UT defends call for Collegian editor to quit Blade; Official says action isn’t related to campus newspaper’s editorials

By Joshua Benton
Blade Staff Writer

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A top University of Toledo official says there is no connection between a stinging series of editorials published in the student newspaper and a demand that its editor quit a part-time job at The Blade.

“We have a policy that appears to have been violated,” said Dr. David Meabon, UT’s vice president for student services. “I’m sorry that that was the case, but we needed to respond institutionally to it.”

But a university spokesman said the administration would be “open to discussions” about making an exception for Keith Tarjanyi, the editor-in-chief of the Collegian.

The controversy began on Tuesday, when Mr. Tarjanyi received a letter from Dean of Students Edward Willis, saying that he must quit his position at the Collegian or stop working at The Blade, where he has been a part-time, temporary news assistant since Jan. 10. He has not written any stories for The Blade.

University officials refused to say what penalties Mr. Tarjanyi would face if he kept both jobs.

Mr. Willis wrote that Mr. Tarjanyi is in violation of a long-standing student policy that applies to four key student leaders: the president and vice president of the student government, president of the campus activities and programming board, and the Collegian editor.

The policy states that the university pays the tuition and some of the living expenses of the four, approximately $10,000 annually for each, but that the students may not hold outside employment during the school year.

The policy about outside employment has been in place at UT for more than 15 years. But several university administrators, including Dr. Meabon, said they did not know of any instance of the policy ever being enforced.

Over that time, several students in those positions have held outside jobs, including at least one other who worked at The Blade.

Mr. Tarjanyi said he believes the decision to enforce the policy suddenly is related to recent negative publicity the administration has received in the Collegian and The Blade. On the day before Mr. Tarjanyi received the letter, the Collegian published an editorial calling for the resignation of trustees’ chairman Ronald Langenderfer over comments he made at a board meeting last week, and the paper has run several other editorials vociferously opposing administration policies.

“I truly think they’re coming after the Collegian for the things we’ve written,” Mr. Tarjanyi said. “I think the president [UT’s Dr. Vik Kapoor] is afraid, he’s scared of the truth, and he wants to get back at the Collegian and the other paper in town.”

Yesterday, the UT chapter of the American Association of University Professors passed a resolution supporting Mr. Tarjanyi and the Collegian. The resolution states that “UT-AAUP strongly supports the editorial independence of the Collegian and strenuously objects to the selective enforcement of rules against the editor.”

But Dr. Meabon, who is Mr. Willis’s supervisor, said at a press conference that the enforcement was not unfair to Mr. Tarjanyi. “We have a situation in which we’ve had an individual bring forth information that they hold a position outside the university, and we have a university policy that does not allow that to occur,” he said.

Dr. Meabon said the outside job became an issue when Mr. Tarjanyi told Mr. Willis about it on Feb. 18.

Dr. Meabon refused to say when he learned of the policy’s existence. “This is not a new policy,” he said. “I think I’m more comfortable just saying that this is not a new policy. It’s been on the books for a while.”

University spokesman Joe Brennan said that the administration has no concerns with the performance of Mr. Tarjanyi as editor. “We support this guy,” he said. “It’s Keith’s choice what he wants to do here. It’s our preference that he stay on as editor of the Collegian [and quit his Blade job]. He’s done an outstanding job. We welcome and cherish the differences of opinion and we are very committed to supporting the editorial independence of the Collegian.”

University policy does allow for exceptions to the no-job rule, and Mr. Brennan said that the administration would be willing to consider such an exception for Mr. Tarjanyi. “We’d be open to discussions with him,” he said.

But even the question of who can approve such an exception is part of the controversy.

The most recent published student handbook states that exceptions can only be approved by the Student Activities Committee. But in February, 1999, that language was changed to make the dean of students, Mr. Willis, the only person who can approve an exception.

Despite being more than a year old, the revised rules have not been distributed to students and faculty and are not available on the university’s web site. “We recognize that we need to do a better job of communicating these policies,” Mr. Brennan said.

Dr. Meabon and Mr. Brennan said they did not know why the change was made.

Mr. Brennan said that just because the policy has not been enforced in the past does not mean it should not be enforced now.

“If we didn’t uphold our policies in the past, then shame on us,” he said. “Two wrongs don’t make a right. That shouldn’t be an excuse.”

But Mark Goodman, the executive director of the Student Press Law Center in Arlington, Va., said that the prior enforcement of the rule could play a big part in determining if the university has the legal right to make the move.

“The courts have been willing to allow schools to set reasonable, non-content related restrictions on student journalists,” he said. “But those restrictions are only permissible if they’re not enforcing it selectively to silence a particular expression.”

Mr. Goodman said that, for example, a university can cut funding to a student newspaper if budget problems warrant it, but it cannot do so because it opposes some of the articles the newspaper publishes. “If evidence indicates that this policy was not enforced before, and it is being enforced now because of what this individual is publishing, I think there’s very strong grounds for contesting the decision,” he said.

Dr. Meabon said that, of the other three students to whom the policy applies, two – student body president Jeff Jones and vice president Lavelle Edmondson – do not have jobs.

The third, Shannon Phillips, president of the student activities and programming board, said she has a part-time job. A recreation therapy major, Ms. Phillips works at Wildwood Athletic Club, where she said she gains experience for her eventual profession.

“I’m probably going to have to quit one,” she said. She said she has three weeks left in her term as a student officer, but said she was not sure what she would do.

But she did point out that the constitution of her student group specifically allows her to hold a second job as long as it does not affect her performance as president of the activities board. She said that Dr. Meabon and Mr. Willis approved the constitution when it was written several years ago.

Dr. Meabon said there may be a contradiction between the two documents, but said that the broader university policy would trump the group’s constitution.

Mr. Brennan said the policy is designed to prevent students from taking on too much responsibility and too many tasks to be effective in their student positions. “It can be a real danger for someone who is going to school full time and holding down a very important leadership position to get overwhelmed,” he said.

But Dr. Meabon said that he has no concerns about the performance of Mr. Tarjanyi or the other students involved. “I think they all do a great job,” he said.

Mr. Tarjanyi said he is considering his options and will meet with an attorney today. “I’m leaning toward fighting this thing,” he said. Mr. Willis’s letter asked for a response by Mr. Tarjanyi by tomorrow. UT’s spring break begins the next day.