During her tenure at the paper, the publication and its staff have received several prestigious journalism awards, including its only Associated Collegiate Press Pacemaker and an award from Investigators Reporters & Editors.

This month, McKown received a letter notifying her that she could no longer serve as the newspaper’s adviser and that if she continued to advise staff members she would face further disciplinary action. McKown said she believes her removal from the position is retaliation for negative reporting about the university by the paper’s student journalists.

“We’re very proud of the work our students have done in the past,” Gary Edgerton, the dean of Butler's College of Communication, said in denying McKown's allegation. “I think the strongest thing I can emphasize is that the Collegian will remain an independent paper. We’re proud that they do investigative pieces and we are comfortable with that.”

McKown, however, described the relationship between the university and the newspaper as “hostile,” and said that officials would like to have more control over what the Collegian publishes. She said officials viewed her as “the Wizard of Oz, hiding behind a curtain and manipulating everything the students were doing.”

The university needed her to make a mistake before they could replace her, McKown said, but instead she and the newspaper received national acclaim and awards from student media organizations.

Then, in late August, McKown finally flubbed.

Journalism faculty members, including McKown, received an email from Edgerton detailing how the college planned on trimming its budget because of a smaller freshman class this year. McKown, as she often did, forwarded the email along to staff members with the note “FYI.” McKown said she didn’t notice the confidentiality disclaimer at the bottom of the message until the dean began asking faculty members about how the Collegian learned of the email.

Two days later, McKown apologized for forwarding the email and said it would not happen again. The following week, she met with the director of the journalism school, who told her that the dean wanted to “punish [her] in some way.”

That same day, Marc Allan, Butler’s associate director of public relations, agreed to replace McKown as adviser. Then McKown was officially told she could no longer advise the paper.

“The bottom line is I believe I was dismissed because I did my job well,” she said. “They didn’t like that. I have now joined a group that has really exploded in size this year: advisers who have been dismissed because of content the students have produced.”

At least half a dozen student newspaper advisers have been removed from their roles in the last year for what they believe to be similar reasons, including at Auburn University, Fairmont State University and Northern Michigan University.

Edgerton declined to discuss why McKown was replaced, saying he could not comment on personnel issues. He reiterated that the decision was not related to negative coverage by the newspaper, and pointed out that Allan, the spokesman who will replace McKown, was a respected reporter before assuming his current position, and that he had a friendly relationship with the newspaper and McKown.

Allan will still serve as a university spokesman, but Edgerton stressed that the arrangement was only temporary until a new adviser is hired. Allan could remain in the interim role for the full academic year.

In an interview Thursday, Allan -- who, before coming to Butler, spent 24 years writing for newspapers, including the Indianapolis Star -- said that he would never interfere with the students’ reporting. To further assure any students who are worried about a conflict of interest, Allan has approached three well-known local journalists to step in as advisers when students feel he is not able to fairly fulfill his duties. Edgerton said the journalists will be paid consultants, but declined to say how much they would be paid.

“My job, as I see it, is critiquing the paper and fielding comments and complaints and hopefully compliments about the work that they do and helping them in any way that I can,” Allan said. “I love the Collegian and I love the school of journalism. I’m an ethical journalist and an ethical person, no matter what.”

Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, said Allan is indeed known as an honest reporter. But the criticism has less to do with whether Allan would make a good adviser, LoMonte said, and more to do with the message it is sending to Butler’s student journalists.

“He’d probably be a very good adviser, if not for the fact that he’s supposed to somehow wear both of these hats,” LoMonte said. “It’s just inevitable; the two roles are going to come into conflict. It sends an intimidating message to the journalists. It’s very hard to take seriously the reasoning for removing McKown when they replace her with a spokesperson. There was already a cloud of doubt, but instead of dispelling that cloud, they just made it darker.”

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