This is a rumor that’s been circulating at Indiana University’s School of Journalism:
Pulitzer-winning journalist and IU Journalism School Professor of Practice Tom French received a job offer from Arizona State University, took it to his bosses at IU and said he’d leave unless they hired his wife, Kelley Benham French, a Tampa Bay Times editor and reporter.
I’m told the rumor was recently brought up at a journalism faculty meeting, and that interim j-school dean Lesa Hatley Major declined to discuss it. “Her response,” my source says, “was that this was something that was being handled at a level higher than hers.”
Tom and Kelley French, with daughter Juniper
I wanted to check out the reports I was hearing before contacting the Frenches.
IU School of Journalism spokesperson Anne Kibbler told me in an email: “All personnel issues at IU are confidential, so I’m afraid I can’t help you.”
A source suggested I contact IU provost Lauren Robel. I did, but she never responded.
I asked in an email to Arizona State University j-school dean Chris Callahan if he offered a job to Tom French. He didn’t respond, so I called his office. His secretary called back and said Callahan was traveling and he wanted to know what I was calling about. I never was able to speak with him.
Finally, I sent separate emails to the Frenches. Both responded.
“I’d heard you were possibly reporting on this and am glad to help if I can,” Tom wrote. “I can confirm that Kelley plans to join the faculty of IU’s new Media School as a professor of practice and start teaching in the fall.”
“The report of an offer from Arizona State is incorrect. Kelley and I have tremendous respect for the journalism program at ASU and for their brilliant dean, Chris Callahan, who has been a mentor to Kelley since her grad school days at Maryland. Chris invited us out to Phoenix early this past December to give a talk on Kelley’s Tampa Bay Times series about our micro preemie daughter and about our joint book project on the same subject. By that time, though, Kelley was deep into a conversation with Indiana about joining the faculty in Bloomington.”
Regarding the alleged ultimatum:
I have heard the rumor, apparently passed along by one or more of my colleagues, that I delivered an ultimatum and threatened to quit if IU didn’t hire Kelley. I can only theorize on the motives driving whoever is spreading this nonsense. Clearly they don’t have much interest in checking their facts, or they would have simply walked down the hall and talked to me. It’s a curious lapse in someone teaching journalism, where facts are the foundation of all that we do.
Tom French won his feature-writing Pulitzer in 1998 when he was at the St. Petersburg Times. A decade later, he accepted an offer to join the Indiana University j-school faculty. Kelley, though, stayed in Florida.
“She had more journalism to do, so she stayed at the Times, where she edited two Pulitzer finalists and wrote a third, her series on our daughter,” says Tom. “I have been commuting between Bloomington and St. Petersburg every week for the past four and a half years. ..The logistics were wearing, both to me and Kelley. Our daughter Juniper is two now, and she gets upset when either one of us leaves the room, much less flies off to a job a thousand miles away. Over the past year, we realized that we needed to get our lives together in one zip code or another.”
Kelley says: “This move helps Tom and I simplify our lives, and it allows me to get back to doing what I love most: working closely with talented writers to tell the best stories of their lives. I can’t wait to get started.”
She adds: “It’s sad if anyone thinks I need my husband to arm-twist someone to get me a job. Maybe someone saw an episode of Mad Men and got confused, but in my world, my qualifications have so far been enough. My credentials are not hard to look up, and I’m not hard to reach. Everyone is welcome to visit my classes and see the exciting work that my students and I are going to do together. There will no doubt be lessons on reporting and fact checking which might be of particular use to anyone who thinks rumors have a place in our profession.”
As I was working on this post this morning, Indiana University officially announced Kelley’s appointment.