Drop Out?

Suggested closure of Colorado journalism school sparks controversy
November 19, 2010

The University of Colorado at Boulder kicked up a cloud of dust when it announced in August that it had formed a committee to consider the creation of a “new interdisciplinary academic program of information, communication and technology.”

The kicker? It had formed another committee to explore the “discontinuance” of its journalism school.

J-schools around the country are overhauling their curriculums to prepare students for a changing industry. But the suggestion that a journalism school might need to be sacrificed in that effort led to consternation.

The University of Colorado may still spare the school. The discontinuance committee will deliver a report to the provost in early November. The chancellor will then make a recommendation about the fate of the journalism school, as well as the creation of another school, in early 2011. The ultimate decision will be left to the Board of Regents.

[Update: The discontinuance committee delivered its report (pdf) to the provost on the November 17. The group recommended closing the journalism school “in order to permit a strategic realignment of degree program, faculty, and other resources to better serve the mission and collective interests of the Boulder campus as a whole.”

While the committee concluded that the school had “overall done a good job of delivering undergraduate professional training,” it also found the school had a relatively poor regional and national reputation. The committee faulted an “insular structure” that inhibited “the flexibility necessary for change.” More importantly, it would seem, the group criticized a “structural tension” between the journalism school’s mission to provide professional training and its mission, as part of the Boulder campus, to meet the standards of an accredited research university.

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Basically, the committee is saying that it is “no longer sufficient to train skilled practitioners. In order to receive promotion and tenure, [university] faculty [has] to engage in scholarly research and publish in peer-reviewed.” It argued that adoption of journalism “skills” (presumably, multimedia production, photography, etc.) courses distract from the university’s core mission, which is to “engage is research and scholarly activity” and “offer theoretical and research-oriented courses.”

“If journalism is construed as a trade or craft, then it is not clear that training students for that trade is a central function” of a research university, the committee wrote. “If journalism is construed more broadly as a profession whose essential skills are not designing ads or producing a news story, but rather gathering information relevant to society and democratic governance at all levels from local to global, thinking critically in the interpretations and analysis of that information, and finally conveying that information to multiple audiences faithfully and effectively, then a case can be made that journalism education does have a place with other liberal arts disciplines in a comprehensive research university. Having heard from a wide variety of sources, we are convinced that this broader conception of journalism education can and should be part of the campus curriculum.”

Indeed, the committee ultimately recommended that “key features of journalism education” be incorporated into a new, interdisciplinary program (the structure and features of which are the purview of the second, exploratory committee). It even recommended that “journalism” should be included in the title of the new program, “in recognition that the study and professional practice of journalism are not dependent on the current or future prominence of traditional print or broadcast journalism.”

Still, it’s difficult to interpret a lot of committee’s suggestions. On one hand, it wants to teach students to “convey information to multiple audiences faithfully and effectively.” On the other, it doesn’t want to spend any time teaching them the “skills” to actually “produce a news story.” Likewise, at one point, it seems to suggest that journalism faculty should be focused on peer-reviewed publication rather than “engaging in writing and production for a range of non-academic audience.” At another point, however, it seems to recognize that journalism faculty “should probably be evaluated by different criteria, given that part of their scholarly work is in professional practice.”

So, while it seems to be curtains for the journalism school, it remains to be seen what elements of journalism education will survive at the university.]

The squabbling, though, began immediately. Two days after the university’s announcement, journalism school dean Paul Voakes column, Michael Bugeja, director of the Greenlee School of Journalism at Iowa State University, wrote that “perhaps unintentionally, Voakes is harming otherwise thriving journalism programs by claiming his school is on the cutting edge instead of the chopping block.”

Tim McGuire, the Frank Russell Chair for the Business of Journalism at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, wrote on his blog: “Voakes can downplay what’s happening all he wants, but I not-so-boldly predict that at the end of the committee process mandated by the chancellor there will not be anything most of us would recognize as a journalism department.”

When the exploratory committee looking into the creation of a new school held an open forum in late October to discuss options for a future program, it faced a room full of unhappy J-school faculty and students, the Daily Camera in Boulder reported. Committee chairman Merrill Lessley told them that while the new initiative is still unclear, the program will not provide students with a traditional journalism education.

That statement is sure to upset those who think that placing journalism under the tent of “information, communication and technology” risks sacrificing values like accuracy, context, and clarity.

A university task force that outlined a broad vision for the new information school cited more than thirty “schools/colleges of computing/technology” that have been created nationwide. It included the University of California, Berkeley, but ignored the fact that that university has kept its highly esteemed Graduate School of Journalism intact.

“[D]oes innovation require blowing something up, as Colorado is apparently contemplating?” McGuire asked. It’s a good question. In answering it, the committee should keep in mind that no matter the medium, deep reporting and clear writing will always be the soul of the best journalism. According to the Daily Camera, the university has discontinued seventeen degree programs since the late 1990s, but closing an entire school would be “unprecedented.” It could also be tragic, if not handled carefully.

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