In close vote, Board of Regents OKs closure of SJMC

Discontinuance takes effect June 30; journalism education to go on

The University of Colorado Board of Regents voted 5-4 to close the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at CU-Boulder during a special meeting Thursday, March 14, at Qwest Research Park.

The school, which is nearly 50 years old, will effectively close June 30.

While it is the first time in the university's history that a school has been discontinued, journalism education at CU will continue. Beginning next fall and for the next few years, the university will incorporate a "Journalism Plus" plan that requires undergraduates to earn a dual degree in journalism and another discipline, or earn a certificate in journalism and a bachelor's degree in a separate discipline. The dean of the Graduate School will oversee the program until plans for a new college emphasizing information and technology are cemented.

Chair Kyle Hybl voted "yes" to break a 4-4 tie on the vote for discontinuance. Other regents voting to accept the recommendation of President Bruce D. Benson and Boulder Chancellor Philip DiStefano to close the school were Steve Bosley, Michael Carrigan, Stephen Ludwig and Tilman "Tillie" Bishop. Those voting "no" were Joe Neguse, Sue Sharkey, James Geddes and Monisha Merchant.

Both Benson and DiStefano had recommended discontinuance of the school after a yearlong process of hearings, public meetings and committee recommendations.

"Everyone on this board values journalism – wants journalism studies to continue," said Carrigan before the vote. "I did not come to my conclusion to support this proposal easily. ... The chancellor has come forward with this new and innovative way for us to offer journalism studies here at the University of Colorado, and ultimately I think we cannot be afraid to change."

Ludwig said higher education needs a re-think, and the time to begin is now.

"This won't be the first school we'll close or change. It can't be. ... (Higher education) is getting too expensive and we're leaving too many people outside our doors because of the way we've been structured, the way we've matured," he said. "We need to re-envision how we deliver higher education and this is a beginning."

Voting against discontinuance was Neguse, who has steadily questioned why closure was necessary to make improvements to the school. While proposals for a new school have made sense, he said, they do not answer the question of what structure will be used to ultimately achieve the goals of discontinuance.

"I certainly believe that it would be more prudent if we are going to discontinue a school to decide what the future of that school will be and to not simply rush into discontinuing something without knowing at the end of the day what the school will look like," Neguse said. "As a result of today's vote, the journalism program will no longer be a stand-alone school; it will be housed in the Graduate School on an impermanent basis for an unknown period of time. The future of journalism education at CU-Boulder beyond the president's promise ... and I certainly take him at his word ... is unclear. I simply cannot support a road map that doesn't tell me, or the students at CU, where we are going to go in the future."

Sharkey, whose daughter is a journalism student at CU-Boulder, agreed with Neguse.

"I believe the university has failed the School of Journalism," she said. "I am not convinced the best course for restructuring the program is to close the journalism school and start a new journalism program housed in some other department or school. Many of the recommended changes are good but they can be implemented in the existing school."

At the beginning of the 45-minute meeting, members of the public were allowed to speak. Some gave opposing views of the quality of the faculty and the graduates the school produced. Another asked for a postponement of the decision for the sake of the reputation of the school, while others applauded the closure as a step forward.

Gary Burandt, vice chair of the School of Journalism and Mass Communication Advisory Board, said his advertising agencies have hired bright, hard-working, well-schooled students from CU.

"However, in interviews they will tell you they feel their coursework did not prepare them for the dynamic media marketplace they are in," he said. "The proposed new school of Information, Communication, Media and Technology is designed to break down the traditional academic silos and give our students access to all the appropriate and beneficial resources this campus has to offer. It gives CU the opportunity to set the contemporary education standard."

Speaking for the Colorado Press Association (CPA), which represents newspapers across the state, was Jeanette Chavez, chair of the board of CPA and managing editor of The Denver Post. Chavez also is a graduate of the CU School of Journalism.

"CPA was stunned last year to hear that the university was contemplating discontinuing the journalism program," she said. Any new program "needs to focus on core principals of the profession including ethics and the First Amendment, which is so important to our nation and society. Developing critical thinking skills is crucial. Include courses that ready students for the digital world and whatever new platforms follow, but recognize that a strong foundation and fundamental skills and principles trumps the importance of whatever the latest means of delivering the news is."

The regents' vote is the final step in the discontinuance process. DiStefano has recommended that the "dean of the Graduate School appoint a chair for the department effective July 1, 2011. The chair – working with faculty, members of professional associations and media leaders – will begin to develop the journalism education curriculum" that would take effect in the fall of 2012.