SLU bars longtime adviser from newspaper.
Google the name Avis Meyer at Saint Louis University and you'll find him described as "one of the most honored teaching faculty on campus."
There's a long list of his teaching awards; an alumni survey called him "one of the 10 most memorable, influential and effective teachers at SLU."
His bio has him teaching journalism, writing, editing and film courses ... and serving as faculty adviser since 1974 for the University News student newspaper.
But his role as the official newspaper adviser was ended a few years ago by the Rev. Lawrence Biondi, SLU's president. And now, Meyer has been barred from the newsroom altogether.
Many of the students and faculty, including Meyer himself, say Biondi wants to fire him by contriving a case against him to negate the protection Meyer has as a tenured professor.
The long simmering animosity between the two men--Meyer is 66, Biondi 69--has become a bitter personal battle and looks like it's coming to a head. This fall, if Meyer continues to show up at the paper, where the students welcome his advice, that could be the infraction Biondi is looking for to fire him.
During his 20 years as president, Biondi has never met or talked with Meyer. Biondi has said he does not try to control the student newspaper, but Meyer says he gets blamed for anything that appears in the paper that Biondi construes as negative to him or the school. Meyer says Biondi uses bullying tactics in his efforts to stifle the independent voice of student journalists and wants to use the paper for favorable public relations.
'Block your access to the newsroom'
Biondi, a Jesuit, stays behind the scenes and has his subordinates carry out the offensive against Meyer, such as when Provost Joe Weixlmann last month told Meyer that his presence at the newspaper as an unofficial adviser, "no longer contributes to the smooth running of the paper" and that Meyer is "no longer to be routinely present in the U. News suite as a volunteer."
Weixlmann, in his e-mail to Meyer, said if he didn't comply, I will be forced to take actions to block your access to the newsroom."
It created an image of several security men hauling Meyer away--several because Meyer is built like a football lineman. But a physical encounter is not expected, despite Weixlmann's choice of words, SJR was told by university spokesman Jeff Fowler.
Biondi declined to answer questions from SJR over this latest dustup, but said he agrees with comments made by Weixlmann. He made it sound as if Weixlmann was doing this on his own initiative. (In 2006, Weixlmann told Meyer his $1,500 stipend for advising the paper was being ended but "this decision is in no way meant to limit your interaction with students, which students and faculty tell me has been extremely valuable over the years.")
Last October, the university filed a lawsuit in federal court against Meyer, alleging trademark infringement. It was the result of Meyer moving to incorporate the student paper's name in a non-profit entity at a time last year when the administration indicated it might force the paper off campus. A new charter for the newspaper was enacted by the administration giving officials more control over the newspaper's editors. The threat of having to go off campus or completely online went away. Meyer forgot about his registering the name with the Missouri Secretary of State, but the action would come back to bite him.
While Meyer was out of the country last summer, lawyer Frank B. Janoski of the big downtown law firm of Lewis, Rice & Fingersh sent letters demanding that Meyer give up the claim to the name of the University News. When Meyer returned, he complied with the request, but seven weeks later Janoski filed a lawsuit anyway. The suit seeks to have Meyer pay SLU's legal expenses, now said to have grown to more than $40,000 because of several delays, depositions and requests for information, including Meyer's teaching syllabi for the last 30 years.
Meyer has had to pay out several thousand dollars for his defense, but said he has been advised by his lawyer not to discuss the suit. He has made public statements in SJR and other publications saying Biondi is trying to weaken the paper and get rid of him--now by using money as a weapon. He was quoted in a St Louis Magazine article as calling Biondi a "weasel."
Biondi faults SJR stories
Last December Biondi sent an e-mail reply to SJR after he was asked about the lawsuit. He said SJR favored Meyer in its stories, which he said were not balanced. He noted correctly that Meyer and the author of this story had both worked at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and were co-editors of a few issues of SJR.
In the e-mail, Biondi said Meyer sought to use the name of the University News "for his own purposes." He denied wanting to control the editorial content of the newspaper but said it needed to be improved. The administration last year hired Jason Young, 33, as the official adviser to the U. News. Even so, Meyer continued to serve as the unofficial adviser and help with the editing.
The editor-in-chief, Katie Lewis, had to attend meetings about the paper with Weixlmann and other officials, but she and the other editors rejected demands by the administration to remove Meyer's name as adviser emeritus on the masthead.
"There's no way I would ever ask him to leave," Lewis said.
U. News staffers, past and present, say Meyer never suggests what stories to do but is available to answer questions and helps edit the paper for grammar and style matters on Thursday nights when the paper is laid out.
Fowler, the SLU spokesman, echoed Biondi's complaint that the administration "never gets a fair shake" from SJR and said, "I'm not going out of my way to talk to you."
But he did, saying Meyer's troubles were of his own making in that he has refused to answer two questions from the university's lawyers--what did he do with the name when he incorporated it, and will he try to incorporate it again?
Fowler was quoted in a story by the Student Press Law Center as saying the action to bar Meyer from the newsroom had nothing to do with Biondi but was because of Meyer's unprofessional behavior.
"This is not Dr. Meyer's newspaper," Fowler said.
If Meyer falls to abide by Weixlmann's order, Fowler told SJR, he could be subject to administrative action. Meyer's supporters say this might include being fired.
Actually, Meyer doesn't have that many supporters among faculty and students who don't know him. This is attributed to a certain apathy among the student body and a desire by faculty not to get involved. Some told SJR they did not want to be quoted for fear they might become targets for retaliation.
Support from students
But Meyer does have a network of support online mostly from former students who object to attempts to humiliate their former professor. Patrick Powers, editor-in-chief in 1999-2000, said an online petition (www.ipetitions.com/petition/messagetoslu) supports Meyer and has gained 279 signatures during several months. The petition calls for the withdrawal of the lawsuit, which it calls ""vengeful, vindictive or part of a personal vendetta--traits that threaten to damage and dishonor our university's mission and history."
When Biondi sent an electronic communication to faculty, staff and students in March, he said the lawsuit against Meyer was brought because he "tried to willfully take the university's name."
Biondi did not explain that Meyer had already relinquished the name before the suit was filed.
Biondi's reputation among many SLU alums and business leaders around St. Louis is one of a hard-driving executive who has raised the SLU endowment to nearly $1 billion. He is credited with renovating the university, including new buildings and campus improvements. The physical developments have helped anchor the city's midtown cultural district.
But Biondi's temper on campus is well known, especially when he disagrees with others, like the student journalists. They've done stories over the years that rankled him, such as: opposition to Biondi's selling St. Louis University Hospital; a big increase in parking fees; firing of popular priests; an attempt to assess a charge on graduating seniors; campus security problems; Biondi's apparent plagiarizing of a homily first given by a priest in California; and the stance that SLU is not a Catholic-controlled university, successfully made in a lawsuit to help win $8 million in tax benefits for a new arena.
The online publication Inside Higher Ed had a recent article about how criticism from student newspapers comes with the territory for university chiefs. It began: "Student newspaper advisers are something of an endangered species these days. They often get caught in the middle when administrators and student journalists clash over content.... and have found themselves losing their jobs."
"All you have to do is look around the country to see how many conflicts there are," said Mark Goodman, the Knight Chair of Scholastic Journalism at Kent State University and former executive director of the Student Press Law Center. "This has really gained steam."
Roy Malone, a longtime reporter is retired from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and is editor of SJR.