Conversations continue about future of journalism education

Public forum sets stage for ongoing brainstorming sessions

Representatives from eight faculty discussion groups listened to ideas and addressed questions from the public during a Sept. 22 forum at the University Memorial Center concerning a new University of Colorado Boulder entity that will replace the School of Journalism and Mass Communications.

The groups, consisting of faculty from a variety of disciplines, are charged with developing plans for an academic program that will encompass studies in information, communications, journalism, media and technology (ICJMT). The groups will collect feedback and suggestions from other faculty members and outside stakeholders during the next several months then report their findings to a steering committee that will compile a plan of action by spring.

“We are trying to imagine what kind of new entity we can create,” said Jeff Cox, associate vice chancellor for faculty affairs, who moderated the forum. “It’s actually quite rare for a university to open up conversations about matters that are largely about curriculum and design of research projects to larger audiences, but we are very aware (of community interest).”

After the discontinuation of the School of Journalism and Mass Communications (SJMC) this spring, university administrators promised that a new entity would continue the campus’s commitment to education and scholarship in journalism and mass communication. Cox said the process is not solely about the future of journalism at the university, but about how “we will build a new institution at the University of Colorado Boulder that will provide cutting-edge education and scholarship in this broad set of areas.”

Discussion group members come from a variety of academic areas, including documentary filmmaking, media studies, advertising, journalism, technology, environmental studies, theater and dance, art and humanities.

Following a series of brainstorming sessions, the groups will compile their recommendations and send them to a steering committee, which will determine what suggestions work together and how to pull the entity together. The steering committee will then draft a “workable plan for the future” that will be forwarded to the provost and chancellor in the spring of 2012. Cox said the university hopes then to be able to announce a concrete plan on moving forward.

About 30 people, mostly students and professors, attended the forum. A few attendees asked what specific changes would be made to ensure the new entity would be on the cutting edge of technology and other disciplines. However, many of the discussion groups had met only once, and representatives said they could only talk in generalities about what is being considered.

“We jumped on board; don’t sink the ship,” said Jackie Fortier, a first-year student in the journalism graduate program. “I came to study journalism and journalism has a definition. If you call it an information school, you go to Westwood College for that. I understand that this is the beginning of the process, but I’d like to cut through a little bit of the ambiguity. The fact that technology changes is a problem that everyone faces. Do you have any ideas how you will make me a better journalist? It sounds like a lot of research classes and media studies classes … but it’s not what really boils down in my opinion to journalism.”

Cox said the university is committed to journalism.

“We’re trying to avoid the isolation of various parts of the university’s community,” he said. “We’re looking for opportunities here. It is clear that we’re not going to teach (journalism) over in a siloed program sitting on the edge of campus.”

One issue the SJMC faced was a lack of interdisciplinary cooperation because of the way the school was designed.

“We’re talking about journalism alongside other kinds of practices with which it has deep affinities,” Cox said. “To split out these kinds of practices hasn’t necessarily been the most useful way to approach some of these issues.”

Chair Andrew Calabrese said the steering committee is “trying not to foreclose discussions that are taking place. This is supposed to be a time of brainstorming.” He said the university doesn’t want to mimic what already is being done at other schools. The university, he said, has the benefit of creating professional programs that grow out of a strong research base.

Calabrese, who was a member of the faculty of SJMC and is associate dean of graduate studies, called the process a “game-changer for how our future can be designed. We were stuck in a way of looking at the world in a way of thinking about how journalism should take place … and about how public expression can take place in a digital world. There’s a whole skill set in information science that this campus does not possess in any significant portion.”

One audience member questioned the transparency of the process and suggested that it seems to be more top-down than bottom-up, which would involve students.

While students are often consulted about what they’d like to learn, Calabrese said, it’s the faculty that writes curriculum at colleges. While administrators at other schools across the country often make program decisions, he said “this is by far … the most open process I have seen in engaging faculty in the designing of curriculum and in the designing” of a new entity.

Cox said the process gives the university faculty the chance to decide on its intellectual mission and push ideas to the top.

“There is no predetermined goal for this conversation; there is no master plan hiding away in the chancellor’s office that is going to be imposed on the campus,” he said. “At the end of the day, whatever plan arises out of this process will have to be endorsed by the faculty that will be constituted for the new college or school or whatever it is.”

Mike Brewer, executive director of the Brett Family Foundation, spoke on behalf of Linda Shoemaker, co-founder of the foundation and a 1969 graduate of the CU journalism school. Brewer said Shoemaker is excited about the process and believes the undergraduate program needs to be more rigorous, more digitally oriented, more entrepreneurial and more interdisciplinary.

Brewer said Shoemaker asks three things of the process:

1. Everyone involved in the process should be ambitious, ensuring that the new ICJMT entity will be one of the top journalism programs in the country and that it anchors and supports the entire campus.

2. The advertising, journalism and media studies faculty should be split into three departments, setting them free to succeed on their own.

3. Keep professional undergraduate journalism and advertising education at the heart of the new entity. The digital age increases the need for professionals who understand the ethics, standards and responsibilities that come from crafting history for citizens.