Scott Morris, the media adviser at the University of North Alabama, is exactly the kind of person anyone would want overseeing young student journalists.
In his almost 30 years of professional experience, he has served as a reporter, sports editor, city editor and managing editor and received numerous awards while doing so. He earned the Carmage Walls Commentary Prize as well as state and regional awards for investigative reporting and various forms of commentary. While editor of the TimesDaily in Florence, Alabama, the paper won more than 60 awards in his last three years there including First Amendment, Freedom of Information and community service honors.
With a wide array of experiences, good management expertise and a stalwart sense of the importance of First Amendment values, Morris has provided students at UNA with invaluable opportunities to learn writing, reporting, editing and publishing over his past four years at the institution.
ALABAMA — The University of North Alabama is ousting the student media adviser after the student paper published a story critiquing the school’s administration. The move has sparked sharp condemnation from journalism and First Amendment groups and the campus publications board.
In September 2018, The Flor-Ala reported the administration improperly withheld public documents about the resignation of the vice president of student affairs. A week later, the journalists, members of the communications department and The Flor-Ala media adviser Scott Morris met with University Provost Ross Alexander.
According to Morris, Alexander was angry about the Sept. 6 article and the meeting was tense. On Sept. 26, the provost informed Morris that the student media adviser job description had been changed, and Morris is now unqualified for his position.
In an email interview last week, Morris laid out a timeline of the events that led to publication of the story.
“Managing Editor Harley Duncan told me in late July that the university had fired (he technically resigned, we learned later) the vice president of student affairs, and university police had banned a professor from campus,” Morris said. “Duncan said he was trying to find out more by talking to university public relations. In the meantime, my boss, department of communications Chair Butler Cain, called me and told me that Provost Ross Alexander was willing to talk to Duncan about the situation.”
Alexander spoke with Duncan, but he didn’t discuss the situation or what had happened in regard tot he professor or the VP. Instead, Alexander asked Duncan to “wait a few weeks” and then Alexander would explain everything. Instead of letting the news get stale, Duncan kept digging and kept looking for other sources.
“The provost called Duncan back a few days later and said the VP had resigned to seek other opportunities,” Morris said. “He told Duncan not to ask anyone else any more questions about it.”
In other words:
Instead, Duncan did what journalists always do when human sources stonewall them: He filed open-records requests. The university denied the requests TWICE on grounds that the personnel files requested contained “sensitive files.”
“Duncan and I talked again, and he decided to try to determine if the university was breaking the Alabama Open Records Act,” Morris wrote. “He talked to a media attorney who confirmed the university was violating an opinion written by former state Attorney General Jeff Sessions concerning personnel files.”
With that information in hand, the Flor-Ala ran the story, “Administration denies public records, in direct violation of attorney general opinion” in its Sept. 6 issue.
“On Sept. 13, Duncan, another editor, department Chair Butler Cain and I met in the provost’s office,” Morris said. “We talked generally about all parties making an effort to have a good working relationship. Then, Provost Alexander flipped over the Sept. 6 article that he had on the table and said it contained ‘several inaccuracies.'”
When Morris asked about the inaccuracies, Alexander noted several things he didn’t like, but that weren’t inaccurate.
(Side note: This is a common approach among administrators and other people who don’t like what you write as a journalist. It’s also how “fake news” became a term people use to describe things that don’t jibe with their preferred world view. When someone tells you that you are “wrong” or “inaccurate” in a story, ask the person to explain what is wrong and why it is wrong. About 80 percent of the time, you’ll find the person has equated to “I don’t like that” to “That’s not right.”)
Shortly after the meeting, the administration started shifting the ground under Morris. A Sept. 19 email from Dean Carmen Burkhalter to the HR department told officials there to put Morris’ performance evaluation on hold.
A week later, Burkhalter met with Morris to tell him his position was being eliminated and replaced with a tenure-track job that required a Ph.D., something Morris didn’t possess and could not achieve before the job was to be filled. He met with his department chairman, Butler Cain, who said he hadn’t heard about this change, nor had he made this as a recommendation.
“I told Cain, it sounded like a knee-jerk decision by Provost Alexander because of the article,” Morris wrote. “He said he didn’t know, but ‘it could be.’ Cain has since circled back to support the provost 100 percent. He said this has nothing to do with retaliation, although I’m not sure how he would know that since the provost didn’t bother to include him in the decision.”
Nothing to do with retaliation. Right. Just like I’m sure Sonny Corleone just happened to catch a toll booth guy on a bad day:
“I can’t tell you how much the censure means to me,” Morris said. “It was much-needed validation at a time when my own department chair and dean would not stand up for what’s right. I don’t think the censure will have any impact on my employment, but I believe it has opened the eyes of a lot of people at the university and in the community. Since the censure, a few faculty members have had the courage to speak up and question the university’s actions. Many others have told me privately that they support me but they are scared to say anything in public because they are afraid of Provost Ross Alexander.”
Others in the media covered the issue as well, noting that free speech and free press rights are getting bulldozed at the institution. Morris, for his part, has tried to stay above the fray, guiding the students who find themselves in the unenviable position of covering the news while also being the news.
“The students were concerned about how to fairly cover an issue that involved themselves and their adviser,” Morris said. “They decided to get a student media adviser from another university to advise them on this story so there would be no conflict of interest on my part.
“In the middle of it, Cain sent an email to me basically telling me to keep my students in line. He wrote: ‘I do ask that students with The Flor-Ala be reminded to think carefully before venting their spleens in the paper or in the online edition. I understand they are likely upset, and I’ll make myself available to speak with them. I’m just wanting them to avoid doing something rash.'”
(Venting their spleens? It’s rare that a phrase has me simultaneously visualizing a 19th Century medicine man and a mob guy running a protection racket.)
With the intense glare of outside eyes, UNA is attempting to engage in revisionist history regarding Morris’ situation. In other words:
“They are using old emails and a memo from 2014 to claim that they have planned to change the adviser’s position to tenured faculty for years,” Morris said. “In fact, all those old emails and memos say is that we agreed to move student media from student affairs to the department of communications, and the unit would continue operating and being funded as it had in the past…”
“One of the most gratifying things that happened was when Dr. Greg Pitts, the former department chair who is at another university now, went on the record disputing the provost and dean’s contention that this move had been in the works since 2014,” Morris added. “Pitts told several media outlets: ‘If anybody asserts that the discussion to change Scott’s position started in 2014 with me, I would simply say that claim is false. At best, it is a wrong conclusion based on the kind of working relationship I wanted to see the department have with student media and The Flor-Ala. At worst, it’s a distortion that gets attributed to me because I am no longer on the faculty.’”
As a longtime journalist and a rational human being, Morris said he knows that this situation will not end well for him at UNA.
“I have no hope of keeping my job,” he said. “The administrators seem intent on sticking to their actions and their dishonest explanations for those actions. Honestly, I find their behavior cruel and repulsive.”
As for his experiences with the staffers at the Flor-Ala, Morris said the juice was worth the squeeze.
“The direct work and relationships with students are among the most gratifying experiences I have had in life,” he said. “I love the students’ enthusiasm and their willingness to “take on the man.” But I would also add that learning how so many people in academia — including those with tenure — just kiss ass to self-serving administrators is so disappointing. I suppose I was naïve, but that part of the equation shocked me. People who teach the First Amendment rights in the hallways and classrooms are afraid to defend it when it involves a personal risk. They should just shut up and teach students how to write press releases instead of pretending to know anything about journalism.”