Punting a Pesky Program

Wyoming's Northwest College, citing budget problems, plans to eliminate journalism program whose encouragement of aggressive student newspaper has nettled campus administrators.

May 4, 2016
Students in Northwest College's journalism program

The tiny journalism program at Wyoming's Northwest College has been a burr in the saddle of administrators for years. Its faculty members advised the student newspaper, The Northwest Trail, which regularly published articles that explored controversial issues on the campus, and twice in the last decade, first in 2010 and again this year, administrators took aim at those advisers' jobs.

Now Northwest officials appear to have adopted a new strategy: get rid of the pesky journalism department altogether.

President Stefani Hicswa told the college's governing council Tuesday that she would urge the Northwest Board of Trustees to eliminate three academic programs, including journalism, because of an "impending imbalance between the cost of operation and expected revenue," according to Mark Kitchen, the vice president for college relations. The other two programs are film/radio/TV and farrier business management (which, for those like the author who are city folk, mixes business skills and the art of shoeing horses).

Kitchen provided additional information on the budget situation Wednesday morning, saying via email that Northwest was seeking to shave about 10 percent from its $22.5 million operating budget, and that the state's governor had requested another cut that could amount to $1.6 million more.

Asked if the elimination of the journalism program would affect the Trail, which has been overseen by instructors in the program, Kitchen said via email that "[Hicswa's] intentions are to retain the student newspaper, The Northwest Trail, assuming students remain interested in doing so."

In response to a follow-up question about who would oversee the student newspaper in the absence of a journalism program, Kitchen said, "At this early stage, no decisions have been made re: oversight, advising, etc."

Others at Northwest have their suspicions. Rob Breeding, whose position as a journalism instructor (and adviser of the Trail) has been threatened, he and supporters believe, because of critical articles published by the newspaper, said via text message Tuesday that he assumed the administration would take control of the student newspaper once the journalism program is eliminated. Breeding was out of pocket and could not provide any further comment.

Steve Thulin, a professor of history who is president of the campus union and incoming president of the faculty association, said that "there were a great many faculty questioning the decision to eliminate the journalism program from a number of angles." Thulin said that "the question of whether or not there is animosity" toward the journalism faculty "has certainly been brought up."

But Thulin said his own concerns revolved around whether administrators, in judging programs for elimination using a quantitative scale based on various factors, had taken into account whether "journalism has a more special place" than do other programs because of its link to the student newspaper and the role of the First Amendment.

Thulin said campus administrators had told him that they ignored the program review criterion related to whether academic departments have "cultural or other significance" because it was "too subjective" to be used to apply points.

Breeding's tenure review has been delayed as Northwest officials added requirements that they say were needed to comply with accrediting standards. His lawyer has accused Northwest of retaliating against him illegally, a charge college officials have denied.

Six years ago, Ron Feemster’s contract as a journalism instructor at the college was not renewed because, he said at the time, administrators balked at the sometimes unfavorable stories he encouraged his student reporters to pursue. He chronicled years of pressure from officials to publish only benign, positive articles in a 2010 post for Inside Higher Ed.

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Doug Lederman

Doug Lederman is editor and co-founder of Inside Higher Ed. He helps lead the news organization's editorial operations, overseeing news content, opinion pieces, career advice, blogs and other features. Doug speaks widely about higher education, including on C-Span and National Public Radio and at meetings and on campuses around the country, and his work has appeared in The New York Times and USA Today, among other publications. Doug was managing editor of The Chronicle of Higher Education from 1999 to 2003. Before that, Doug had worked at The Chronicle since 1986 in a variety of roles, first as an athletics reporter and editor. He has won three National Awards for Education Reporting from the Education Writers Association, including one in 2009 for a series of Inside Higher Ed articles he co-wrote on college rankings. He began his career as a news clerk at The New York Times. He grew up in Shaker Heights, Ohio, and graduated in 1984 from Princeton University. Doug lives with his wife, Kate Scharff, in Bethesda, Md.

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