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University Professor Out of a Job, Student Paper Out of a Story

May 24, 1987|BETH UYEHARA | Times Staff Writer

LA MIRADA — It was a good story, the kind most college newspapers would jump at. It concerned the firing of a popular teacher with 20 years' seniority who was threatening to sue the university, students circulating a petition to protest the firing and an administration reluctant to talk about the subject.

But that wasn't all. The story touched deeper questions of college policy, since the teacher in question had achieved tenure, which is usually thought to guarantee lifetime job security.

But before the May 1 issue of the Biola University student newspaper, The Chimes, went to press, the story by arts editor Christopher Elliott was pulled from the front page by Dean of Students Jane Higa.

Editorial, Letters Pulled

Also pulled from that issue on the recommendation of the paper's adviser was an editorial quickly written to protest Higa's act, and three letters to the editor about the firing of Associate Prof. of Music Laszlo Lak, the subject of the censored story.

Chimes editor David Njust said Higa told him that the news story was being pulled because it was unfair and presented the university in a negative light. Higa told The Times later that she removed the story because it concerned a personnel matter that the university felt should not be publicized.

Biola University is a private, 3,000-student, nondenominational Christian college. In California, state law guarantees freedom of the press to student newspapers in state-supported colleges and universities, even though the papers may be financially supported by the institutions. Privately supported colleges and universities such as Biola, however, are not covered by the state law.

Although Higa said The Chimes is not designed to promote the university in a public-relations capacity, the administration nevertheless considers that it has final approval of the contents of the newspaper.

"We see it as mutually agreed-upon guidelines (between the administration and the students)," she said. "The student paper is not doing what you folks (professional newspapers) are doing. They are simply learning. We see the paper as part of the educational process. Students are in the process of learning about life."

This is not the first time the paper has been in hot water. An April Fool's issue two months ago reportedly offended the administration, as did a story last year about a student's resignation from the school choir to protest a change in the lyrics of the hymn "Amazing Grace."

Interim Adviser Appointed

Following the April Fool's issue, Higa reportedly agreed to oversee the publication for the balance of the semester, and a member of the administration, Dean of Ministries Gary Lindblad, was appointed as the paper's interim adviser. The previous adviser had moved out of the area.

Lindblad, who had taken the Lak story to Higa, said that he felt it was one-sided.

"The Chimes staff felt it met their criteria," he said. "I felt it didn't meet mine. Basically, the school wanted no mention of Lak for one week."

He said that because of the incident, the school is rewriting the publication guidelines. "My feeling is that we should use (censorship) only in extreme cases. I'm not an expert in journalism or free speech. I just want to bring (the administration and the newspaper) together."

Lak, meanwhile, the teacher at the center of the current controversy, has retained a lawyer to demand either reinstatement to his job or $300,000 compensation, according to a letter sent to the university on May 13.

Through his lawyer, Dale Gronemeier, Lak claims that Biola's definition of tenure does not follow the standards of the American Assn. of University Professors, to which many college teachers belong. Gronemeier said that Lak has a "solid entitlement" to compensation. "Biola has violated every conceivable requirement of tenure," he said.

Question of Tenure

Elliott's article quoted the Biola faculty handbook as describing tenure as "academic freedom in teaching in addition to a degree of financial security." Members of the administration refused to comment on the issue of tenure, or even to confirm the handbook definition, referring all questions to the university's legal department. Neither the university lawyer nor Biola President Clyde Cook could be reached for comment.

According to Lak's lawyer, AAUP standards maintain that a teacher who has achieved tenure can be fired only for cause, mandatory retirement or the "extreme financial exigency" of the college, which Gronemeier defined as imminent financial collapse.

The university cited budget pressures due to a gradual enrollment decline for Lak's firing. Provost Robert Fisher said 15 positions have been eliminated for next year, including some positions that are not currently occupied, and a few part-time jobs and full-time, tenured positions. "None of the others have objected," he said.

Enrollment at the university has dwindled from 3,103 in the fall of 1981, to 2,976 in 1985, to 2,758 in 1986, he said.

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