ASHLAND — A national organization focused on protecting free speech on college campuses took aim at Ashland University after the contract of its student newspaper’s adviser failed to be renewed a week before classes started.
The Student Press Freedom Initiative (SPFI) — a branch of the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) — exchanged letters with Ashland University president Carlos Campo during the last two weeks, outlining concerns about academic freedom and censorship of the student newspaper.
The Collegian published the letters on its website on Sept. 18.
The concerns, according to the first letter SPFI sent to Campo, were raised due to Ashland University “terminating the contract of journalism instructor and newspaper adviser Ted Daniels, purportedly because he encouraged student reporters to seek comment on campus news stories from Ashland administrators and to otherwise engage in investigative reporting.”
SPFI sent its initial seven-page letter on Sept. 8, concerned that Ashland University’s actions are violating students’ rights to free expression.
The letter cited case precedent where courts ruled terminating a publication’s adviser constituted a violation of free expression. FIRE also took issue with claims from student journalists that their questions had to be submitted prior to interviews.
It called on the university to “refrain from any adverse action against The Collegian’s new adviser or student journalists,” and for it to “publicly assure all faculty — including adjunct instructors — that they enjoy full academic freedom free from official retaliation.”
Dillon Carr, Ashland Source‘s lead reporter, took over as the new adviser. He will no longer be covering Ashland University to avoid a conflict of interest.
Campo responded to the letter in one page.
The AU president rebuked the claims that Daniels’ firing resulted from The Collegian’s reporting. Campo also noted decisions to have dean oversight of the student paper were “predicated on some recent, rather glaring grammatical errors and had nothing to do with content.”
SPFI responded to Campo’s letter.
It asked the university to confirm “Ashland will allow The Collegian to publish without prior review and will publicly reassure the campus community that Ashland will respect freedom of the press and academic freedom going forward.”
It requested a response from Campo by Sept. 21. As of 4:30 p.m. on Sept. 18, AU has not responded.
On Sept. 19, per an email from Katherine Brown, the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, there is no longer a requirement for the proof of the paper to be sent to her.
She sent a message to The Collegian’s new adviser and chair of the journalism and digital media department.
“I am sorry for the confusion in intention. As always, I remain open for any conversation with you or the student writers and editors,” Brown wrote.
When Katelyn Meeks started preparing for the 2023-2024 school year at Ashland University, she emailed the president’s office to set up a meeting.
Meeks, a junior majoring in digital media journalism and public relations, acts as the managing editor of The Collegian. For her, those meetings were routine. She met with the president regularly last year, usually biweekly, to give Campo an opportunity to comment on The Collegian’s stories.
The meetings happened at the urging of her adviser, Ted Daniels. Daniels, formerly a journalist and the editor at the Ashland Times-Gazette, served as The Collegian’s adviser for the last two years.
Daniels said he took the job to promote the craft of journalism, and because he has ties to AU and views it as important in the Ashland community. Daniels signed on to be an adjunct for a year at AU.
He said he fell in love with the students.
“As many in the community are, [I’m] worried about the future of [journalism],” Daniels said in an Aug. 28 interview with Ashland Source. “… I call this my community service, doing my small part to help AU.”
Meeks said she reached out to Aaron Ross, Campo’s chief of staff, three times between the start of August and Aug. 14. She wanted to meet with Campo ahead of The Collegian’s first issue to get his comment on a slew of stories: the office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion’s name change; the budget; enrollment; and Campo’s departure from the university.
Meeks said Ross told her Campo was busy. He wouldn’t meet with her until Aug. 31. She was frustrated, but eventually accepted the Aug. 31 meeting.
“I get it, presidents are busy,” Meeks said. “But this is a student newspaper, and we’re trying to reach out and we’re trying to make sure we have accurate information.”
In a Sept. 14 interview with Ashland Source, Campo said he didn’t have time in his schedule to meet with her before the school year.
He said he scheduled monthly meetings with Meeks, and added he’s willing to try to schedule students for interviews as things arise on campus, but has a demanding schedule.
Meeks said she was told those regular meetings have to be scheduled month-by-month.
Then, Daniels’ contract wasn’t renewed for the fall semester, despite the journalism and digital media department planning for him to teach classes.
Daniels claimed he talked with the provost, Amiel Jarstfer, to discuss student reporters’ issues with scheduling meetings with administrators before classes started. Daniels said the meeting with Jarstfer went poorly.
He set a meeting with the College of Arts and Sciences Dean, Brown. They met on the morning of Aug. 21. Classes began Aug. 28.
“We had a good conversation,” Daniels said. “I mean, it was kind and respectful, and she said, ‘Give me 24 hours.’ Well, it didn’t take 24 hours.”
A few hours after the meeting, Daniels learned his contract would not be renewed through an email from Brown.
Her email was short and to the point. It said he wouldn’t be returning to the classroom this fall without a specific reason.
“I appreciated the opportunity to listen to your perspectives on the field of journalism, as well as the chance to explain how this approach has been problematic for Ashland University,” Brown’s email stated.
Left in the lurch
David McCoy, the journalism and digital media department chair, said the choice not to renew Daniels’ contract was not his. It happened a week before the semester started, and left him scrambling.
He finalized the department’s course list in the spring.
Daniels was supposed to teach an introductory journalism class called “Writing for the Media” — a required class for all digital media journalism majors, all digital media production majors and language arts education majors. Daniels was also supposed to advise The Collegian.
“This is an unfortunate situation so close to the beginning of a semester,” McCoy said. “It puts a lot of stresses on the program. It put a lot of stresses on the students … It put a lot of stress on me.”
McCoy said Daniels’ work with students had been “stellar.” McCoy didn’t know of any student complaints against Daniels when Brown passed down the news that his contract wasn’t being renewed.
“Writing for the Media” was canceled for the semester thanks to Daniels’ contract situation. McCoy couldn’t fill the hole, and 22 students had a class canceled a week before the semester.
He said the cancellation puts students back, preventing them from contributing to journalism publications at the school — especially The Collegian, the student paper that Daniels advised.
The decision not to bring back Daniels left The Collegian in the lurch, too. McCoy said putting out the paper fell on students’ shoulders.
“I was around, but that’s not my forte,” McCoy said. “I was there more for consoling purposes than anything.”
Meeks, the managing editor of The Collegian, said she walked in as Daniels was packing up his office on the morning of Aug. 22. At the start of the year, the students met at 8 a.m. every day to work on the paper. Her staff arrived as Daniels left that morning.
“They’re all in shock ‘cause we’re 20 years old,” Meeks said. “We’re just writing for the school newspaper. It’s what we love to do. And to see your mentor be told to leave because you’re doing something like that … is kind of defeating. We felt defeated going forward.”
Why wasn’t Daniels’ contract renewed?
Meeks outlined her frustrations in The Collegian’s first editorial of the year, published Aug. 28.
“The university told our adviser, Ted Daniels, he could no longer teach because The Collegian was doing ‘too much investigative journalism,’” Meeks wrote. “I thought this was the whole point of journalism was to investigate what is going on and report on what is happening?”
Daniels claimed administrators said this during in-person meetings and in emails. He did not have copies or documentation to share with Ashland Source, aside from Brown’s email to him.
Meeks said she did not see any emails that said this. She said Daniels told her about their alleged contents.
Ashland Source asked Brown, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, for documentation of the reason Daniels’ contract wasn’t renewed. She provided a statement in response.
“Personnel information at Ashland University remains confidential. But in general and by definition, adjunct instructors teach on a short-term, temporary basis, often a semester at a time, to fill specific teaching needs, which can fluctuate,” read part of Brown’s statement.
Ashland Source asked AU Provost Jarstfer about the reason AU didn’t renew Daniels’ contract.
Like Brown, he said individual personnel matters are “privileged confidential information.” He did say that the reasons behind renewal decisions “vary from enrollment, to performance, to fit for the position and other factors.”
Campo said the choice not to renew Daniels was out of his purview. He also repeated Brown’s sentiments: personnel issues are private matters at AU.
Campo said he did tell the student senate at its Sept. 12 meeting that the decision to not renew Daniels’ contract wasn’t because of his encouraging students to be investigative, though.
“We’d never suppress students, we’d never suppress freedom of the press,” Campo said.
Greg McBrayer, the president of the faculty senate, said adjuncts receive contracts for individual classes at AU. He said adjuncts act as at-will employees, and their contracts can end at any time and without reason.
McBrayer said typically department chairs make those decisions.
Meeks’ editorial caught the attention of AU faculty members, some of whom reached out to the Student Press Freedom Initiative. That initiative operates under the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, and, according to its website, exists to advocate for the rights of student news.
One faculty member filed a formal complaint with SPFI, according to Lindsie Rank, one of the organization’s lawyers. Others called in to talk about the situation.
With Ashland University’s private status, traditional First Amendment protections don’t exist on campus, Rank said. Still, AU has made commitments to free expression on campus, signing onto the Chicago statement in 2017.
Rank worked to provide The Collegian students with resources for dealing with the failure to renew Daniels’ contract. SPFI also sent the letters to Campo.
To get caught up with the response to AU’s failure to renew Daniels’ contract, check out Part 2 here.
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