Al Cross, SPJ President, 502/648-8433 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Jim Highland, SPJ Vice President for Campus Chapter Affairs, home: 270/781-2907; work: 270/784-8853; or email@example.com
Fred Blevens, Southwest Texas State University, home: 830/608-9855; work: 512/245-3484
INDIANAPOLIS -- Administrators at the University of Texas at Tyler have offered to reinstate a faculty member and student publications adviser, following inquiries by the Society of Professional Journalists and other journalism organizations.
SPJ said last week that there was substantial evidence that the dismissal of Vanessa Curry, a journalism lecturer and adviser to The Patriot, was spurred by her students' aggressive journalism. SPJ joined several organizations in calling on UT-Tyler President Rodney Mabry to explain Curry’s dismissal and to change plans to put editorial and personnel matters under the control of a student publications committee dominated by administrators.
SPJ's national board of directors voted last Saturday to authorize a task force to investigate the situation, and SPJ President Al Cross appointed the group this week.
The task-force chair, Dr. Fred Blevens of Southwest Texas State University, said UT-Tyler's arts and sciences dean, Donna Dickerson, told him today that concerns voiced by SPJ and the Southwest Education Council for Journalism and Mass Communications, of which Blevens is president, were "major factors" in the decision to rehire Curry.
Mabry agreed to proposed student publication guidelines that give students a strong voice in determining content and selecting the adviser and editor of the campus newspaper.
The proposed guidelines include a newly structured student publications governing committee with five student (one from each college within the university), two professionals, the dean of student affairs and three faculty members (one from the communication department, one at-large and one appointed by the Faculty Senate).
The advisory board and the communication department will recommend candidates for adviser, but appointment power will belong to Dickerson. The dean also said any new policy concerning student publications would need her approval before being made part of university policy. The advisory committee will select the editor.
UT-Tyler administrators told Curry last month that they were not renewing her contract for next year, a decision widely viewed as a reaction to her students' persistent requests for information under the Texas Open Records Act.
"The newspaper just got a little too aggressive for their tastes," Department of Communication chairman Kenneth Casstevens told the Dallas Morning News. He said the newspaper had greatly improved during Curry's tenure.
Cross, a political writer and columnist at The (Louisville, Ky.) Courier-Journal, hailed the university's decision. "President Mabry is to be commended for showing the courage to support a free press by continuing Ms. Curry's contract and adopting traditional guidelines that preserve First Amendment rights essential to the practice of journalism on and off campus," he said.
Cross asked task-force members to closely monitor the implementation of the guidelines during the next few months. Blevens and Travis Poling, president of the San Antonio SPJ Chapter, were scheduled to visit the campus next week. Former SPJ President Phil Record, formerly a senior editor at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and now a faculty member at Texas Christian University, had agreed to assist in the probe.
Blevens lauded the work of Dickerson, who as dean of arts and sciences worked long hours gathering and presenting evidence in Ms. Curry's defense. Blevens said Dickerson persuaded the administration that the proposed guidelines were not consistent with those practiced on most other campuses and those recommended by the Student Press Law Center.
"Dean Dickerson is a respected scholar of the First Amendment, having published numerous books and articles on free expression," Blevens said. "Although it is sad that it took nearly a month for her voice to be heard, I'm pleased with the proposed outcome and look forward to working with her and President Mabry on these issues."
Jim Highland, SPJ vice president for campus affairs, spoke directly with Mabry about the controversy. "He was reluctant initially to reverse the decision on the adviser, but I am happy that he took the opportunity to meet with his dean over the communications program, examine all the issues involved and determine that the information he had been provided up to that point may not have been accurate," said Highland.
He said the outcome at UT-Tyler should send a signal that administrators across the nation should be very cautious when they consider actions that threaten the campus press. "This is a victory, yes, but not one that we should have to earn campus by campus," said Highland. "We can only hope that the powerful message from this episode will help guide such decision-making at universities nationwide."
The Society of Professional Journalists works to improve and protect journalism. The organization is the nation's largest and most broad-based journalism organization, dedicated to encouraging the free practice of journalism and stimulating high standards of ethical behavior. Founded in 1909 as Sigma Delta Chi, SPJ promotes the free flow of information vital to a well-informed citizenry; works to inspire and educate the next generation of journalists; and protects First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech and press.