When an Advisory Board Turns on Its School

The standing of journalism in higher education needs to be repaired.
By Michael McDevitt

Scratching for academic status and representing a profession in crisis, journalism faculty often lack the presumption of expertise enjoyed in other disciplines. New-media entrepreneurs goad us to stay “agile” and “nimble.” Be prepared, they tell us, to “blow up the curriculum” and embrace “creative destruction” in the rapid adoption of new technology. Web journalist Robert Hernandez appeals directly to students, prodding disciples to “hijack your school’s assets.”

An advisory board at the University of Colorado Boulder (CU) took the pyrotechnics a bit further in seeking to blow up an entire school. The board presented the university’s chancellor with a letter advocating closure of the School of Journalism and Mass Communication, the school it was established to support. With a stab to the dean’s back, the board exploited a zeitgeist of technological disruption and populist suspicion of a plodding, obstructionist faculty. The assault on the school illustrates the damaged standing of journalism in higher education and a resulting threat to academic freedom. 

Journalism’s identity in higher education is fiercely contested. As media scholar Stephen Reese observes, academic journalism “is organized with an interdisciplinary liberal arts focus, yet must address a professional constituency,” making it “vulnerable to attack from all sides.” Scholars in the liberal arts view journalism from the perspective of media studies, a field that encompasses areas such as media technology, professional ethics and media law, and critical theory on how power relations are constituted in emerging communication environments. Many professional journalists, by contrast, insist that reporting practices are natural and inevitable rather than socially constructed. In their view, media studies is a waste of time, “a nonsense major,” as a former member of the CU journalism board put it. 

Two Hearts in One Chest 

Journalism instruction at CU began in the English department in 1909, and the university established a separate department in 1922, which became a college within the College of Arts and Sciences in 1937 and a separate college in 1962. By 2001, course sequenc es in journalism, advertising, and media studies were attracting more than six hundred undergraduate majors and another six hundred prejournalism students. The School of Journalism and Mass Communication boasted alumni such as ESPN’s Rick Reilly and NBC News correspondent Tom Costello. The Center for Environmental Journalism and the Center for Media, Religion, and Culture attest to aspirations for excellence in both skills training and scholarship. Nonetheless, many faculty members found themselves having to choose between professional instruction and academic respectability. As a former dean observed, two hearts beating in one chest left the school vulnerable. 

The journalism school survived on the Boulder campus until April 14, 2011, when the regents voted to close it. Rumblings about possible discontinuance probably date back to 2008, when the acting provost, without alerting the faculty, approached the advisory board with visions of a college of information. Scholars were absent from the board, which included publishers, journalists, philanthropists, and CEOs in Colorado media. According to an accreditation team, board members grew increasingly frustrated with a media studies faculty they imagined as intransigent in failing to update the curriculum to keep pace with digital media. My colleagues were, however, conducting a systemic revision of the entire undergraduate program to accommodate co nvergence, entrepreneurial journalism, and storytelling across platforms. 

Board members were hardly regarded as leaders of new media. If anything, some may have felt left behind in the digital era. They nevertheless smelled blood. The University of Colorado, which dates back to 1876, had never closed a school, but in a period of technological upheaval, entrenched faculty could be viewed as a vestige acting up, no longer tolerable, justifying surgical removal. 

In September 2009, a former advisory board member delivered a “white paper” to the chancellor describing the school as hopelessly dysfunctional. Here too, concerned faculty had not been consulted, much less given a chance to respond. Days later, the chancellor charged a task force with devising a blueprint for a college of information that would focus on new technology and unite many academic units. On April 15, 2010, the task force submitted its report, recommending the creation of a college with computer science at its core, but it failed to address the future of journalism at the university. The advisory board wrote to the chancellor on April 23, urging him to close the school and to create a college of news, information, and technology. The letter, which had ten signatories, began: “Our huge high-tech problem is that the industry has been moving at blinding speed from the old ways of transmitting the news and advertising to the digital age. We need to propel ourselves into the 21st Century.” 

The new unit, according to the letter, “would include our highly respected advertising sequence, our news writing and reporting classes, our television on-air and production classes.” The omission of media studies was hardly accidental, although one would have thought that the social sciences and humanities would be more vital now than ever in guiding journalism through a tumultuous era. 

Converging Crises 

In August 2010, the fall semester began with a television camera crew bursting into the first meeting of the journalism faculty. My colleagues and I learned that day of a CU plan that would likely close the school.  Faculty members in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication had reason to feel vulnerable. A populist climate in a western state would ignite suspicion of academic expertise if faculty could be portrayed not merely as mired in obscurantism, not merely as prone to obfuscation, but also as actively obstructionist toward curricular reform. As the meme goes, students are left to teach professors about the intricacies of information technology. 

I believe that CU administrators had recognized from the start what the hostile intervention represented—an opportunistic attempt to transform the school in ways incompatible with the university’s liberal arts mission and its traditions of shared governance. According to an evaluation of the Accrediting Council on Education in Journalism and Mass Communications, CU administrators thought that the School of Journalism and Mass Communication had become isolated from the rest of the campus. 

Many of my colleagues believe that the advisory board’s letter was merely a vehicle to overcome academic inertia and to initiate discussion about a new college of information, communication, and technology. I can’t say whether the administration invited the letter or was surprised by it, but the letter did become part of the rationale for discontinuance. Members of the advisory board apparently felt empowered to strike quickly, only to find themselves at sea in an academic culture they disdained but failed to comprehend, much less control. Some board members seem to have been genuinely surprised that the CU administration lacked the power and motivation to dismiss tenured media studies faculty immediately. 

Undercurrents of anti-intellectualism would surface in October 2010 as board members began to realize their actual status as a tool of the CU administration. Dan Pacheco, one of the signatories, dismissed CU’s vision for a college of information, communication, and technology as “an expensive playground for faculty.” An alumnus of the School of Journalism and Mass Communication, he urged campus leaders to put students first: “Conversely, if you sacrifice these children’s future for your own career goals you will end up in exactly the same boat that the journalism school is in today. You will be even more irrelevant, you will be deemed a failure, and you will close. I will gladly put the last nail in that coffin.” 

Advisory boards like the one convened at CU have become flash points for journalism’s strained encounters with the academy. Corporate media and universities have learned to live with dissonance for strategic reasons, but not because of any authentic fondness for each other. A convergence of the crisis of journalism and the crisis of the public university makes the two enterprises more reliant on each other than in the past, a dependence that can breed resentment. News outlets struggle with an erosion of prestige and scores of failed newspapers, and they turn to the academy for guidance on how to navigate the digital revolution. At the same time, backed by foundation money, media organizations seek leverage to influence curricula. As sociologists Caitlin Petre and Max Besbris observe, journalism schools are faced with a dilemma that contributes to their vulnerability: “redesign your curriculum around a fad and you become irrelevant; fail to redesign your curriculum around what turns out to be a truly seismic technological change and you become irrelevant.” 

When the regents voted five to four to close the journalism school, two dissenting regents published an open letter in the Boulder Daily Camera, arguing that “closing the School itself for ‘strategic realignment’ purposes was undoubtedly a drastic option.” CU administrators apparently took advantage of a naïve advisory board but may have also internalized short-term thinking in response to uncertainty about the role of journalism at a research university. 

Journalism professors are hardly blameless in program discontinuance. We struggle to articulate professional boundaries within a landscape increasingly characterized by amateur journalism, blogging, and an erosion of public trust in mainstream news media. A growing number of media scholars argue that we should be content with describing responsible practice, and should give up trying to define who is, and is not, a professional. The argument plays into the hands of the libertarian (and often narcissistic) entrepreneurs who would “blow up” journalism schools. With academic identity at stake, professors should reconsider the inclination to democratize professional training. As Petre and Besbris warn, this move gives “non-journalists who are already dubious of the profession’s boundaries, like the Regents of the University of Colorado, more reason to doubt schooling as a necessary component of the profession’s future.” 
Readers will recognize similarities to what transpired at the University of Virginia in 2012. Much has been made in Charlottesville (and beyond) of the bumbling attempt by the board of visitors to remove President Teresa Sullivan. The board’s leadership, with no prior warning to Sullivan or anyone else, sought her resignation, citing the need for “strategic dynamism” to respond to technological innovation and an uncertain economic climate. The resulting uproar of protest—from faculty and administration, students and staff members, alumni and donors, and the AAUP and other organizations—led the board after eighteen days to vote unanimously in favor of retaining her as president. A board’s intervention proved more successful in Boulder, at least temporarily, the same “management speak” justifying hostile takeovers based on a depiction of intransigent faculty. Advisory boards and trustees at other campuses might feel emboldened by similar circumstances ripe for intervention. 

The Canadian scholar Vincent Mosco suggests that we are “near the end of irrational exuberance” about the Internet, and that technological utopias have lost their sublime appeal. An era of reconfiguration nonetheless persists on many campuses, with faculty anxiety extending beyond journalism schools. Professional schools and academic departments claim some of the same turf, despite assurances of collaboration and shared recognition of the need to “break down the silos.” In fact, not every program will survive—or should survive—the scrambling of space. 

CU and the Fat e of Journalism 

Administrators at CU are still working through designs for a new cluster of departments. We are presumably in the implementation phase for what is now being called the College of Media, Communication, and Information, and a vote of the regents is expected this summer. According to the administration, the college “would bring together academic units and faculty from across the campus with expertise in the principles and practice of using digital technology to communicate.” 

The future of journalism remains unsettled in higher education, generally speaking, but a disturbing irony arises at CU in particular when one contemplates the fate of journalism at a campus stung repeatedly by bad press. The AAUP’s Colorado conference condemned the University of Colorado administration in two cases that brought swarms of media attention to Boulder: the investigation and dismissal of Ward Churchill a few years ago and the controversy surrounding sociology professor Patti Adler in 2013. In light of a sometimes poisonous relationship between Colorado news media and campus administration, CU is probably not the first place where journalism faculty would want their fate adjudicated. 

Prior to its closure, the Rocky Mountain News regularly channeled anti-intellectualism in public sentiment when CU controversies arose, as evident most dramatically in coverage on Churchill, the professor who ridiculed the notion of American innocence with respect to the September 11 attacks. When a media frenzy engulfed the campus in January 2005, the Rocky editorialized, ‘‘The University of Colorado employs an apologist for mass murder as a professor of ethnic studies, but we can’t say we’re terribly surprised.” 

The university can hardly be blamed for a defensive response to a hostile Colorado press. Media scholars Kylie Brass and David Rowe more generally describe a strategic realignment in the academic-media nexus, whereby universities deploy a suite of risk-averse strategies to “maximize positive media outcomes.” They document how universities in Australia pioneered “media and public comment” policies to regulate faculty statements. We shouldn’t have been too surprised, then, when the University of Kansas regents recently adopted a provision under which faculty can be fired for “improper use of social media.” The policy extends to expression in an employee’s official duties that is deemed “contrary to the best interest of the university.” 

CU could not contain the controversy that surrounded Adler and her course Deviance in US Society, which typically enrolls about five hundred students. According to Adler, school officials told her that her instruction could no longer include a voluntary skit that casts teaching assistants as different types of prostitutes. Students rapidly mobilized on social media to support Adler, and the Colorado AAUP condemned the CU administration for violating Adler’s academic freedom to choose “her own instructional methods within the broad parameters of her discipline and university policies.” The case was resolved in January 2014, with Adler returning to teach during the spring term, followed by her retirement. 

CU has sought to distance itself from a tumbleweed, populist press and to immerse itself in a sealed, friendly, quasi-journalistic space. Nevertheless, controversies over academic freedom are increasingly negotiated in popular media. Through its recently revised report Academic Freedom and Electronic Communications, issued by a subcommittee of the national Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure, the AAUP is working to protect faculty rights in new media contexts. Faculty should think twice about abandoning journalism instruction. If we view journalism schools as staging grounds for inculcation of deliberative principles, media education might constitute the most effective domain for diffusing academic values in online expression. 

As I write this, I am relieved to report that plans for the new college in Boulder include a journalism department. We will highlight the unique ontological and democratic status of journalism in an increasingly complex media ecosystem. All in the academy should care about the revival of journalism as the professional context in which ideas are faithfully translated to the public sphere in ways that enhance understanding of increasingly complex issues. A journalism of expertise  represents a strategy for scholarly outreach, and it would also help shore up the legitimacy of a university system undergoing its own crisis. Universities that fail  to invest in a deliberative, knowledge-based journalism should not be surprised when episodes of media populism channel anti-intellectual resentment against them. 

With advances in new media, journalism practices will evolve in forms not yet imagined, much less invented. Universities should participate in—rather than simply observe or complain about—the fate of journalism in the technological ferment. For now, I wish professors in journalism schools would stop eroding their own credibility by promoting an ethos of innovation at all cost. At a recent conference, the title of one session leapt out from the program: “Innovation or Annihilation: The Future of Journalism Curriculum in America.” An unreflective instrumentalism, pushed as it is so forcefully by advisory boards, some faculty, and alumni, is exactly the way in which journalism can contribute to suspicion about its purpose in the academy. 

Michael McDevitt is professor in journalism and mass communication at the University of Colorado Boulder. He conducts research in political communication and is working on a book, Where Ideas Go to Die: Anti-Intellectualism in American Journalism. His e-mail address is [email protected].