MANHATTAN, Kan. The adviser to Kansas State University's student newspaper, targeted for removal by a group of black students after the paper failed to cover the Big 12 Conference on Black Student Government, has been removed and reassigned to other teaching duties.
Ron Johnson said yesterday that a university administrator told him he will no longer serve as director of student publications and adviser to the Kansas State Collegian after May 24. Journalism school director Todd Simon confirmed Johnson's removal, but wouldn't comment further.
The action could spark a lawsuit from students concerned that Johnson's removal is an attempt by the university to control the newspaper's content, said Mark Goodman, executive director of the Arlington, Va.-based Student Press Law Center. The center is a nonprofit group that provides legal assistance to student journalists.
"The question here is motivation," Goodman said. "If the content of the publication was the motivation, their actions are unconstitutional and the university deserves to be sued for what it's done."
Johnson has been the newspaper's adviser since 1989. Sarah Rice, the paper's managing editor, said she believed Johnson was being punished for his students' mistakes.
"We love Ron, and he does what we think is a wonderful job of teaching us and giving us independence," she said.
Last month, the Black Student Union complained about the newspaper's failure to cover the student government event, which drew about 1,000 participants. The group said Johnson had not done enough to foster cultural awareness among newspaper staffers.
Natalie Rolfe, the union's president, declined to comment about Johnson's removal.
Stephen White, dean of arts and sciences, met yesterday morning with Johnson. He also declined to comment.
"It's an ongoing personnel issue," White said. "It's in progress."
About 45 students attended a meeting yesterday afternoon of the board of directors of Student Publications Inc.
No action was taken because there wasn't a quorum, and Simon wouldn't discuss why he made the recommendation that Johnson be removed from his post. He said it was against university policy to discuss publicly an instructor's evaluation.
Edie Hall, the newspaper's news editor told him: "We're just not going to go away and be quiet."
After the meeting, students marched to White's office in Eisenhower Hall. White met with members of the board, some of whom said they weren't consulted about the decision to remove Johnson from his post.
A few of the angry students then went to the provost's office to set up a meeting. The decision to remove Johnson as the paper's adviser still must be formally approved by the provost.
Johnson has faced criticism in the past for not being more directly involved in the newspaper's content. Though he does not typically intervene in newsroom decisions and is not in the newsroom at night when students produce the paper, he reviews the paper the following morning.
Johnson, who was fired as adviser but reinstated after 10 days in 1998 because he refused to exert authority over the newspaper's editorial content, said he was shocked, angry and frustrated.
"It's a tough situation when you're a college newspaper adviser and your students are in charge of the newspaper," Johnson said. "I've been blessed to work with talented students."
Corbin Crable, who will serve as the newspaper's editor during the summer, said he and other students hoped the provost would reverse Johnson's reassignment.
"I know through perseverance, we'll be successful," he said.
Rice says she's afraid the university will hire an adviser who will take a more direct role.
"It's just scary," she said. "We're very loyal to Ron, especially those of us who have been here years."
Hiring an adviser directed to exercise content control would violate the First Amendment, Goodman said.
"The courts have been very clear over the past 35 years that a public college or university has no obligation to create a student newspaper in the first place, but once it has done so, it cannot attempt to censor that publication without running afoul of the First Amendment," Goodman said.