There are two distinct pictures of Morgan State University campus media adviser Denise Brown.
One is that of a passionate advocate for student speech, guiding the student newspaper and yearbook to substantial improvements over the past six years. But the other, painted by school administrators, is that of an undisciplined employee who flouted authority and misused privileges.
Those pictures are directly at odds in the wake of Morgan's recent decision not to renew Brown's contract, a move that outraged students and caught the attention of organizations that defend campus speech.
Brown says she was let go last month because she backed student reporters after they published five editorials in late February that were critical of Morgan administrators.
"I plowed everything I had into working with the students," Brown said from her home near the Northeast Baltimore campus. "The problem is that the people in charge don't know journalism. They just don't think they've done anything wrong."
Students expressed frustration and disappointment at the university's treatment of Brown.
"I think she got a raw deal," said Ryan Marshall, a 2009 graduate who has written for the newspaper and yearbook and produces a weekly television news broadcast for the Morgan campus. "A lot of politics is about control, and they feel they can have more control over the content of the newspaper with her out of the way."
Marshall said Brown worked tirelessly to recruit students to the publications, to find money for equipment and educational conferences, and to help reporters with articles. But Morgan officials said that Brown was regularly reprimanded for insubordination and misuse of her university credit card for purchases such as an iPod, theater tickets and a Chicago boat tour (all of which she has repaid). Her failure to meet with superiors in the wake of the editorials, they said, was the last straw.
"She was more or less out of control," said Morgan spokesman Clinton Coleman.
Recardo Perry, the university's vice president for student affairs, said any suggestion that administrators are trying to control student speech is "bogus," calling the accusations "a ploy, the fulcrum on which to reverse a personnel decision."
But the case has raised questions at the Student Press Law Center and at College Media Advisers, a professional association that recently censured Morgan for its treatment of Brown.
Chris Evans, who investigated for College Media Advisers, said there appears to be a direct link between the editorials and the decision not to renew Brown's contract. That's a bad precedent for Morgan, he said, because it implies that the university wanted Brown to prevent students from speaking freely in their publication.
"The important thing is that the adviser not be in control of editorial content," said Evans. "If you're getting forced out because a story was printed, something is wrong."
The trouble began with editorials published Feb. 18 in the student newspaper The Spokesman. The writers generally criticized the university's office of student activities for usurping budgeting and spending powers from student government. Perry rebutted this claim. The day after the editorials appeared, Perry wrote Brown to commend the writers for "taking a stand" and asking for a meeting with them so he could "ferret out, or fully uncover, the misdeeds cited in their articles."
A few days after the meeting request, Toya Corbett, coordinator for the office of student activities, e-mailed Perry, telling him that no one from the newspaper had contacted her before printing the critical articles.
Perry wrote back, saying, "If it is as you described, then a basic tenet of responsible journalism would seem to have been violated."
Brown said she agreed to accompany the students to a meeting with Perry. But she said she never received notification of a time and place for the meeting. Morgan administrators said the meeting was scheduled, and no one showed up.
On June 12, one of her superiors, Floyd Taliaferro, wrote Brown, saying that she and the reporters never appeared at a scheduled meeting with Perry. "Now there is concern that the accusations were baseless and not supported by facts," he wrote.
He asked reporters to set up individual meetings with him and bring the evidence used for the editorials. He told Brown that her contract would not be renewed until the matter was resolved.
Brown replied in a June 15 letter that she had never received notice of a scheduled meeting and that the reporters were away for the summer.
Four days later, Taliaferro told Brown in a letter that her contract would not be renewed. Brown asked for an explanation, and Taliaferro wrote back about a week later that he was not obligated to give her one.