Butler University has backtracked on a decision to assign a school spokesman to serve as the student newspaper’s adviser, a move that had raised conflict-of-interest questions among media professionals.
Instead, Nancy Whitmore, the director of the Eugene S. Pulliam School of Journalism, will serve in the role temporarily while The Butler Collegian searches for a full-time replacement, said Gary Edgerton, dean of the university's College of Communication. Edgerton said he expects the job to be filled in about one month.
Edgerton said the school made the change Friday because the controversy "was becoming a distraction for the students."
Butler had originally assigned Marc Allan, the school’s associate director for public relations, to serve in the position, an assignment Edgerton said on Friday was also meant to be only temporary. Allan was replacing Loni McKown, who was going into her sixth year as the student paper's adviser when she was informed she had been removed from the job.
Allan, who worked more than two decades at newspapers including The Indianapolis Star, had said he would separate his roles as a university spokesman and student newspaper adviser and would not tell students what to write. In addition, he had said he would turn to an outside group of journalists for assistance if a conflict arose.
Allan did not return a message seeking comments on Friday. But he told the IBJ earlier this week that he understood "why people might find this objectionable in journalistic terms."
“I would say that anybody who knows me knows I care deeply about journalism and the quality of good journalism, and I would never do anything to harm that," Allan said.
But the arrangement still raised questions, and a number of journalists and media advocates took to Twitter to express their disappointment.
“Message to student journos at @butlercollegian, and every other student press with heavy-handed admin: @spj_tweets, @SPLC has your back,” Joe Skeel, executive director of the Society of Professional Journalists, tweeted on Thursday.
Edgerton said Friday that the school was aware of the conflict of interest issues when it assigned Allan to serve as adviser. But he said that Allan's newspaper experience, his teaching role at the college and his mentoring relationships with students made him the right choice.
"What we were looking for was an interim situation so the students really had as stable and productive a situation as possible at the beginning of the semester," Edgerton said. Still, school officials were concerned enough about the potential conflicts to contact three outside professional journalists and ask them to be available to students if they had questions they did not want to take to Allan.
Collegian Editor-in-Chief Matthew VanTryon, a junior journalism major at Butler, said in an email on Friday night that he was on deadline and could not comment on the change. But he told the IBJ earlier this week that Allan was qualified to be the adviser but not while he’s a spokesman for the university.
“He cannot serve both of those roles,” VanTryon said.
McKown said she received a letter on Sept. 4 informing her that she would no longer be the paper's adviser. She said she did not know why she'd been removed from the position but acknowledged she'd sent a faculty email from Edgerton that had been marked confidential to the student paper's editor.
Edgerton said Friday it was never the university's goal to remove the student paper's independence.
"We always saw it and see it now as a valuable, independent newspaper," Edgerton said. "We're very proud of our student journalists and the work they do."