An Open Letter to CCOM Dean Gary Edgerton and President Jim Danko from Bill Watts

Bill Watts, Butler Senate parliamentarian and chair of sociology and criminology, submitted the following letter for publication.

An Open Letter to Dean Gary Edgerton and President Jim Danko,

I write to express my concern about the dismissal of Loni Smith McKown, the faculty advisor to the Collegian, and the national attention this has brought the University.  To my mind, this situation raises issues about public discourse and the free circulation of ideas and information on our campus.  And because this is a public matter, I am addressing the two of you publicly about it.

I am relieved that the University acted quickly to address the conflict of interest created by appointing Marc Allan, a spokesperson for the University, to be advisor to the Collegian.  But resolving this conflict does not resolve the underlying issue: Why was Ms. McKown fired at this point in the semester?  Most faculty and staff members hold administrative appointments for the academic year, and so I have to assume that Ms. McKown’s appointment ran through at least April of 2016.  Something extraordinary must have happened for her to be removed so early in the year.

In the absence of any other explanation, I have to think that Ms. McKown is right to point to her act of forwarding an email regarding budget cuts in the College of Communication to the Collegian editors.  According to accounts I have read, Ms. McKown apologized to Dean Edgerton for this transmission, and was fired soon thereafter.

It is not so clear to me that Ms. McKown made the mistake, or that she needed to apologize to you, Dean Egerton.  I certainly recognize that some things need to be treated as confidential, particularly when they concern personnel matters, but I wonder why the college budget would be one of those things.  It seems strange that this information was public enough to be shared with all of the faculty and staff in your college, but secret enough to be kept from students in your College.  As a member of the Butler community, I find myself wondering what it is in your budget that requires such vigilance.  Perhaps an enterprising journalist will seek to find this out.

And if this information was so sensitive, I wonder why you broadcast it so broadly.  I count 36 faculty and staff members in your College; can you really send an email message to so many people and expect it to remain confidential?  Don’t you have a responsibility to handle confidential information more carefully?

Finally, I am puzzled that you would seek out the person who leaked this information, and then fire that person.  In my experience, such actions foster fear and paranoia in a community.  It also seems a troubling example to set for journalists and aspiring journalists, whose very job it is to seek information.

Do you want to discourage inquiry and investigation in your College?

I also have a concern to address to you, President Danko.  I know that you have been critical of the Collegian.  I have heard you complain about negative coverage of the University in the paper on at least one occasion, and I have heard from others who have heard you express such criticism.  Was your desire to cast the University in a positive light a factor in the dismissal of Ms. McKown?

Prior to her dismissal, I had not hear very much about Ms. McKown’s work on campus.  Since then, though, I have heard nothing but praise for her skill and professionalism.  For example, John Russell, who was a distinguished investigative reporter for the Indianapolis Star, and is now a reporter for the Chicago Tribune, has written that “Loni Smith McKown is one of the sharpest and most passionate journalism professors in Indiana. She pushes her students to chase big stories. Those stories sometimes win national awards. Shame on Butler University for pushing her out as advisor to the student newspaper for half-baked reasons.”

All of this leads me to ask whether Ms. McKown is right when she says she was fired for doing her job too well.  Is it possible that we do not really want an independent, fact-finding, and challenging student newspaper?  Do we want to discourage students and others from seeking information and posing uncomfortable questions?

Sincerely,

Bill Watts

 

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