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July 13, 2004 [feather]
More shame and blame in the student press

Oregon State is not the only campus where the student press has been attacked recently by misguided campus activists who think that the school paper should pander to special interest groups rather than publish fair and accurate stories and hardhitting editorials written from a variety of perspectives. Kansas State has got some pretty serious issues along these lines, too.

KC Johnson describes how Ron Johnson, the national award-winning Collegian's faculty advisor, was fired:

His offense? He ran afoul of the schoolís diversity coordinator, associate provost Myra Gordon. At Virginia Tech, Gordon had overseen a controversial faculty diversity initiative that built off the writing of Cathy Trower, who has argued that ìmerit is socially constructed by the dominant coalitionî and that white male (and only white male) job candidates should be required to demonstrate a commitment to diversity before being hired.

At K-St., Gordon backed the president of the schoolís Black Student Union, Natalie Rolfe, who complained after the Collegian failed to cover the Big 12 Conference on Black Student Government, which Kansas State hosted in February 2004. (The article doesnít mention whether the BSU issued a press release before the event, but it appears that the organization did not.) In response to Rolfeís complaint, the newspaperís editors publicly apologized for not covering the event, developed a new system for reporting to ensure that all campus events received proper coverage, and planned ìadditional diversity training.î

These moves did not satisfy Rolfe, who said that she wanted "a system to make sure the paper's more friendly to the campusî (interesting conception of a newspaperís role). She then organized a protest march, with 50 students wearing T-shirts reading ìW.W.R.G.?,î for ìWhen Will Ron Go?î Gordon, meanwhile, told Rolfe, "I'm backing you all the way,î and publicly stated that Johnson should be fired. (Gordon refused to comment for the Chronicle story.) Johnson then was removed from his position, after the college dean issued a report accusing him of a poor attitude in dealing with studentsóeven though the dean hadnít interviewed any of the students on the newspaperís staff, and has refused to say with which students he did speak.

Imagine, for a moment, that the following occurred: a state university newspaper received several national awards, and its journalism adviser, an African-American female, had developed a warm long-term working relationship with the students under her charge. The paper then failed to cover a conference bringing together campus affiliates of, say, the Center for Individual Rights, after which the newspaper editors publicly apologized and agreed to undergo ideological diversity training to ensure they were more sensitive to conservatives in the future. Nonetheless, the student leader of the campus CIR demanded the dismissal of the journalism adviser.

In both the Oregon State and the Kansas State cases, the trigger point was race. But notice that the issue here is not the offensive publications of the paper--as it was at Oregon State--but the silence of the paper on a matter some community members felt it should be foregrounding. Where the Oregon State case centered on whether the student paper should be printing editorials that offended members of the campus community, the Kansas State case centers on the journalism advisor's perceived failure to compel Collegian staff to politicize decisions about the paper's content. Though the Collegian's failure to cover the event was acknowledged as an oversight, and though the paper has since implemented procedures for ensuring that all campus events that should be covered get covered, it had to be described as racist, it had to be protested with a march, and a head had to roll. When Kansas State adminstrators fired Ron Johnson, they were engaging in the worst sort of pandering appeasement: Handing Myra Gordon, Natalie Rolfe, and the Black Student Union Johnson's head on a platter, KS admins were sacrificing an innocent man's career in order to avoid being called racist themselves. In allowing themselves to be shamed into blatantly unethical wrongdoing, the Kansas State administrators succeeded ultimately in shaming themselves.

The good news is that the Kansas courts understand what the people at Kansas State do not. A judge has just ordered the university to reinstate Johnson.

There's more at the Chronicle of Higher Education.

posted on July 13, 2004 8:33 AM


How horribly illiberal.

Posted by: Dave at July 13, 2004 10:31 AM

Of course merit is socially-constructed by the dominant power -- duh. We decide what is most important to us (with the bigwigs having the loudest voice) and we build our values around that. BFD. It sounds like Cathy Trower (of whom, thank goodness, I'd never heard) is trying to criminalize human society.

Posted by: meg at July 13, 2004 10:54 AM

I'm a K-State alumnus who cares about these issues, but only peripherally followed this story due to the other things I have going.

It seems I should have paid more attention. Thanks.

Posted by: j.d. at July 13, 2004 10:55 AM

BTW, Erin (and devotees), I just read a story on the wire service to the effect that a (UK) parliamentary commission has recommended that knighthoods and the Order of the British Empire be eliminated, because "sir/dame" is redolent of the rank-based class system and "empire" is out of step with the times. Heh.

Posted by: meg at July 13, 2004 11:30 AM

Does anyone remember Tom Wolfe's book, Radical Chic and Mau-mauing the Flak Catchers? Seems to me that Gordon and Rolfe are the mau-mauers, and Johnson is the involuntary flak catcher. To be top dog mau-mauers, though (in the Sharpton class), Gordon and Rolfe need to increase their demands now, say by demanding increased funding for the BSU and another head or two.

Posted by: DBL at July 13, 2004 2:19 PM

The sentence that struck me is the one about how the BSU may not have informed the newspaper of the conference. I agree that if they had beat reporters, this would not have mattered as the beat reporter shuld then have learned about the conference, but to blame the advisor when the people holding the converence did not even tell them the conference was being held and then using that as a reason for dismissing the advisor tells me that Ms Rolfe must have had some problems with the advisor herself. I noticed that she graduated with a degree in communications and journalism. Sounds as if she got a bad grade for work she either did not do or did badly and is using this as a way to get back at the professor. Something to think about.

The other question that comes to mind is that if Ms Rolfe was going for a degree in this field, why was she not going after the paper earlier for its lack of diversity in staff. It was her major and she should certainly have known whether there were black reporters or not and if not she should have brought that up then.

This whole thing stinks like week old fish heads to me and KSU should really take a good look at what is going on in their administrative offices as well as what is going on in their academic offices. This Ms Gordon sounds like a good reason to search for work other than at KSU.

Posted by: dick at July 13, 2004 2:45 PM

I've posted this a number of times before, but what is needed is for the alumni and taxpayers (in the case of publically supported institutions) to become more involve in policy matters of their respective schools. They pay the bills and they should on occasion be allowed to call the tune. At least there needs to be some return to balance so that when left leaning faculty and administrators shout "McCarthyism!" they should not automattically be left alone.

Posted by: Charles at July 13, 2004 3:19 PM

It's tangential, I know, but Meg, that's yet another example of Blairite/"New Labour" obsession with change for change's sake, screwing around with marginal symbolic gesture politics while giving short shrift to what British voters primarily care about: that their country's public services are rotting despite huge and ever-growing infusions of cash and bureaucracy. The British honors system is a historical anachronism, yes, but then so is pretty much the entire British constitution, and it seems to work well enough; it was the country that invented "if it's not broke, don't fix it," and the current Government absolutely hates that, though in general it gives no serious thought to how to replace whatever it tears down (see, e.g., the "reformed" House of Lords, devolution in Scotland and Wales, and the proposed regional governments in England).

Posted by: Dave J at July 13, 2004 7:57 PM

Dave J: Yes, just so. Blair makes me appreciate Old Labour in ways I never thought myself capable of. Come back, James Callaghan, all is forgiven!

Posted by: meg at July 13, 2004 11:38 PM

Meg, let's not stop at Callaghan. I want Harold Wilson back! Michael Foot & Tony Benn we hardly knew ye.

Posted by: stolypin at July 14, 2004 12:06 AM

Okay, Ivan, but if you go all weepy for Gerald Kaufman, we're gonna hafta stage an intervention.

Posted by: meg at July 14, 2004 1:08 AM

Nah, I'll pass on Kaufman but only if you agree to let the National Union of Miners go on strike again. I miss those days without electricity.

Posted by: stolypin at July 14, 2004 10:30 AM

I almost used Scargill's name instead of Kaufman's but rethought it, in fear of a bumpy slide down a slippery slope.

Posted by: meg at July 14, 2004 11:54 AM

Wow, I've created a monster (or two). ;-) For the record, having labored in the depths of Conservative Central Office (selling Smith Square was brilliant: that place is cursed), I'm almost physically incapable of saying anything nice about any Labour politician, ever...but drop the "almost" when it comes to the Lib Dems. Not that there aren't plenty of Tories who are awful, too, of course.

Posted by: Dave J at July 14, 2004 3:00 PM

Dave J,
I loved old Labour for a number of reasons.
1. I am old labour - or at least was back in my youth so I have fond memories of same;
2. My student union was filled with marxist groups ranging from Stalinist, to Trotsky (oh the debates they had) to maninline CP through a broad variety of socialist groups. They each had acronyms, IMG (intl. marxist group), IS (intl socialists), etc. I remember being threatened with purgatory when I arrived at a party (the drinking kind) and announced I had just started the IGM. The thrill at the rospect of a new group dimmed when I advised it stood for Intl. Groucho Marxist. They did take their revolution stuff a tad seriously.
3. I always liked and admired those guys for and just the thought that someone so high-falautingly named as Anthony Wedgewood Benn could be a hero of the working class gave me a kind of kick.

Posted by: stolypin at July 15, 2004 11:15 AM

A kick maybe unless he got in office. Then you would really have gotten a kick.

Posted by: dick at July 16, 2004 2:25 PM

can't disagree with that.

Posted by: stolypin at July 16, 2004 8:53 PM