CHARLESTON — Despite being unaware of a lawsuit involving the institution where he is provost, a candidate for president of West Virginia University said his administration would be one of openness.
On March 21, the WVU presidential search committee announced it narrowed its list of candidates to three finalists. Among the finalists is M. Duane Nellis, provost at Kansas State University.
Nellis is no stranger to WVU. According to his biography on KSU’s Website, prior to accepting the provost’s position in 2004, he was dean of WVU’s Ebberly College of Arts and Sciences for seven years.
About the time he accepted the provost’s position, KSU was embroiled in a controversy surrounding the “reassignment” of the student newspaper’s advisor. According to court records and press reports, Ron Johnson, then advisor to the Kansas State Collegian, was fired in May 2004 by Todd Simon, director of KSU’s A. Q. Miller School of Journalism, for not properly advising students on how to cover diversity-related events.
According to the Student Press Law Center, an Arlington, Va.-based First Amendment advocacy group, Johnson’s firing came immediately after students from KSU’s Black Student Union protested the lack of coverage the Collegian gave to the Big 12 Diversity Leadership Conference held at KSU. Stephen White, dean of KSU’s College of Arts and Sciences, and Nellis’ predecessor, James Hoffman, approved Simon’s firing of Johnson.
Suit on appeal
According to court records, Katie Lane and Sarah Rice, the Collegian’s former editor-in-chief and managing editor, filed a lawsuit against Simon and White in federal district court. In their suit, Lane and Rice alleged the KSU administrators violated their First Amendment rights by removing Johnson based on the Collegian’s news content.
A year later on June 2, 2005, Judge Julie Robinson dismissed the case. In her ruling, Robinson said Johnson had no standing in the case since he exercises no editorial control over the paper’s content, and Lane and Rice’s claims their rights were violated lacked specificity.
“There are simply no factual allegations to support Lane and Rice’s claim that removal of Johnson was due to the stories in the Collegian and, thus, that as editors of the paper, their First Amendment rights to freedom of the press were implicated,” Robinson said in her ruling.
According to court records, Lane and Rice appealed Robinson’s decision to the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Colorado. In September, the Appeals Court accepted Lane and Rice’s appeal, and heard oral arguments in the case Nov. 13.
A decision is still pending.
Unaware of KSU, WVU actions on free-speech
When asked for a comment on the case, Nellis declined saying he lacked enough information about it to provide one.
“I’m not familiar with that case,” Nellis said.
Also, Nellis said while he was familiar with the discussions about them while he was at WVU, he had no opinion of the attempt by President David Hardesty to limit political protests to certain areas of campus.
In 2001, both on- and off-campus groups discovered they could only assemble and speak-out on issues in two designated areas on campus. The “free-speech zones” as they were called were the subject of derision, and brought national media attention to WVU.
Facing threats of potential lawsuits, WVU abolished the zones in December 2002.
Nellis’ failure to speak out, at least on the lawsuit involving KSU, is “significant in and of itself,” said SPLC Executive Director Mark Goodman. According to Goodman, most of Nellis’ colleagues in the KSU administration have, at least implicitly, taken the position it’s okay to fire a student newspaper advisor based on the First Amendment-protected decisions the student editors make.
Unless Nellis clearly communicates his position on the suit during his visit to Morgantown April 4-5, Goodman said the search committee should think long and hard about hiring him.
“That’s a very troubling position, and in my mind, one that should disqualify anyone as a candidate for university president,” Goodman said.
When asked about how the First Amendment would fare under his administration should he be hired as president, Nellis said he would be committed to being “transparent.” Though he said there may be matters which can’t be discussed in public because they may involve a personnel issue, Nellis said he is one for “not making deals behind closed doors.”
“I would be committed to providing access as far as an administration possibly can,” Nellis said.