It’s been one year since I stopped advising student media at UW-Oshkosh, a fact that was brought home by a couple events this week. The first was a call from the current editor of the Advance-Titan, who wanted to ask me a question about graduation. Every year, students who graduated after spending whatever appreciable amount of time at the paper deemed worthy of such an honor were able to purchase a stole to wear with their grad gear.
“The A-T graduation stoles,” he asked. “Where did you buy those?”
“I made them,” I said.
“You MADE them?”
I then outlined the process in which I bought a pack of generic gold stoles online, went down to JoAnn’s fabric store, got some black material and fusible interfacing, ironed them together, traced out each letter, cut them out, placed them on the stole and ironed them on. I also noted I never forgot the hyphen on the back of the neck. (The paper was particularly proud of the hyphen in the name.) Each one took about two hours or so to make and I never even thought to charge more than what the materials cost.
I could almost hear him shaking his head on the other end of the phone. The next day, the current adviser stopped by and the first words out of her mouth were, “Did you do EVERYTHING there?” I don’t know, but there were days I felt like it.
Most of the time, however, I never thought twice about the time it took to do the stoles or hand-burn the managing editor baseball bats or traipse in a chili supper or fill out award sheets or a dozen other things. Sure, I got paid for being the adviser, a $5,000 annual stipend that the provost provided, but if you broke that down by the hour, I’d have been better off taking a part-time job at Hardee’s. The job was hard, the budgets were tight and 17-hour days on production nights weren’t rare.
Still, I loved the kids. You never think about stuff like time or work when it’s for something you love. However, when the board of oversight put me in an untenable position, I had to walk away.
Kenna Griffin found herself in a similar position this week. All she ever wanted to do was advise student media at Oklahoma City University, something she did splendidly for 16 years. However, her administration painted her into a corner, so she packed up her office and left.
I didn’t really start to cry until I thought about Dru. I was pulling books off of the shelf, separating what was personally mine and what belonged to the position, when I said Dru’s name and started sobbing. It’s not only the girl herself. It’s all of the students she represents. Students who I love. Students whose rights I think it’s my calling to protect. Students who love student media as much as I do. Students I was leaving behind.
Griffin is one of many advisers I know that colleges and universities are actively or passively crushing with increasing workloads, diminishing funds and punitive measures. The latest of these situations came to a head at Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky, where Tom Martin advises The Rambler. The university unilaterally decided to “support new initiatives” and essentially reorganize Martin out of a job. Administrators cut off pay to the students (and Martin), all while painting this as a chance to get an “experienced staff adviser” instead of someone from the outside. Nobody involved in media believed that BS:
The Bluegrass Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists issued a blistering statement in reaction to the proposed changes.
“Transylvania University’s decision to stop compensating the student staff and part-time professional adviser of its online student newspaper, The Rambler, looks like a blatant attempt to silence and control student voices,” said Tom Eblen, chapter president. “President Seamus Carey and his leadership team should be standing up for the liberal arts values of a free press, good journalism and media literacy, not undermining them, especially at this critical time in our nation’s history. If this decision is not reversed, it will send a powerful message about Transylvania to students, potential students and the nation.”
I asked Martin if he’d like to talk about this for the blog, but he declined, saying The Rambler folks and the administration were trying to work something out and he didn’t want to get in the way. Even as his job hung in the balance, he put the kids first.
So did Scott Morris, the soon-to-be-former adviser of the Flor-Ala at the University of North Alabama, who was also being reorganized out of a job. After this award-winning journalist taught his students to do actual journalism that would (gasp) criticize the institution, the administration decided enough was enough.
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.
It’s not always easy to fire someone without looking like that’s what you’re doing, so it’s much easier to rewrite the position in a way the current person isn’t qualified to fill, call it an “upgrade” and pretend that this is all in the best interest of the students at the publication. Of course, when you get called on your bullshit, it’s easier to pretend like you are the aggrieved party:
[E]fforts to link Dean Burkhalter’s notice of this personnel transition to one article in the paper, represent an ex post facto creation of a narrative designed to lead to a predetermined and misleading conclusion. More generally,there’s been an effort to conflate an academic decision and to relate it in routine personnel notification with an attack on the First Amendment at UNA. I find it objectionable that any group purports that own the First Amendment and interpret it for the rest of us.
Morris told me back in December he has no hope of keeping his job, but he was going to keep working with the students until the administration essentially pried him out of his chair and sent him packing.
Universities have tried to get rid of advisers like Morris, but none has failed as spectacularly as Florida Atlantic University, where Michael Koretzky continues to advise the students nearly a decade after the university fired him. In 2010, the administration there “reorganized” student media to get rid of Koretzky, who had been a thorn in the side of the school forever. The reason? His students loved him and they did real Fourth-Estate journalism, such as holding the student government to account for shady behavior.
Koretzky, as unrelenting as a toothache and as difficult to remove as gum from the bottom of a Nike, worked with the students on his own time, became a “permanent guest speaker” for the University Press staff and eventually settled into a volunteer adviser role. Seven years after the university fired him, the administrators there tried to fire him AGAIN, this time from his volunteer role.
As far as I know, he’s still there, teaching kids what they need to know and innovating like hell. He has developed things like the “First Amendment Free Food Festival,” where students learn about their rights by trading them in to eat for free, and the “Interview with a Zombie” promotion where students risk getting doused with fake blood for asking stupid questions. The participants get a T-shirt emblazoned with the motto I think every adviser would take as his or her own:
“I bleed for my media.”
Dozens of other advisers have met fates like the ones I described above. Ron Johnson at Indiana University was removed after “financial issues.” I know Johnson had even offered to rework his own pay to try to help. Instead, the university cut ties with him earlier than promised to save money. Morgan State fired Denise Brown in 2009, in a move that was seen as an attack on the students’ First Amendment rights. In fact, you can check out the College Media Association’s “censure” page to see what happened there and at other schools where advisers seem to be as safe as the guy in the red shirt on a Star Trek episode.
Anyone looking at the life of a college media adviser from the outside would have to think, “These people are insane!” And, well, yeah… We kind of are. If you want to see the weirdest collective of coexisting people outside of the Cantina scene in “Star Wars,” just go to an adviser reception at a CMA or Associated Collegiate Press convention. To call us an eclectic bunch would be to refer to Godzilla as a lizard; in other words, that’s a dramatic understatement.
However, we all share one crucial trait and that is our love for student media and “our kids” who produce it. Student media isn’t a job for most of us. It IS us. The people in charge of universities don’t understand that spending as much time in a foxhole as we do with these students forges a bond that wounds when it is torn. It’s woven so intrinsically into every fiber of our being that when chuckleheads in student government mess with it, administrators overreach to silence it or others demonize it, we experience personal and unrelenting pain.
That’s why we stand in front of “our kids” when the train is coming down the tracks, knowing that we probably can’t stop the train, but that we might be able to absorb the blow for them. It’s why we take the beatings we do, in hopes that it will allow the students the opportunity to wriggle away unscathed, to continue doing the important work they have come to the newsroom to do. It’s why we have no shame in any of it.
It’s why we cry when it’s gone, even if it is “our choice” to leave.
This is also why we are the ones who get the invitations to weddings, some for relationships forged right under our noses at the newsroom. (Apparently, hours spent in a windowless bunker poring over AP style books and shit-talking the administration can be romantic to some people.) It’s why we attend funerals for staffers’ parents and siblings, driving whatever distance just to be there as our staffers stand before us in a broken state. We tell them, “It’s going to be OK.”
We know about the internship offers and the pregnancy scares before family members do. We serve as the sounding board for everything from students who are worried about “coming out” to those who think they need an extra year of college. Sometimes, we end up worrying about a staffer who lands in the hospital after a school shooting.
We aren’t the only ones who do this, to be sure, as other faculty and advisers serve similar roles, but I have yet to have students call me up and say, “Hey, I was in your Fall 2015 reporting class! We’re getting a reunion together at The Bar tonight and we hoped you could come!”
I also don’t remember hearing about the student government passing a resolution for the firing of the Model UN adviser. I don’t recall seeing the adviser of the forensics team getting “reorganized” out of his or her job because the kids in “solo serious” were picking material deemed “too serious.” I have yet to see the chess team adviser getting publicly castigated for his team’s financial situation or for preaching the value of the Evans Gambit, because administrators felt a Benko Opening was really more responsible.
When Kenna posted about her situation, other advisers and former advisers came out of the woodwork to offer support. Many of them offered similar tales of heartbreak:
Walking away from advising after 22 years was one of the most difficult and at the same time, most sane decisions I ever made. You are in my thoughts.
I left before it got that bad, but it was headed that way. Advising student media had put a target on my back. There was even a standing committee that met with the university president weekly to ask him to fire me. Shouldn’t be that way. Sad to see it’s no better 12 years after I walked away.
I’ve been in similar shoes. And the terror of it will be something that, down the road, you will be glad you went through. We live by an ethical code and have a breaking point when the rubber meets the road. Those clowns will realize their mistake, but might not care. For that I’m sorry. It stings. It’s a gut punch. It’s a betrayal and can make you question being such a loyal person to an institution. It certainly was a real lesson in higher ed for me. I wish you all the best and admire your guts.
In the year since I left, there are times I don’t regret my choice, like when I could go to my kid’s volleyball game or actually get more than four-hours sleep before teaching my 8 a.m. class. Last night, I did laundry and watched a basketball game on TV, with only a passing thought that it was Wednesday and Wednesday used to always mean I was at the A-T.
I do have to admit that it stings when I have to refer to myself as a “former” adviser or when I have to direct students to the current adviser, a wonderful woman who is doing a fantastic job. I miss the moments in the newsroom that can’t be reproduced anywhere else, including the inside jokes and the “remember when” stories from “back in the day,” which for most students was about a semester and a half ago. I miss eating random pseudo-meals at my desk while students would yell out stuff like, “Is ‘felony conviction’ hyphenated?”
The one comfort I have in all this, and perhaps the only one I can offer to Kenna, is that I know I’m not alone and neither is she. We advisers are a weird bunch, but we all eat the same dirt, so we know what it tastes like and how to spit it out.
Hang in there, pal. It’ll get better.