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American Journalism Review
The Smiling Subversive  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Columns :    ABOVE THE FOLD    
From AJR,   February/March 2008

The Smiling Subversive   

And his crusade to produce better-educated journalists

By Thomas Kunkel
Thomas Kunkel (, president of AJR, is dean of the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland.     

New York is a city of colorful characters and iconoclasts, a place where people on the streets could be seen talking to themselves long before the advent of Bluetooth technology.

Even by New York standards, Vartan Gregorian is a bona fide character. Not large in stature, he has an aura about him that commands attention everywhere he goes. His great erudition, put across in a soft Middle Eastern accent (he was born in Iran to Armenian parents), is worn lightly. Twinkling eyes rescue what might otherwise be a stern countenance, and they betray a puckish humor always at the ready.

At a recent gathering, for instance, the president of the Carnegie Corporation of New York shared an anecdote about his advisory work for the Encyclopedia Britannica. Some of the editors of that information dreadnought wondered if they could adopt more Wikipedia-like techniques (see "Wikipedia in the Newsroom,"). Gregorian was taken aback. "Why does everything have to be so light?" he told them. "Some things should be heavy."

The humor disarms and sometimes disguises an incredible drive. In a profile two decades ago for The New Yorker, my late friend Philip Hamburger characterized Gregorian, then amid his storied tenure as president of the New York Public Library, this way: "One must approach him as one would approach an extraordinary force of nature a tornado, perhaps, or a hurricane. Of course, Gregorian is a benign force, and he leaves behind him as he whirls through New York not death and destruction but a heightened sense that, while knowledge is power, knowledge itself is the primary goal."

Indeed, Gregorian Stanford Ph.D. in history and humanities, former professor at UCLA and Texas, former dean and provost at Penn, former president of Brown, resuscitator of perhaps the nation's most beloved library, and now head of Carnegie remains first and foremost an educator.

Until a few years ago, his missionary passion had not extended to journalism education. But this man, who amassed so much of his knowledge as a lad in library stacks, cherishes America in that special way that only immigrants can; no aspect of his adoptive home is taken for granted. So he worries about the national welfare. And in time he began to worry about how well journalists were being prepared to do jobs so integral to that national welfare. "I highly admire journalists," he told a gathering of journalism deans at Carnegie a few years ago. "They might be badly paid, but they shouldn't be badly educated."

So Gregorian decided we should build better journalists. And he launched what he calls a "subversive" effort to do just that.

In tandem with the Knight Foundation, the largest benefactor of journalistic causes and itself an engine of journalistic change, Gregorian started the Carnegie-Knight Initiative on the Future of Journalism Education. Working with a relatively small number of well-established journalism schools, the initiative aims to broaden the intellectual horizons of journalists in training, in large part by tapping into the academic firepower of the larger university.

A few weeks ago the Carnegie-Knight group met in New York, where Gregorian talked about what he wants for young journalists. "Are they educated? Are they well-cultured? Do they take advantage of all the talent at that university?" he asked. Too many journalism-mass communication programs are intellectual "outposts" on their own campuses, he said. That makes them politically vulnerable. Instead, such schools must figure out how to be at the center of their home institutions.

My school, Maryland's Philip Merrill College of Journalism, is proud to be a member of the Carnegie-Knight group. We are drawing on this campus' considerable intellectual store in a master's-level seminar for our students. Such superstars as Anwar Sadat Professor Shibley Telhami, political scientist Ronald Walters, historian Ira Berlin and sociologist Harriet Presser put the great issues of the day into a context specifically for my students. It all happens under the careful watch of Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist Deborah Nelson, our Carnegie professor, who supervises and co-teaches the course.

To make sure this is not a one-way street, the Merrill College in turn exports some of its most senior faculty among them Knight Chair Haynes Johnson, Pulitzer winners Gene Roberts and Jon Franklin, renowned journalism historian Maurine Beasley to deliver honors seminars in other departments at Maryland. This reciprocity gets to another pillar of Gregorian's thinking: Building such connections enhances J-schools' influence.

It also starts getting at what Gregorian means when he calls the Carnegie-Knight program something of a "subversive" activity. He knows that reform of journalism education can't be imposed by Carnegie or anyone else. It must occur from within. But it does need a catalyst someone to offer a direction, some seed money, a sense of mission. As the Carnegie-Knight schools get stronger and more creative, they cannot but help show the way for a 21st century model of journalism education.

Thus Gregorian, the happy warrior, fires you up, pats you on the back, smiles that subversive smile, offers a little benediction. Then he trundles back out onto the streets of New York, ready for the next battle.

Thomas Kunkel (, president of AJR, is dean of the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland.



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