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Top Pick To Lead University Of Arkansas Ethics Center Lacks Ethics Experience

An assistant professor from Conway who has no experience in teaching journalism ethics classes or in researching journalism ethics has been chosen to direct the...
D. Stephens.jpg

An assistant professor from Conway who has no experience in teaching journalism ethics classes or in researching journalism ethics has been chosen to direct the University of Arkansas’ Center for Ethics in Journalism.

Donna Lampkin Stephens, pictured here at Stonehenge in a photograph from her Facebook page, was selected March 7 by a majority of the tenured journalism faculty to fill the top spot at the ethics center in Fayetteville.

Stephens and 22 other candidates applied for the job. 5NEWS obtained their job applications from the university through a Freedom of Information Act request. Those applications can be downloaded and viewed by clicking here.

Some applicants have experience in teaching journalism ethics and in ethics research. Those applicants include Chad Painter, who holds a doctorate from the journalism program at the University of Missouri and, in addition to teaching media ethics, has been a reviewer for “The Journal of Mass Media Ethics.” Another experienced applicant is Jan Lauren Boyles, who wrote a chapter in the book “The Ethics of Journalism” and is a former Google Journalism Fellow at the Pew Center for Excellence in Journalism.

The ethics center job is a tenure-track assistant professor position paying about $60,000 for the academic year, according to Dale Carpenter, department chairman. The job will include teaching responsibilities and management of the ethics center.

A contract is expected to go out to Stephens in the next couple of weeks after several required steps are completed, including checking her references, Carpenter said. Her references include longtime Arkansas journalists and retired professors Ernest Dumas and Roy Reed.

Reed, a former newspaper reporter and retired University of Arkansas professor, was mentioned in an email to Stephens on Oct. 24, 2013, from U of A Professor Gerald Jordan asking her if she would be interested in applying for the ethics job.

“This is a voice from your distant, sports reporting past,” the email from Jordan states. “We met through Roy Reed.”

Jordan goes on to tell her he wants her to consider seeking the job.

Stephens responded later that day by email, saying she remembered “serving as your Little Rock driver all those years ago.”

“I’ve kept up with you over the years through many of our mutual friends and colleagues from the UA,” she tells Jordan. “I am intrigued by your suggestion. Let me do some thinking and a bit of research, and I’ll get back with you in a few days.”

Two weeks later Stephens was attending a one-day ethics “workshop” on the Fayetteville campus, and a week after that, she applied for the job.

Stephens did not respond to a telephone call placed last week seeking comment for this report.

Hiring Decision

Carpenter said the decision to hire Stephens was made in accordance with the university’s Equal Employment Opportunity Commission requirements. Her name was put forth to the tenured faculty from a journalism department search committee also made up of faculty members.

The search committee was led by another longtime figure on the Arkansas journalism and political scene, Hoyt Purvis, a veteran professor in the department, records show.

Purvis did not return a telephone call seeking comment.

During the interview phase, Stephens was brought onto campus to meet in person with faculty members. Two other job finalists conducted Skype interviews with the search committee, Carpenter said.

Carpenter said many factors go into a hiring decision that make one candidate stand out above the others. For instance, the search committee takes a candidates’ entire experience into consideration, he said.

Carpenter said the decision to recommend Stephens was “the consensus of the committee.”

“In the end you have to trust your colleagues and the majority vote of the faculty,” he said.

According to the university’s “position announcement” seeking applicants, experience in the academic field of journalism ethics is an important aspect of the job. The position announcement states that the person who holds the ethics job “ideally should have a record of research and involvement related to media ethics.”

Stephens, whose husband, Ken Stephens, is former head football coach at Central Arkansas and other universities, was a sportswriter who has no experience in ethics research or in teaching classes in media ethics, according to her resume. (In academics, a resume is called a CV, or curriculum vitae.)

Stephens also has not published any scholarly articles on the topic of journalism ethics. In the academic world, having articles printed in scholarly publications is viewed as meritorious and is important in achieving tenure.

The only ethics participation listed on Stephens’ resume is attendance at that one-day University of Arkansas “workshop” on ethics in journalism on Nov. 8, 2013.

Stephens’ roots at the university run deep. She received a bachelor’s degree from the University of Arkansas in 1985 and a master’s degree in 1993, also from the U of A campus in Fayetteville. (She also received master’s in special education in 1999 from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock and a doctorate in mass communication in 2012 from the University of Southern Mississippi.)

“Professional Experience Important”

In addition to seeking applicants with a background in journalism ethics, the job announcement from the university states, “Professional media experience is also important.”

Stephens, an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Central Arkansas in Conway where her husband once was head football coach, has not held a full-time journalism job since 1991.

Stephens joined the now-defunct Arkansas Gazette in 1984 as an intern before receiving a full-time salaried job with the newspaper in 1990, according to her resume and statements she gave to an interviewer in an oral history project about the newspaper.

Stephens since has written some freelance articles for small papers in the state, including a sports article in 1999 for the Log Cabin Democrat in Conway quoting her husband. She does not identify Ken Stephens in the article as being her husband.

Since leaving journalism, Stephens also has worked in documentary filmmaking. That field is the primary focus of some on the U of A broadcast journalism faculty, including Carpenter, Larry Foley and Hayot Tuychiev.

Stephens will not be alone on the faculty in having only minimal experience in a contemporary newsroom. According to the department’s online faculty biographies and other websites, no one teaching print or broadcast media at the University of Arkansas has worked full-time in a television or newspaper newsroom later than 2010. Most were out of the industry before social media platforms such as Facebook or Twitter were invented. Social media platforms are viewed as vital tools in today’s newsrooms.

One critic of the decision to hire Stephens said that while the hiring process might have been conducted legally, it is unethical to bring someone on board to lead the ethics center whose qualifications aren’t even in line with the published job notice.

“That’s the ironic part,” said DeLani Bartlette, one of the unsuccessful candidates for the job. “If it would have been someone just way more qualified than me, I would have said, ‘Hey, that’s OK.’ But to know it was this person with these qualifications, it makes me insane.”

Bartlette, a journalism instructor at NorthWest Arkansas Community College, said she teaches her students not only to avoid ethical pitfalls, but also to shun even the appearance of a conflict of interest.

This is not the first time in recent memory in which the University of Arkansas has been questioned on its hiring decisions.

Two years ago the university came under fire when then-head football coach Bobby Petrino hired his mistress in the athletic department even though her qualifications did not meet those outlined in the public job notice. Petrino’s mistress, Jessica Dorrell, was hired over other candidates whose qualifications were more in line with what the university posted. A letter approving that hiring decision was signed by Jeff Long, the university’s athletics director.

Petrino ultimately was fired, prompting questions about whether some hiring decisions at the university are based on professional qualifications or on a good ole boy network in which friends and acquaintances are selected over better-qualified candidates.

In her application cover letter for the ethics center job, Stephens says she hopes her “teaching and research experience, along with my years of experience as a college professor and as a working journalist, well equip me to be a strong candidate for the position.”

In the cover letter dated Nov. 15, 2013, a week after she attended the ethics “workshop” on campus, she adds that journalism today is in crisis for many reasons, “not the least of which is a lapse of ethics on the part of some who practice it.”

“A few rogues damage the profession for us all,” she writes, “and I believe the only way to save our business is to put out new generations of ethical journalists.”