CU-Boulder to Shutter J-School

Journalism education remains a priority, administrators claim

The University of Colorado’s Board of Regents voted last week to close the journalism school at its Boulder campus, marking the first time that the university has shuttered an entire college.

While the decision has come as a disappointment to many at the school and elsewhere, the outcome is not as bad as some feared it would be. Contrary to expectations last August—when the university created a committee to look at “discontinuance” of the School of Journalism and Mass Communication—top officials have expressed a desire to preserve journalism education at the university.

“Over the course of seven months, many people, including my colleague Len Ackland and myself, lobbied hard in support of journalism education with the Provost, the Chancellor, the President of the university system, and also in public statements before the elected regents (not to mention the news media as well). And I’m happy to say that all the principals are on record now as supporting the continuation of journalism education here at the University of Colorado,” wrote Tom Yulsman, the co-director of the j-school’s Center for Environmental Journalism, in an e-mail.

“So on one level, despite the closure of an administrative unit, we’ve actually won what could turn out to be a more important battle. We’ve gone from journalism being mentioned just two times in a 12,577-word document intended to be a blueprint for the future of journalism to being at the center of just about every public statement from the regents on down. I’m very gratified by that.”

Yulsman was referring to a report issued by a second committee formed in August, which was tasked with exploring the establishment of a new media-related entity on the Boulder campus. In February, it recommended creating a School or College of Information, Communication, and Media Technology in combination with an Institute for the Global Digital Future, but said little about teaching the fundamentals of newsgathering and reporting. The committee’s proposal is still on the table, but in the meantime another plan has come up as well.

After accepting the discontinuance committee and provost’s recommendation to close the journalism school, Boulder’s chancellor, Phil DiStefano, sent a proposal to university president Bruce Benson outlining his plan for a new undergraduate program called “Journalism Plus.” Under the plan, the university would stop offering journalism as a stand-alone bachelor’s degree. Instead, undergrads would be able to pursue a double major in journalism and another subject, or a major in another subject with a certificate or minor in journalism. Benson, who also supported closing the journalism school, subsequently endorsed the plan.

“Journalism education at CU has a rich history, strong demand, a successful track record (with student recruitment, graduation rates, internships and alumni employment) and meets a significant need in our society, a factor that should guide our thinking going forward,” he wrote in a memo responding to DiStefano. “While technology is driving rapid change in the field, journalism’s fundamental values of fairness, balance, accuracy, ethics and law remain. Any program we offer should promote those values, regardless of administrative structure.”

Following the Board of Regents’ 5-4 vote to close the journalism school last week, Paul Voakes, its current dean, who is stepping down this summer, issued a statement saying that the Journalism Plus plan will be in effect by 2012. The school will close on June 30, however. Faculty will move to and form a temporary department in the university’s Graduate School, and current undergraduate and graduate students will be allowed to complete their journalism degrees under the existing curriculum.

The Journalism Plus plan does not apply to the graduate journalism program at Boulder, though its fate is also uncertain. Every six years, the Accreditation Council on Education in Journalism and Mass Communications evaluates the school. In March, an on-site review team determined that the master’s news-gathering program was non-compliant in the areas of administration, student assessment, and diversity, but voted to award provisional reaccreditation. A committee of the council overruled that vote, however. Traditionally, reaccreditation is denied to any unit that is out of compliance on more than two standards (the undergraduate journalism program at Boulder was non-compliant only in the area of administration and received provisional reaccreditation). A final decision will not come until the full council meets at the end of April.

Whatever happens, the graduate journalism program at Boulder will be “restructured,” according to the memo from Benson that endorsed the Journalism Plus program for undergrads.

“Whether the master’s program is de-accredited or not, the faculty who are reconstituted in the new [journalism] department will have to revise the graduate curriculum—that is simply overdue,” Yulsman wrote in an e-mail. “So if we can stay focused on opportunities and not grievances, we could create quite an innovative program and continue to attract top-notch students.”

Yulsman said that this year’s incoming class of environmental journalism master’s students was “among the very best” he’s had since joining the faculty in 1996. Moreover, throughout this saga, the widely respected Center for Environmental Journalism—one of four centers and special programs at the journalism school—has received “unstinting support from the university’s administrators.”

“I would not be surprised if we experienced a drop in applications to our graduate level environmental journalism program during the next couple years,” Yulsman wrote in an e-mail. “But I’m beginning to think that by reinventing the curriculum, and strengthening already robust ties to Environmental Studies and other environmental units on campus, we could come out of this stronger than ever.”

His optimism notwithstanding, Yulsman was disappointed by the decision to close the journalism school, and he wasn’t alone. Last week, University of Colorado regents Monisha Merchant, Sue Sharkey, and Joe Neguse wrote an open letter explaining why they voted against the resolution to discontinue the school.

“For 49 years—nearly half a century—the School has provided a quality and first-rate education to generations of journalists across the State of Colorado and our great Nation,” they wrote. “Simply put, it has stood the test of time, and though it may be ripe for improvement, closing the School itself for ‘strategic alignment’ purposes was undoubtedly a drastic option.”

The dissenting regents voiced some support for the School of Information, Communication, and Media Technology and Journalism Plus plans. But the fate of teaching news gathering at Boulder remains uncertain.

“We won assurances about the future of journalism education,” Yulsman wrote. “Now, we’ll work hard to make sure those assurances are honored.”

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard. Tags: , ,