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 AJR  Columns :    ABOVE THE FOLD    

From AJR,   October/November 2007  issue

White Like Me   

There’s too little diversity in the J-school leadership ranks.

By Thomas Kunkel
Thomas Kunkel (editor@ajr.umd.edu), president of AJR, is dean of the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland.     

Awareness can come from the most interesting places.

The Association of Schools of Journalism and Mass Communication represents the deans, directors and department heads who run the nation's journalism and mass com programs. In August I became president of this fine organization, and as I was about to take office I figured it might be a good idea if I had a more informed sense of who we are and the kind of challenges we all face.

So with the support of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, I undertook a little survey of my colleagues. You can read more about this report on page 40, but some of the key findings:

• The typical JMC administrator is white.

• The typical JMC administrator is male.

• He is 55 years old.

• He has been in his current job six years.

• He spends a third or more of his time raising money.

• More often than not, he doesn't come from journalism.

Or, as a friend e-mailed me after reading the report: "A new survey of journalism and mass communication school deans, directors and department heads finds that nearly two-thirds of them look exactly like Thomas Kunkel."

Well, not exactly. I'm 52..and have been in my job for seven years, not six. But basically he had me.

Now don't get me wrong. I rather like me and think I have many fine qualities. Nevertheless, this middle-age white male reality is not such a good thing.

I mean, we're not just male, but two-thirds male at a time when JMC student bodies, from coast to coast, are two-thirds female. And we're not just white, but nearly 90 percent white. (In truth, my respondents probably overrepresented the larger schools and

programs; with a fuller accounting of smaller units, including those at historically black colleges and universities, the male percentage probably would have come down some and the minority percentage grown some, but not dramatically.)

The data suggested some obvious concerns:

• Like the media industries, JMC education must press for much better diversification at every level, from recruiting students of color to recruiting more females and minorities into faculty positions to cultivating more women and minorities for leadership roles. Toward this end, the innovative JLID program discussed in Matt Sheehan and Paul Mihailidis' story is starting to pay dividends. But every school and department must be vested in solving this problem.

• The pressure to raise money scares off many potential JMC administrators, but it's not as unpleasant as they may think. And there's genuine creativity to be found in the activity. But the push for private funds points up the growing inadequacy of core budgets, especially at public institutions, as state support for higher ed is more or less on the same trajectory as political character. And this will only become more onerous in the digital age, with its insatiable appetite for high-tech toys.

Just as concerning to me, however, are some of the less obvious conclusions behind the numbers. But first, let me provide a little context, since if you're a journalist you've probably been so preoccupied lately that you may not be aware of recent shifts in journalism education.

These days many "J-schools" are really more like departmental appendages to much larger mass com schools and colleges. That reality has many causes, from the post-World War II rise of communications as a social science to the swelling popularity of public relations, advertising and media studies as student majors to universities' growing insistence on hiring only Ph.D.s.

These developments, in turn, have tended to make journalism professors a minority within their own programs, and the implications are worrying. For one thing, it's not uncommon to find people teaching college journalism classes who have little or no professional experience. For another, it's increasingly the case that outstanding journalists get short shrift when top JMC vacancies open up. This has happened in a number of high-profile dean searches of late.

Incidentally, this is not at all to assert that journalists are superior to colleagues from other media disciplines, and I can cite you any number of top-notch JMC administrators who didn't come out of journalism. It's just to say that, as a journalist, I fret about what I feel is a gradual diminution of my discipline in our universities at the very time we need it most.

And so to some of my less-obvious conclusions:

• The overwhelming pressure to hire only doctorate-holders, even in very skills-specific positions, is just one bad byproduct of higher ed's fixation with rankings. We

need to further assess whether this movement is already undermining the general quality of journalism education.

• This conundrum is especially important now that all the JMC programs are struggling with digital media in their curricula. Anyone who has tried to hire new media faculty can tell you that there are people who study it and people who do it, but darn few who do both. Study new media, by all means, but mostly we need some inventive practitioners to really awaken our students to the creative potential of digital journalism.

• If you think the journalism industry is slow to change, you obviously have never worked in academe.