Former campus newspaper adviser to challenge firing

Tuesday, June 27, 2000

A former college newspaper adviser plans to sue Central Missouri State University, claiming that officials fired her after students uncovered a $620,000 contract for an outgoing president.

Barbara Lach-Smith, who advised the Muleskinner staff for six years, said her students had revealed that the university approved a unique, three-year contract that gave Ed Elliott a one-year leave of absence, special benefits for his wife and computer services.

“The students did not go out looking for the story, but when the story came to them they were prepared,” Lach-Smith said. “They asked probing questions of those who signed the contract — the university governors — and they had the stamina to face what followed: intimidation and threats.”

And she, Lach-Smith contends, lost her job because of it.

Her attorneys plan to file the lawsuit tomorrow in federal court in Missouri.

University officials admit that tension soared between the Board of Governors and the newspaper, but they deny that it resulted in Lach-Smith losing her job. Bruce Swain, chairman of the school’s communication department, said the university didn’t renew her contract because they had made the position a tenured one.

“The whole momentum to upgrade her position from a one-year, temporary one to a tenure-track position — that started long before the big controversy,” Swain said. “I can understand why somebody can look at this and see cause and effect. Actually, I have to say it’s not.”

Lach-Smith says that during her six years as faculty adviser to the Muleskinner, she instilled in her students the fundamentals of journalism. When the students began investigating the contracts, she took some of them to the National Freedom of Information Conference in Atlanta last year to meet with some of the top experts on laws concerning open records and open meetings.

The work culminated in a detailed article exposing the Elliott deal, reporting Lach-Smith called “one of the biggest, if not the biggest, stories” in the newspaper’s history.

State officials were also interested in what the Muleskinner reported.

The state auditor then examined contracts for high-ranking officials at Central Missouri State and those at other public universities. The auditor found a number of “improper compensation and perquisites” in Elliott’s exit contract, including a one-year leave of absence, benefits for his wife and provisions to upgrade and service his personal computer even after the contract expires.

In published reports, Auditor Claire McCaskill and officials in the attorney general’s office gave high praise to the student reporters for uncovering the deals.

This spring, the Muleskinner won seven first-place awards in state competition including top honors in investigative reporting, in-depth reporting and editorial writing.

Awards and recognition aside, the past year was a tough one for the Muleskinner because university officials regularly threatened Lach-Smith with her job and harassed reporters, said Darrin Sparks, former news editor of the campus newspaper and now a reporter at the Mexico (Mo.) Ledger.

Sparks said board members denounced the student reporters in public meetings and refused to answer questions in interviews. He said the reporters began sending questions by certified mail.

The board’s president recognized one of the reporters at the post office and yelled at her for sending questions to him in the mail, Sparks said.

Sparks said university officials also began monitoring the newspaper’s Web site, requiring staffers to submit articles for approval before placing them online. Sparks said the newspaper avoided the prior review by securing its own Internet service provider and Web domain.

“It costs $500 a year, but it was $500 less grief,” Sparks said.

Swain agreed that there had been “simmering friction” between the newspaper and the board. But Swain said Lach-Smith was dismissed because her year-to-year contract had expired and officials had selected someone else for the new tenured position.

Swain said that the effort to fill a new tenured adviser position began early last year after the student reporters urged the university to endorse a “no prior review” policy and to protect the adviser with tenure.

University officials approved the tenured position and began a national search last December. Swain said the search committee considered Lach-Smith but chose four other finalists. The committee eventually chose Charles Fair of Marietta College in Ohio. Fair was to start this month.

Lach-Smith said the situation might have soured some of her students on journalism.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if some of them decided not to pursue a career in journalism,” Lach-Smith said. “And that’s OK because I have every confidence that they will achieve remarkable things in life regardless of what form their contributions to the society will take.”

Phillip Taylor, a reporter for the Daily Press in Newport News, Va., is a free-lance correspondent for the First Amendment Center.