Administrators: Discontinuance of SJMC will lead to stronger journalism education

Some regents ask questions about reasoning behind recommendation

Calling the discontinuance of the School of Journalism and Mass Communications (SJMC) an effort to strengthen journalism education at the University of Colorado Boulder and be a future leader in the field, Jeffrey Cox, associate vice chancellor for academic affairs, updated the Board of Regents on the process during its meeting today at the Qwest Research Park in Boulder.

Boulder administrators spoke to the board a day after the regents heard public comment – some opposing the discontinuance, others supporting it – on Tuesday during the first of the two-day meeting.

"We didn't think this would be something solved by tinkering on the edges," Cox said.

Regent Joe Neguse, a CU-Boulder alumnus, questioned whether the same goal could be achieved with changes to the current school.

"You describe the change ... (as needed) to make that program more rigorous. I'm just curious why some of that can't be done" by transforming the school but keeping the entity?

Cox said there was strong support both internally and externally for continuing journalism education, but at the same time, "there was clear dissatisfaction, both in the school and outside of it, with the current structure. ... It was not the most effective and efficient way to deliver education and research in journalism and mass communication."

He said it was not a question of leadership or a few faculty members, but a structural problem with the school.

Cox said faculty repeatedly said the school was too small and did not have the assets necessary to deliver the "ambitious education" that it wants to deliver to its students. He added that the school was too isolated – not fully connected with the rest of the campus – so it was unable to engage in the interdisciplinary approach needed.

He said the committee charged with reviewing the school found the university needs to reinvigorate journalism education to make sure students have the training for jobs today. The university also must engage in changes in the discipline so students are prepared for the future.

The proposal, Cox said, would allow students to get the core skills they need in journalism while pursuing a more rigorous course of study in another field. "What we are essentially proposing is that they will be trained in journalism and another discipline," Cox said.

Chancellor Philip P. DiStefano has recommended that future students pursue double degrees, one in journalism and another in a specialty, or earn a certificate of journalism while earning a major in another field.

But, Neguse asked, if discontinuance of the school were off the table, would the current school be able to implement the changes in curriculum to achieve a more rigorous education?

Cox said the faculty had the same skepticism, wondering why the current structure could not be changed.

"They became convinced that changes would not occur in the current structure. We were told that the school believed it could not change itself without some kind of major shakeup," Cox said. "We need a transformative administrative move in order to get things done."

Regent Sue Sharkey said she heard two messages: first that the university has a leading school of journalism and second that the journalism school is inadequate.

DiStefano replied, "I think we have a good journalism school." He said the school is similar to others around the nation, but, he said, "I don't think we have what I would consider to be a first-rate school. ... I think it can be improved, and that's what we are trying to do."

 Sharkey, mother of a SJMC student, wondered whether as a parent she had "wasted $80,000" for an inadequate education. She said employers are asking for degrees in journalism.

"As we talked to employers out in the field ... the thing that we heard time and again was that you don't need to teach these people how to Twitter, you don't need to teach these people how to use Facebook, you need to teach them the core values of journalism, you need to teach the ethics, you need to teach them news writing," Cox said. He added the main thing employers were concerned about was the breadth and depth of knowledge students were bringing to the job. Employers, he said, want students who had undergone a rigorous education.

DiStefano said he believes students who come out of the university with a minor or double major that includes journalism will be competitive. "I think we need to be leaders and not followers in this area."

Students currently enrolled in the school will be able to complete the program through 2013. In the meantime, the university still is admitting students who want a journalism education, but are making it clear the university is in the process of change, Cox said.

Sharkey asked what effect restructuring would have on the accreditation process.

Accreditation is a restrospective activity, Cox said, where prior work is reviewed. The accreditation committee will be at the school in a week; he said he is confident the school will receive accreditation. Future accreditation, he said, is an issue for "faculty that comes to deliver journalism education" to our students.

Cox also said the discontinuance would save about $500,000 while preserving core assets, including faculty. Sharkey and Neguse asked for a breakdown to show how money will be saved.

Regent Tillman "Tillie" Bishop said he appreciated the work being done by administrators on the discontinuance, noting that a year ago, the board "was looking at, 'When do we cut programs? (Because) we're always adding.' ... I'm a little bit embarrassed that when you bring it to us, we subject you to the third degree."

During public comment at the board's meeting Tuesday, several career journalists and faculty members spoke to the issue of discontinuance, stressing that journalism education should remain a focus of the university.

"We support thoughtful improvement, but not discontinuation or de-emphasis (of journalism education)," said Denny Dressman, who represented the Colorado Press Association. In a resolution, the general membership of the association, which represents newspapers around the state, requested the opportunity to "enter into a meaningful dialogue with the university and school officials and the president and regents about the best course for the future."

The association also "resolved to encourage the continuation of the school of journalism at the university" and called for the program to "adhere to the principles of journalism we have come to expect that include training in fair, accurate, objective, timely and complete journalism."

"Changes are needed," said Len Ackland, a member of the SJMC faculty since 1991. "But must the journalism school be destroyed to save journalism education?"

Linda Shoemaker of the Advisory Board of the School of Journalism and Mass Communication, reiterated her group's recommendation that the existing school be closed and replaced by a new interdisciplinary school of information, communication, media and technology.

"We stand by our decision, as difficult as it is," Shoemaker said. "Our existing SJMC structure is simply not sufficient to cope with the dramatic changes in how we should be teaching journalism."

Tom Duncan, professor emeritus of journalism, agreed. "The school of journalism is broken," he said.

President Bruce D. Benson is reviewing DiStefano's recommendation that the school be discontinued and has until mid-April to make his recommendation to the board.

The Journalism Plus Action Plan can be seen here. The final recommendations of the Information, Communication and Technology (ICT) Exploratory Committee can be seen here.