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American Journalism Review
Deans of Change  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   October/November 2007

Deans of Change   

Keeping their schools current with the digital revolution, raising enough money to make that happen and putting together diverse staffs are among the challenges facing the people who run the nation’s journalism and mass communication schools.

By Matthew C. Sheehan & Paul Mihailidis

This article and the survey it describes were funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

Atop the high hill from which Syracuse University keeps watch on its hard-working hometown, the building known as Newhouse III has been going up for the past two years. A soaring construct full of glass and high technology, this 74,000-square-foot addition to the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications is replete with spaces for research and learning on a formal and informal basis. Designed by the New York architectural firm of Polshek Partnership, it joins Newhouse I (created by I.M. Pei and completed in 1964) and Newhouse II (finished in 1974) to finalize benefactor S.I. Newhouse's longtime vision for his namesake school.

The school took possession of the new building in August, just in time for fall classes, and dedicated it in September.

By October — maybe — Newhouse Dean David Rubin can catch his breath.

One of longest-serving journalism deans in office, Rubin used the springboard of the Newhouse family's $15 million gift to raise the remainder of the new building's $31.6 million price tag. As the high-tech equipment attests, Rubin enters his 18th year riding a remarkable wave of change.

Certainly it's a far cry from the school he inherited.

"When I got here in 1990, we had one laboratory that had computers," Rubin recalls. "The machines in there — only two members of the faculty knew what to do with them, even to fix them or make them work." There was no such thing as an IT department. "We've come from that to a school that is all digital, with 300 machines."

Indeed, much of the technology and many methods of newsgathering represented in Newhouse III didn't even exist five years ago, when it was being conceived. Rubin points out that the faculty, while acknowledging the digital revolution, remains as committed as ever to a core curriculum that embraces writing, reporting, editing, ethics and history. "A lot of the basics have not changed at all," he says. "What's really changed is the new amazing delivery system."

Keeping up with sweeping technological change is just one of many demands confronting Rubin and his fellow journalism and mass communication (JMC) leaders these days. That fact was underlined in a recent survey of the top administrators of the member institutions of the Association of Schools of Journalism and Mass Communication (ASJMC). It was conducted by Thomas Kunkel, dean of the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland (and president of AJR). The online survey was distributed to 165 ASJMC administrators; 89 of them responded.

The purpose of the survey, underwritten by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, was to take a snapshot of the nation's JMC deans, directors and department heads, and learn more about some of the key issues and pressures they face. What it found was ample evidence of growing expectations to raise private funds, struggles to adapt their schools' curricula in a digital world and faculty hiring challenges.

Mike McQueen is quite familiar with the pressures facing JMC leaders. Now the Associated Press bureau chief for Louisiana and Mississippi, McQueen has toggled between the profession and academia several times. Most recently, he was chair of Florida International University's journalism and broadcasting department from 1999 to 2004.

One of the biggest problems that journalism education faces, McQueen says, is the lack of diversity in its leadership ranks. He recalls sitting around the hotel bar one night not too many years ago with colleagues at an educators' conference, "and going around the country we counted five minority department chairs at schools that were not HBCUs [historically black colleges and universities]." And only one of those, he says, was a dean.

Alas, the survey suggests not a lot has changed. Nearly 90 percent of the respondents are white, and nearly two-thirds are male. They are, on average, 55 years of age. As Kunkel, who is president of ASJMC, said in his report on the survey's findings, "Collectively, the people running our journalism and mass-com programs don't look much like America, and they don't even look a lot like their own student bodies, which are now pretty much two-to-one female."

McQueen attributes the lack of diversity to education officials looking to fill positions with candidates that look like themselves. "When you hire someone, you're often basing your decision on objective criteria — what have they accomplished before, and what are they going to accomplish for me," he says. "But there is also a social aspect — how is this person going to gel with the faculty, do they act like and look like they belong teaching my students?" JMC leaders need to reach beyond their comfort zones when searching for candidates for faculty and administrative positions, McQueen says, and he suggests journalism education become much more engaged with minority journalism organizations.

Crediting organizations such as the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication (AEJMC), which McQueen says has had several African American presidents in the last 10 years, he urges more groups to participate in programs that help qualified candidates advance to the leadership ranks. AEJMC and ASJMC together operate a program called the Journalism and Mass Communication Leadership Institute for Diversity (JLID), which was established to increase racial and gender diversity in administrative positions. Founded in 2000, JLID is beginning to show results.

Over the yearlong fellowship, JLID participants engage in training workshops, a mentor relationship and networking opportunities. Since its inception, JLID has had 58 fellows, of whom 17 are now in administrative positions, a placement rate of over 29 percent, according to AEJMC Executive Director Jennifer McGill.

McQueen, who declined to be a candidate for the FIU deanship because he felt he would have been too "divisive" and "out-of-step with the wishes of the provost and other senior leaders at the university," also suggests that schools need to find a happier medium between practitioner and research faculty. While not downplaying the value of a Ph.D., McQueen says he thinks many units pass over highly qualified leadership candidates because of their lack of educational credentials.

"Unless you have a bag full of Pulitzers in your pocket, you need at least a master's degree to look legitimate," he says.

The survey tends to support that view. Nearly 70 percent of respondents indicated that their universities "always" or "almost always" expect them to fill a faculty position with someone holding a doctorate, even if that job is specifically meant to deliver practical skills. They report that pressure to do so has increased markedly in the past five years.

"I think far too often schools of journalism and mass communication and faculty members allowed themselves to be mau-maued into this thinking that they're second-class citizens," McQueen says, stressing professional experience should count as much as peer-reviewed research. "You can't have democracy without journalism. We have an incredibly important role in society; we have an incredibly important role in the academy."

Another reason some private-sector administrators think twice about going into JMC leadership is that they think it will require a lot of fundraising. And to a certain extent, they're right.

As universities deal with rising costs, capped tuition and decreasing state support, the pressure to find outside money to keep technology up-to-date and fund innovation and research falls more squarely on individual administrators. Fundraising has always been expected of administrators at private institutions, but these days it's as much a fact of life for those running public programs — maybe even more so.

At Syracuse, which is private, Rubin works with numbers that provoke envy in many of his associates. With a $10 million hard budget and an additional $2 million each year from the school's endowment, one would think he's riding on Easy Street. In raw numbers, his students pay about $36 million in tuition each year, but most of that goes to the university at large, and little of it goes to capital or non-budgeted accounts. That means Rubin has to find alternate methods of funding new projects and programs — such as the Newhouse III construction.

"When I was hired in 1990, deans at SU and a lot of other places were not expected to do fundraising," says Rubin. "That is not true anymore. Deans are specifically expected to do fundraising and have specific goals." He estimates he spends roughly 40 percent of his time working to raise additional money.

Rubin has lots of company. JMC administrators, the survey found, spend one-third or more of their time raising money, and 78 percent said fundraising pressures had "increased" or "increased significantly" in the past five years. On the other hand, 57 percent indicated they value or enjoy that aspect of the job.

Much of that fundraising goes toward trying to keep JMC departments abreast of the many changes that the digital revolution has brought to media and media education. As with the mainstream media themselves, this was not exactly a change the educators embraced early or wholeheartedly.

The Web site recently highlighted one such example. At the AEJMC convention in August, one presenter brought up a 1995 article in Quill, the magazine of the Society of Professional Journalists, which described the ability to "deal with new media such as electronic newspapers or World Wide Web pages" as "nice, but not necessary."

Just a decade later, in an annual survey of JMC graduates conducted by the University of Georgia's Grady College, nearly 40 percent of 2006 journalism graduates reported that they work with some aspect of the Web in their jobs, up from just over 20 percent two years earlier. The 2007 State of the News Media report by the Project for Excellence in Journalism cited a survey that found 92 million people go online for news.

Clearly times have changed, and journalism programs are trying to change with them. More than 90 percent of responding administrators said their programs are "actively reviewing" their curricula with an eye toward doing more with new media and digital developments, and 47 percent reported that their units will be adding at least one new digital-related or multimedia course to their programs this semester.

Schools' responses to these changes are as varied as the schools themselves. They run the gamut from a go-slow approach to Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism, where Dean John Lavine has vowed to "blow up" the old order and transform his program's journalism curriculum, in part by incorporating material from Medill's Integrated Marketing Communications Department.

Adding to the difficulty is the fact that JMC programs are basically being asked to prepare students to enter a market where many of the technologies and techniques they will use have not been invented yet. It's exciting and daunting all at once.

Some major media companies are trying to help by establishing more formal partnerships with JMC programs, and last spring Gannett convened a number of administrators for an innovative new-media summit at its corporate headquarters.

But the onus of keeping up with change rests mostly on the faculty and, yes, the dean or director or department head. When Syracuse began its curricular review, Rubin brought in six "futurists" to talk with the faculty, and he stresses the importance of faculty training and "externships" in which, over the summer, faculty members get back into the industry.

As for Rubin, who is 62, little of his experience prior to becoming dean prepared him for the digital revolution. While he tries to keep up-to-date, he says he doesn't spend hours a day researching the next big thing.

And pretty soon, he won't have to. Rubin is stepping down at the end of this academic year to make way for what he terms a "younger, newer" dean, someone who may have his or her finger more on the pulse of change.

Rubin, who will be moving back to the faculty ranks, says that administrators can and must be effective leaders of change. "Are you smart? Do you have an open mind? Are you adaptive? Do you read? Are you current?

"I would say I'm only 50 percent successful in staying current because I'm still rooted in print," he explains, "which I would suppose I say is a failing, but I'm not ashamed of it."

Matthew C. Sheehan ( is director of public affairs and assistant to the dean at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland. He is a former assistant news editor at the Washington Post.

Paul Mihailidis ( is director of media education initiatives of the International Center for Media and the Public Agenda, a center at Merrill, and a member of the college's research faculty.



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