Recap: Kitts addresses censure, organizations, department respond to statement, new emails emerge

Eleven days after the Nov. 26 censure from the College Media Association, President Kenneth Kitts made his first statement at a Dec. 6 faculty senate meeting. He revealed his perspective, thoughts and feelings on the censure, then he addressed the university’s future actions on the matter. 

He promised the faculty senators that the administrators would begin discussions with the CMA and students to find a resolution that would remove the censure. 

Several organizations and individuals have responded to Kitts’ statement and the university’s unwritten media protocol, which requires all media inquiries go through the public relations office. 

The Flor-Ala has put together a recap of these events since the CMA censure and made reference to various documents that include conversations to provide context to the events.

 Kitts addresses censure

 Kitts addressed the CMA’s Nov. 26 decision to censure the university at a faculty senate meeting Dec. 6. It was the first time he made a public statement on the topic.  

He said the fact that an article critical of the administration that appeared in The Flor-Ala the same month they decided to change the student media adviser position was coincidental.

“There was and is no retaliation involved in this case,” Kitts said. “The decision to move the media adviser’s position from a staff line to a faculty line has been three years in the making and that decision was driven by (College of Arts and Sciences) Dean Carmen Burkhalter.”

Burkhalter has not responded to The Flor-Ala’s questions or requests for interviews to address the CMA’s censure or Greg Pitts’, former chair of the communications department, Nov. 30 statement that addressed certain university claims about his role during the transition of student media to the communications department. 

He said if the university claimed discussions to change the adviser position to a tenure-track line started in late 2014, it did not begin with him.

“If anyone asserts that I made this request, I would describe their claim as false,” Pitts said. “At best, a wrong conclusion and at worst, a distortion attributed to me because I am no longer at the university and part of the discussions.”

In response to Kitts’ statement, Pitts said Burkhalter never asked him a question that involved him adding an additional faculty line and converting the student media adviser into the position. 

“You would think she could produce that sort of email thread, if she had been so pro-actively concerned about a faculty line for the Department of Communications,” Pitts said. 

Kitts cited the CMA’s tentative report given to the university before the censure as “an honest desire to improve the Department of Communications” and observe “there is nothing to indicate these administrators do not have the best interest of the college, its students and faculty at heart.”

Chris Evans, president of the College Media Association and John Harvey, the chief investigator for CMA, said Kitts is “selectively quoting” and “cherry-picking” from the CMA’s tentative report.  

“Our contention is not that there was never a discussion about changing the job to an academic position, only that there was never a discussion about requiring a Ph.D..,” Evans said. “This is the requirement that’s forcing Scott out.”

Once Kitts finished his statement, he opened the floor for faculty senators to ask him questions. 

Before the meeting, Scott Infanger, faculty senate president, gave senators the same documentation the university sent the CMA during their investigation.

Biology professor Terry Richardson said the first thing that strikes him is a glaring lack of any paper documentation from approximately 2015 to fall 2018 that mentions a change to the student media adviser position.

“Nowhere in that paper documentation do I see anything from Carmen Burkhalter except the idea of a question of whether or not this is going to be a staff position or a faculty position,” Richardson said. “I don’t see in there that she is directing this to become a faculty position.”

Kitts said he always believed the move of Student Publications from the Office of Student Affairs to the Department of Communications was synonymous with a change in the adviser position.

“The final decision to create an ad posting the position occurred late summer and into the fall. The same time it would for any faculty position,” Kitts said. “Mr. Morris was engaged on this matter in September. I think that is timely notification.”

Butler Cain, chair of the communications department, sent the 13 pages of documentation  and a 2014 on-site evaluation review Nov. 14 from the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication. 

Bryan Rachal, director of marketing and communications, also sent The Flor-Ala the 13 pages of documentation Nov. 28 after the student newspaper asked permission to interview Burkhalter about the 2014 discussions concerning the student media adviser position. 

Harvey said early in the CMA’s investigation, he told Cain they would be willing to mediate the situation and have a discussion if he agreed to stop the hiring process. Cain said he would not do that. 

Cain tweeted links to the application for the new tenure-track journalism faculty member position on Nov. 7 and Nov. 11

Cain deferred to the university’s public statements in a Nov. 27 email to The Flor-Ala concerning the censure. He also declined to comment Dec. 11 on how he obtained the documents he sent to the CMA, who sent the documents to him and if he was aware of any other documentation outside of what he sent. 

Evans said his contact with Cain was about six weeks after CMA began their investigation into Student Media Adviser Scott Morris’ case. He said the phone conversation with Cain was his “last-ditch attempt to avoid censure.”

“Butler made it clear in our conversation that UNA would mount a campaign against our censure by pointing out that our own report says that there is ‘no smoking gun,’ and he said that we were making false assertions based on little to no evidence,” Evans said. “I’d argue that the attached documents show no evidence that explains the timing of their decision to require a Ph.D.. for Scott’s position—shortly after the Sept. 6 article ran.”

In Kitts’ official statement to the faculty senate he said, “Moreover, the CMA’s principal investigator admitted that his own investigation found ‘no smoking gun’– his words not mine– to substantiate the claim of retaliation.” 

History professor Ansley Quiros asked Kitts how the university would be able to find a resolution with CMA to have them lift the censure.  

“There is a process, and I think it will start with an honest, candid conversation with the CMA,” Kitts said. 

Evans said Dec. 20 the university had not contacted CMA since the censure took effect Nov. 26.

Harvey questioned how the university would lift the censure if they continue to go forward with hiring a new student media adviser for the 2019-2020 academic year. 

“If they hire a new adviser and Scott is fired and gone and that’s the last we hear of him, how are they going to remove (censure) it,” Harvey asked. 

Four other organizations have responded to Kitts’ statement. The Southeastern Journalism Conference sent the university an official statement Nov. 29. The Student Press Law Center published an article Dec. 10 and the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education published two Dec. 4 and Dec. 7articles.

 Department of Communications responds to censure

The Department of Communications faculty members released a statement Dec. 14 addressing the CMA’s censure and their allegiance to The First Amendment.

The statement said faculty members were concerned during the investigation students would question the department’s commitment to freedom of the press and freedom of expression. 

“We, as journalism and communications scholars, have been and will continue to be supportive of the First Amendment, which we see as foundational to not only what we teach but practice,” according to the statement.

Faculty members said since Morris has become student media adviser, the student paper’s professionalism has risen and the quality of articles has improved. 

“We want to ensure our students know that we fully support their rights to pursue stories they feel are impactful to their readers, especially those that are difficult and challenging,” according to the statement. “We want to ensure our students that we fully support their right to pursue and report stories that are impactful to their readers, even when they may present challenges or shed light on unfavorable issues. Faculty in the Department of Communications encourage any students to speak with us about any concerns they may have.”

 Other publications respond to censure

 The University of Nevada in Reno’s student newspaper The Nevada Sagebrush released an editorial Nov. 27 saying their publication stands with the CMA and other journalism organizations condemning UNA for their “blatant disregard of the First Amendment” and hope the university will reconsider their actions.

“Student media is an integral part of any college experience, and the censorship of it needs to end,” according to the Nov. 27 editorial. “If we don’t speak out now, there will come a point where college newspapers are controlled and curated by administration instead of representing the student body as a whole.”

The Nevada Sagebrush said student media is important to the ecosystem of a college campus.

“These publications report on things affecting the university and bring information about campus to light that would go otherwise unknown,” the publication said. “Student journalists are tasked with not only being students that are affected by what occurs on their campus, but have to be professional enough to report on it as well.”

The publication said more often than not, student journalists receive backlash from other students and university administration because the stories they write aren’t always flattering to the student journalists who are in their newsrooms working to produce a paper for their institution.

The Times Daily published an editorial Dec. 2 congratulating the Flor-Ala.

“We congratulate this staff of student journalists at The Flor-Ala, who are standing their ground under the protection of the First Amendment,” The Times Daily said. “We thank you for reminding us all just how dire it would be to live under a controlled media environment.”

The publication said the bad timing of the sequence of events earned UNA unanimous censure and the “strongest possible condemnation” from the CMA, which characterizes UNA’s move to fire Morris and events leading up to that firing as an expression of hostility to the “spirit of the First Amendment.”

“UNA administrators have the right to continue to protest their innocence,” The Times Daily said. “By the same token, we journalists and the taxpayers we represent will continue to ask for corroboration backing up their claims. We will continue to ask for access to public records from this public institution that survives on public dollars. We will continue to admire the instruction from UNA’s Mass Communication Department that has instilled in these students a passion to guard First Amendment rights, even when that means going against the very institution teaching them.”

The Auburn Plainsman said in an editorial Dec. 7 they stand with The Flor-Ala and other student media organizations in condemning UNA. 

“University officials appear to have a blatant disregard for the First Amendment and more than 60 state and federal court cases that have unanimously forbid almost all censorship and punishment of student-edited publications,” The Auburn Plainsman said.

The publication said if UNA’s actions are allowed to stand, it will have a serious chilling effect on student editors and student media advisers in the state of Alabama.

“Student-journalists should not be concerned that their adviser might get fired or otherwise forced out just because they wrote a controversial story,” The Auburn Plainsman said. “UNA’s actions are a serious abuse of power and set a dangerous precedent.”

 Media Protocol

Kimberly Greenway, interim vice president of student affairs, sent an email on the UNA server Oct. 22 that reminded faculty and staff members about an unwritten media protocol. The protocol requires all media inquiries to go through Rachal before a reporter can ask an employee on campus a question for an article. 

Greenway said the protocol had been in place but not widely distributed or followed well.

“The university asks that all employees follow the media protocol,” Rachal said. “This includes all faculty and staff. The university stands on its statement earlier in the week that it seeks to ensure that whatever is communicated to and through the media is accurate, clear and has been vetted by administrators who have the information and are responsible for the subject matter.”

In response to a FOIA request, Rachal emailed The Flor-Ala two documents that included conversations about the media protocol. 

In an email to Sheronda Allen at The Times Daily Oct. 29, Rachal said it is the university’s long-standing position and practice to have a constructive relationship with reporters. 

“We want them to have solid, factual information and always before deadlines if at all possible,” Rachal said in the email. “Based on this, please be reminded of our media protocol to direct all media inquiries through the Office of Communications and Marketing. Your cooperation helps us meet your needs in the best possible way.”

Rachal sent an email to Morris Oct. 4, 2016 about the media protocol.

“While this policy isn’t written anywhere, it is one that we’ve had in place for quite some time, but it had been pushed to the background before I arrived in the office,” Rachal said. “As is the case with every institution I’ve worked at, this is standard protocol and that’s why I’ve been trying to implement it lately. As I’m sure you’re aware, this policy is beneficial for both parties involved.”

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education sent a letter to Kitts Nov. 27 that said the organization is concerned for the state of the First Amendment rights of faculty, staff and students at UNA.

“In recent months, the university has advised students, staff and faculty members of the existence of an unwritten ‘protocol’ concerning interactions with members of the media, including the Flor-Ala, a student newspaper at the university,” FIRE said. “If the university maintains a policy or practice of directing all media interactions to a particular administrator, it must reduce that policy to writing and ensure that it withstands First Amendment scrutiny.”

Kitts has responded to the letter but FIRE declined to release his response until a later date. 

FIRE said in a Nov. 27 article a public university should not be in the business of subjecting faculty comments on matters of public concern to the critical eye of administrators.

“An unwritten, vague policy apparently directing staff and faculty to have their statements ‘vetted’ by administrators is contrary to basic principles of the First Amendment,” FIRE said. “The chilling effect of such a directive will ultimately work to frustrate the efforts of student journalists while subordinating faculty members’ rights to administrators’ views on whether their statements are ‘accurate.’” 

Director of the Brechner Center for Freedom of Information Frank LoMonte said the protocol can be detrimental to journalists doing their job and the public’s right to know the truth of an institution’s actions.

“Unless the policy went through formal approval channels, it’s not really a ‘policy’ at all, it’s more of a request or a suggestion,” LoMonte said. “A professor or a police officer is not supervised by the P.R. office and cannot be fired by the P.R. office.”

 Additional emails concerning the change in student media

Morris gave The Flor-Ala additional emails that concerned moving student media to the communications department that were not included in the documents Cain sent the CMA for its investigation. Rachal sent 13 documents to The Flor-Ala, which were later given to Infanger for faculty senators to read and review for comment.. Cain sent the same emails to Evans after he asked for proof of conversations before Sept. 6, 2018 that included changing Morris’ position to one that requires a Ph.D.

The additional emails mentioned accreditation, the move of student media from the Office of Student Affairs to the Department of Communications and an article about Ricatonis. 

Talk of accreditation began as early as Oct. 22, 2014 with an email from Pitts to Morris over the accrediting team schedule.

The move of student media from the Office of Student Affairs to the Department of Communications began Dec. 8, 2014. Pitts sent a memorandum sent to former Provost Thomas Calhoun and former Vice President of Student Affairs David Shields Dec. 7, 2014 stating Pitts and Title IX Coordinator Tammy Jacques had discussed the move for three years prior to the memorandum.

Morris requested a scholarship increase for student media producers Jan. 26, 2015 in a letter to the scholarship committee. Tuition increased 4.7 percent that year, but the scholarships did not.

In an email to Pitts April 24, 2015, Morris said Associate Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences Chris Maynard said he did student media a favor by not forwarding the scholarship request to the scholarship committee.

“They wouldn’t commit to anything concerning our facility or anything else other than they promised not to punish us financially for content that offends someone,” Morris said.

Former Flor-Ala News Editor Ashley Remkus and Staff Writer Anna Brown published an article Feb. 19, 2015 that said Ricatoni’s Italian Grill and City Hardware on Court Street required applicants to list their height and weight on job applications. 

Pitts sent an email to Morris Feb. 23, 2015 asking if he could call for background information on the Ricatoni’s and City Hardware article. Kitts sent an email to Athletic Director Mark Linder and former Provost John Thornell saying he and his wife saw Rick Elliot, owner of Ricatoni’s and City Hardware, the previous night at City Hardware. 

“He mentioned the recent dust-up with the student newspaper only once and said he had moved past it,” Kitts said in the email. “We had a very good conversation, and it’s clear he cares deeply about the university.”

Thornell forwarded the email from Kitts to Pitts and Burkhalter. Burkhalter replied to Pitts and requested a copy of Morris’ job description so it could be “tightened up and expanded” if needed. Pitts replied to the email with a copy of the description. He also warned Burkhalter the last thing she wants to do is create a perception of an academic unit doing something that student affairs did not do — attempt to restrict the newspaper’s freedom to cover stories.

“While many people are not happy with the Ricatoni’s story, the student reporters did not make a mistake in their coverage,” Pitts said.

Burkhalter said they had two choices — make a statement to Morris and everyone else that they expect the quality of the newspaper improve, or give the newspaper back to student affairs.

“I have made repeated arguments that you indicated the first article was legitimate,” Burkhalter said. “If I make an argument that the original article was legit then how do I explain an opinion piece that seemed very personal. It seems to me that whoever was in charge did not counsel the student appropriately to keep her from looking bad. Do we not have an obligation to maximize the success of our students? If our plan is to keep having a poor student paper then I do not want (The College of Arts and Sciences) associated with it. So we will not keep it.”

Burkhalter went on to say it was Pitts’ call and it is a simple solution.

“I am not going to continue to disagree with you and risk ill will in our relationship,” she said. “We either work together on this issue or we eliminate the issue. It’s like any other relationship. The positive health of our interaction benefits the most people. If we will never be able to agree on how the paper should have supervision then we give it back ASAP.”

Burkhalter sent an email to the Council of Colleges of Arts and Sciences March 9, 2015. In the email she asked if their university’s student newspaper was reporting inside the College of Arts and Sciences. She also asked the question if their Student Media Adviser position was a staff or faculty member. Burkhalter requested a copy of the job description from anyone who answered staff.

Pitts emailed Burkhalter March 13, 2015, along with Jacques, Morris, Thornell, Calhoun and Shields that said the move from the office of student affairs to the department of communications halted.

“I met Thursday afternoon with Tammy Jacques and Scott Morris to review the proposed transfer of The Flor-Ala and Diorama to the Department of Communications,” Pitts said. “After some very good discussion, we have concluded there are sufficient matters of ambiguity that need to be resolved before we move ahead. We will continue our conversations and we hope to bring this matter of transitioning The Flor-Ala and the Diorama forward at a future time.”

Pitts asked Morris April 23, 2015 if he would be able to attend an event called Teachapalooza. Morris replied saying it would work with his schedule but was hesitant because he said he did not “feel the love” for student media in a meeting he had with Burkhalter and Maynard.

“Maynard seems very focused on our budget and scholarships, which gives me concerns about the future,” Morris said. “At a meeting that was arranged to address my concerns, Maynard suggested we could save money by eliminating a printed yearbook.”

On March 10, 2017, a memorandum from Jacques to Thornell, Shields and Burkhalter suggested it was the right time to make the move from the Office of Student Affairs to the Department of Communications.

“Scott Morris, Dr. Butler Cain, Dr. Chris Maynard, and I, along with the support of the Student Media Board, believe it is the appropriate time to relocate Student Media to the Department of Communications,” Jacques said. “The relocation will be effective June 1, 2017.”

 What is next?

 The Communications Department has started its 2019 self-study to determine if the department will retain its accreditation with the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication. Patricia Thompson, executive director for ACEJMC, did not respond The Flor-Ala’s request for an interview. The publication sought answers to see if the censure would play a role in the accreditation process.