Wayne State College in Nebraska has removed the faculty adviser for the student newspaper from his role. The removal, which came after the newspaper published several articles critical of the administration, has generated concern about freedom of the press at the college.
Max McElwain was dismissed June 11 from his advisory role for the Wayne Stater, which he held for 14 years. His other role at the college as professor of mass communication and electronic media will not be affected.
Over the past couple of years, McElwain oversaw the Wayne Stater’s coverage of three campus controversies -- a tuition hike, the firing of a tenured professor and allegations of cronyism in the presidential search process.
Newspaper staffers and free speech advocates expressed concern that McElwain was dismissed because coverage of these controversies cast the administration in a negative light. But the college maintains that freedom of the press was preserved.
Jay Collier, director of college relations for Wayne State, said he could not comment on the reason for McElwain’s removal because faculty contracts prohibit the discussion of personnel issues. But he said Wayne State upheld the newspaper’s right to publish material critical of the college.
“Anyone who would seek to imply that we’ve in any way tried to silence the Stater or interfere with their coverage is just patently untrue,” Collier said. “Student newspapers are going to critically cover the institution they’re at. It’s their backyard. It’s going to happen.”
McElwain’s advisory responsibilities will be assumed by Eddie Elfers, director of the Technology Resource Center at Wayne State, Collier said. Elfers previously advised the Wayne Stater and taught journalism from 1992 to 1999, he said.
For their reporting this year, McElwain and the Wayne Stater received the Intellectual Freedom Award from the Academic Freedom Coalition of Nebraska.
Frank Edler, newsletter editor for AFCON, said he believes the reporting that won McElwain an award also cost him a job. “I think they’re really trying to repress any criticism that is being made of the administration,” he said. “The whole attitude that the administration seems to take is really having a chilling effect on freedom of speech at that campus.”
Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, echoed this concern. “Any time an adviser is removed, you have to view it up against historical experience. Historical experience tells us that very frequently, the removal of an adviser is retaliatory for students’ editorial content decisions …. The onus will be on Wayne State to come forward promptly and demonstrate that they had a legitimate and nonretaliatory reason.”
The controversy over the tuition hike first flared in June 2015. At a meeting that month, the Board of Trustees decided to increase tuition by 9.3 percent for the 2015-16 academic year. The board also agreed to raise Chancellor Stan Carpenter’s salary by 9 percent to more than $255,000.
The Wayne Stater did not immediately cover the concurrent tuition hike and salary increase, since publication was suspended over the summer. But when publication resumed in the fall, editors emblazoned the front page of the Sept. 9 issue with an enormous number nine. The headline “Lucky for Some but Not for Others” was printed inside the loop in the numeral.
“If you think about it, there’s no direct correlation between the two percentages,” said Derek Pufahl, editor-in-chief of the Wayne Stater. “But the fact that he’s getting a raise is definitely noteworthy. And the nine was eye-catching.”
The controversy over the firing of a tenured professor unfolded the next month. On Oct. 5, Karen Walker was dismissed as professor of psychology and escorted off campus by a campus security officer.
The Wayne Stater devoted extensive resources to reporting on Walker’s termination. The paper published a string of articles over the course of the year that delved into the circumstances and consequences of her removal. The administration repeatedly refused to comment on her removal for these articles, noting that faculty contracts forbid discussion of personnel issues.
One article quoted a professor as saying that Michael Anderson, vice president of academic affairs, personally fired Walker in pursuit of a “vendetta” against her husband. Walker is married to Mark Leeper, chair of the Faculty Senate, who has been a vocal critic of Anderson and the lack of communication between the Faculty Senate and the administration. (Anderson has since resigned.) (Note: This paragraph has been updated to correct the first name of the vice president of academic affairs. He is Michael, not Mark.)
A final article titled “Pink-Slipped the Modern Way” revealed that Walker received an official letter of termination via email.
Throughout the reporting process, the administration's refusal to comment on a personnel issue was frustrating, Pufahl said. “We asked the administration as much as we could, but they would immediately tell us that it was a personnel issue and would not discuss it at all, which I think is correct by their contract,” he said. “But they seemed outraged at the fact that we talked with other professors about what had happened, and we printed those quotes.”
In addition to numerous articles, the Wayne Stater also made the unusual decision to publish a staff editorial and a guest column by McElwain about the Walker controversy.
The editorial, which ran on the front page, affirmed the newspaper’s right to report on the Walker controversy without fear of ramifications. “Yes, we are a state-funded school and a state-funded paper, but we shouldn't have to question whether someone is trying to intimidate us into not running stories,” the editorial stated. “We shouldn't have to worry about the future of our paper if we deem our news and editorial content important and someone else disagrees."
In his guest column, McElwain defended the newspaper’s reporting on details of the Walker controversy, including the fact that faculty and students were not allowed to testify on her behalf at her advisory committee hearing. He even posed and answered a prophetic question: “Do I fear for my job? State college faculty have been fired for saying a lot less than I am here.”
The controversy regarding cronyism in the presidential search broke out back in January of 2015. That month, the Wayne Stater published a front-page article titled “Stan Carpenter, Search Consultant Go Way Back” that revealed the close connection between the Wayne State chancellor and Charles Bunting, the lead consultant hired to help with the search.
The article noted that Carpenter and Bunting worked together in the Vermont State College system for 15 years. It also quoted Carpenter as denying that this history posed a conflict of interest.
Looking ahead, the staff of the Wayne Stater will meet with the administration in the fall, Pufahl said. “The staff has been asked by the administration to have a sit-down at the beginning of the semester and just have an open dialogue, which they’ve never done before,” he said. “I hope that they don’t try to stifle us in any way, because we are allowed freedom of the press. I hope everything goes OK.”
The administration is also in the process of forming an advisory board for the Wayne Stater, Collier said. Local journalists and alumni will comprise the board, and they will ideally provide valuable mentoring and networking opportunities, he said.
But critics should not confuse the advisory board with an attempt to censor the newspaper in any way, Collier said. “It will be purely advisory -- anything they would recommend would not be binding,” he said. “We won’t insert ourselves in the process.”
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