Northwest College journalism program under scrutiny

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Journalism instructor files grievance over credential review

A Northwest College journalism instructor is questioning whether he and the student-run newspaper he advises are being treated unfairly by college administrators who haven’t liked some of the paper’s coverage.

On Wednesday, an attorney with the Wyoming Education Association sent a letter to NWC President Stefani Hicswa on instructor Rob Breeding’s behalf. It outlines a number of concerns and suggests some NWC administrators gave heavier scrutiny to Breeding and the Northwest Trail after it published controversial stories.

“Not only are there concerns about improper First Amendment retaliation against Mr. Breeding as the journalism instructor/newspaper advisor, but there are now also concerns that the newspaper and the entire journalism department may also be a target of retaliation by administration,” Cheyenne attorney Patrick Hacker said in the letter.

A large public records request accompanied the document.

Hicswa said she could neither confirm nor deny that she had received the letter.

“It is a personnel matter, and it is not prudent for me to comment on anything that might be legal or personnel in nature,” she said.

Breeding, who was hired to teach journalism at Northwest four years ago, said he was notified recently that he would have to complete 18 hours of post-graduate journalism courses, and his tenure track status would be delayed by a year.

Breeding said his master’s degree is in liberal studies, and not in journalism. However, he has years of experience in journalism, and the committee that selected him for the job determined that his experience, combined with his master’s degree, qualified him for the job.

“I believe I was hired fairly under existing policy, and that hasn’t changed,” he said. “I went through my third year interim review last year (with) flying colors,” he said.

Breeding said his credentials were brought into question following new rule clarifications from the Higher Learning Commission, the college’s accrediting agency.

Besides being required to complete additional post-graduate work, Breeding also was notified that his track to tenure would be extended an additional year.

“I’m supposed to stand for tenure in my fifth year, and I can’t stand for tenure until my sixth year now,” he said.

Breeding said he previously filed an informal grievance with the college because of the additional year. He was in the process of filing a formal grievance on Wednesday.

According to Hacker’s letter, the grievance process took an unusual turn when former grievance committee chairman Rob Stothart resigned from that position during the initial grievance process.

Hacker said Stothart’s resignation was “apparently in protest for interference in the process by administration which kept him from being able to appropriately do his job.

“This stunning development has raised concerns about the validity of the grievance process, including the possibility that some in administration may be attempting to influence the information which is being considered in the grievance, or even the outcome of the grievance,” Hacker said in the letter.

Hacker’s letter was accompanied by a public records request for volumes of communications regarding Breeding’s qualifications and any discussion of the possible elimination of the Northwest Trail and/or the NWC journalism program. The request specifically targets documents and electronic communications between Stothart, Hicswa, the President’s Advisory Council, the Academic Advisory Council and the chairman of the Communications Division, during two time periods. The first time period is between November and January, and the second is the month of February. 

In his letter, Hacker said the review of Breeding’s qualifications proceeded without concern until the Northwest Trail published content that “drew attention to and questioned certain actions related to College administration.”

Breeding said he was called in to talk to Gerald Giraud, NWC vice president of instruction, and Fred Ebert, chairman of the Communications Division, after the student paper published a story about five resident assistants losing their jobs after they were accused of drinking alcohol. The story questioned the tactics administrators used.

A Northwest Trail story last fall about a gun found at the college, published first on Facebook, also struck a nerve with administrators, he said.   

“From that point, everything changed and what was previously indicated to be a straightforward process of addressing Mr. Breeding’s qualifications under the standards suddenly was turned into an unreasonably difficult and punitive process,” Hacker wrote. “The requirements for the College’s approval essentially became a moving target, with more and more being required of Mr. Breeding,” Hacker said.

He said the Wyoming Education Association is “deeply concerned that the conduct at issue constitutes a form of unlawful and inappropriate retaliation for protected First Amendment activities.”

“As the College is going through a process of considering program or personnel reductions due to financial considerations, it has become apparent that some in the administration are apparently advocating that the entire journalism department at NWC be eliminated, an act which would have the effect of not only eliminating that course of study for students, but also eliminating the newspaper and Mr. Breeding’s position with the College.”

Breeding has been successful as an instructor and as the advisor for the Northwest Trail and has a substantial body of experience, both practical and instructing, and has been the recipient of awards, Hacker said in the letter.

“Given the sequence of events which have occurred at the College, as discussed in this letter, it appears that the true motivation for the possible wholesale elimination of the journalism department, the effort to keep Mr. Breeding from being able to obtain tenure, the machinations regarding approving Mr. Breeding’s qualifications, and the manipulation of his employment status is likely retaliation for the exercise of First Amendment protected speech and activities which was disliked by administration,” Hacker said. “Retaliation for student newspaper reporting strikes at the heart of free speech and academic freedom. Of all places in our society, a college should respect and encourage students’ rights to report and comment on matters of importance to them.”

Additionally, Hacker said, “it appears that efforts by some in administration to advocate for the elimination of the journalism department may also be retaliation for Mr. Breeding’s having brought a grievance.”

A decision to eliminate the journalism department could give the college an avenue to end the grievance, “and thus the credible and concerning issues raised by Mr. Breeding would remain unreviewed and unaddressed,” Hacker said.

Breeding said he just wants to be able to teach journalism as he was hired to do.

“I bought a home in Powell, and this is where I want to be,” he said. “I just want to teach. And teaching, when you’re a journalism instructor, is teaching students to do hard stories and the importance of the First Amendment.”

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