'The university has backed down': AU will not review student newspaper before publication

After weeks of media attention, retired newspaper editor and former journalism instructor Ted Daniels says Collegian reporters can "declare victory" over Ashland University.

Daniels had taught journalism as an adjunct instructor at the private university for two years and was preparing for a third when university administrators told him in August they were not renewing his contract.

The administration then told editors of the student newspaper that articles could only be published after university approval, a move that, to Daniels and attorneys from the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) felt like an attack on the freedom of the press.

The school has since revoked that mandate.

"The university has backed down from some of their most draconian moves," Daniels told the News Journal. He had served as editor of the News Journal and the Ashland Times-Gazette throughout portions of his 45-year journalism career.

"Progress is being made," Daniels said. "The administration has backed down."

'Problematic for Ashland'

The ordeal was given national publicity by attorneys from FIRE, an organization based in Philadelphia that defends free speech on college campuses nationwide.

Lindsie Rank, an attorney who works as a FIRE journalist, wrote that "the university’s initial actions implicated not just The Collegian’s independence, but also the academic freedom of Ashland faculty."

Rank wrote that university officials chose to part ways with Daniels because his "perspectives on the field of journalism" were "problematic for Ashland."

The university's statement on the incident was that "Ashland University firmly believes in the freedom of expression and is fully committed to continuing our full and unwavering support to protect students and faculty members' academic freedom and freedom of speech on campus."

It was a good sign, but FIRE attorneys have promised to "keep a close eye" on the university's future interactions with Collegian publications.

"While publicly recommitting to academic and press freedom cannot undo all the damage from Daniels' nonrenewal, these are important first steps to regaining trust in the integrity of Ashland's promise of expressive freedom," Rank wrote. "Combined with the university abandoning demands for prior review of The Collegian, these moves make FIRE cautiously optimistic for the future of free expression at Ashland."

Lifelong journalist ready to teach the next generation

Daniels graduated from Loudonville High School in 1973 and cut his teeth in the journalism business as a summer intern for the Times-Gazette.

He started working at the Indianapolis Star in 1978, a paper he would call home for 24 years. He climbed the ranks to become managing editor, the second highest position in what was then a 270-person newsroom.

Daniels returned home — he calls the region "God's Country" — in 2002 to work as editor and general manager of the Ashland Times-Gazette.

Daniels ran the Mansfield News Journal, Bucyrus Telegraph-Forum and Marion Star — all part of the USA TODAY Network — in 2016 and 2017 before returning to Ashland for one final stint as editor of both the Times-Gazette and the Wooster Daily Record.

Carlos Campo
Carlos Campo

He retired from the business in 2019, then, in the summer of 2021 came out of retirement to teach journalism because he "knew how important AU is to the community."

With the university, Daniels served two roles: one as a adjunct journalism instructor teaching classes and another as adviser to the independent student journalists who ran the Collegian.

'Shouldn't be shared with students and the general public'

Daniels said his first full year with Ashland University went well. Then, during the autumn semester of 2022, he sent a journalism student to what the university called a "town hall meeting."

"At that meeting, it was announced that the budget deficit was worse than they were hoping for, and that there would have to be some cuts of personnel," Daniels said. "After that story ran, there were some concerns from the administration that, wait a minute, we didn't know student reporters were there and and these meetings really, you know, are for only faculty and staff."

By February, the university had scheduled another town hall to discuss the budget deficit. Daniels instructed one of his reporters to ask Carlos Campo, the university's president, if they were permitted to attend.

"He gave her a quote that said they're intended for faculty and staff," Daniels said. "He never said, 'No, students can't come.'"

The reporter attended, as did Daniels. During that meeting, Daniels said, Amiel Jarstfer, the university's provost, approached them and asked: "I thought there was an understanding that these meetings were for faculty and staff only."

Daniels said he responded: "Well, you know that one of our editors asked the president specifically and he didn't say no, that students could not attend."

That's when Daniels said he was told: "There's information presented here that shouldn't be shared with students and the general public."

Daniels said that later that week, Jarstfer sent an email to the department stating that student journalists may no longer attend university town hall meetings and that "all quotes from faculty and staff must be run back past the source to ensure their accuracy."

The school's dean later that week informed Daniels that they "wanted to review material and be involved in the story idea process prior to publication."

"At that point I told the department chair, Dave McCoy, that if that was the case, I was out of there because that violated basic journalism tenets," Daniels said.

Fortunately, the dean agreed to only visit and observe the newspaper staff on a weekly basis.

The publication's adviser said it reminded him of the 1990s when newspaper executives with the Indianapolis Star visited the news division for "a view of how the sausage is made."

"I didn't have a real problem with that," Daniels said.

'It was kind of contentious'

There were no more meetings on the AU budget crisis during the 2022-23 academic year, so Daniels said there were no major interactions between university administrators and Collegian staff until the middle of August.

Editors were preparing for the Collegian's orientation issue ahead of the 2023-24 school year, an edition Daniels said typically includes an update from the university's president.

Daniels said he instructed his students to set up an interview with Campo, and told them to also go ahead and schedule the rest of what had historically been twice-monthly conversations between Collegian reporters and the president.

Administrators told the student reporters that Campo would not meet with them until Aug. 31, after their deadline for the orientation issue, and that he would only give them interviews only once a month.

"Ironically, that same week, he scheduled an interview with the Ashland Source reporter to talk to the president about his departure," Daniels said.

The student editors wanted to know why outside media were given a seat at the table, but the students who were paying the administration's salary through tuition were shut out.

"The managing editor and another editor or two editors went over and talked to the provost," Daniels said. "They came back from that meeting kind of puzzled, saying it was kind of contentious and he had a lot of complaints about the Collegian."

'Problematic or detrimental to the university'

Daniels said he visited Jarstfer's office to ask about the editorial visit.

"Basically, he brushed me off," Daniels said.

The provost told the professor to come back the following Monday, Aug. 21. Katherine Brown, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, was at that meeting.

"She said my investigative approach to journalism was problematic or detrimental to the university," Daniels said.

It was later that evening, Daniels said, that he received a memo from Brown saying the university was not going to renew his contract.

Hugh Howard, the university's spokesperson, would not tell the USA TODAY Network of Ohio why Daniels was not given a new contract.

"Ashland University will not comment on personnel issues beyond clarifying that he was not fired," Howard said. "He was an adjunct faculty member whose contract was not renewed for the fall semester. All adjunct contracts are reviewed before each semester."

It's not clear what message the university gave to students who had been enrolled in media writing class that Daniels had been preparing to teach this semester.

"They had 22 students in it, including, I don't know, maybe 14 or 15 freshmen journalism majors," Daniels said. "That was canceled, you know, just less than a week or three or four days before classes started, causing those 22 students to have to scramble to get scheduled in other classes. That's had an impact on the students."

'A perfect laboratory to teach journalism'

A few weeks into his unexpected retirement, Daniels was quick to admit that university administrators broke no laws when they ended his teaching career.

"They are perfectly well within their rights," Daniels said. "But what's the impact that has had on the students?"

No laws were broken when the students were denied access to budget meetings, either, because unlike state universities, private schools are not subject to public records and open meeting laws.

"Legally, they don't need to do diddly or tell you diddly squat," Daniels said.

It can be a challenge for journalism students who are learning to gather information.

"If you can cover a budget story in a private school where they don’t have to tell you anything, then covering budget stories of public agencies will be a piece of cake," Daniels said. "You have all these factors that make a perfect laboratory to teach journalism."

But even though the university is not legally required to make its finances public, the former professor thinks it's only fair to let the students know about the financial stability of the institution.

"They are paying their tuition to be there," Daniels said. "The student newspaper and website's responsibility is to keep them informed about the financial health of the university and how their money is being spent."

Ousting professors and withholding information are one thing, but censoring young independent journalist is where the longtime newspaperman thinks Ashland University crossed the line.

Fortunately, he thinks the school has realized its error and stepped back into line.

"Things are getting better," Daniels said. "The dean and the provost wrote a letter to the editor of the paper saying that they supported free press and academic freedom and that they supported the Collegian. The president has said pretty much the same thing.

"The real test will come the next time they write a story or do something that the administration doesn't like."



This article originally appeared on Ashland Times Gazette: Free speech remains for student newspaper at Ashland University