Report: SJMC should be discontinued, undergo 'strategic realignment'

Committee's recommendation now advances to campus, system leadership

Updated: 11/19/2010

The present structure of the School of Journalism and Mass Communication (SJMC) should be realigned to better serve the mission of the Boulder campus, according to the final report by the Program Discontinuance Committee,which was presented Nov. 17 at a public meeting at the Old Main chapel on the University of Colorado at Boulder campus.

The committee said its recommendation for discontinuance was not made for budgetary reasons, but because the current administrative structure is ineffective. The school's mission to provide a professional degree program has created tensions with the university's mission to meet the standards of a research and doctoral education institution, the report said. Committee members found that the current administrative structure of the school has been unable to effectively integrate those missions and in turn allow the school to become a truly excellent unit given its limited resources.

"The ax did not fall on journalism at CU," said SJMC Dean Paul Voakes, who recently announced he will leave his current position in 2011. While the school might cease to exist in 2013, "it seems quite likely there will be a new program" ready to take its place. Voakes said "the door is wide open" for the university to create something new and innovative in journalism education. "That's what a lot of us have wanted from the beginning."

The discontinuance committee's report said journalism education and research at CU-Boulder would be better served using a different structure.

"There is a great deal of passion and commitment to the education and work in journalism on behalf of faculty, students, alumni and professionals in the field, and the committee does believe that journalism belongs in the university as part of its education mission," said Jeffrey Cox, associate vice chancellor for academic affairs.

In the report, the committee members said, "We believe that the major should be transformed into a degree program that centers on teaching the core principles of journalism, advancing the role of journalism in a rapidly changing world, and providing a full integration with media studies. Although instruction in the skills identified with the practice of journalism might continue to be a component of journalism education, it should not be the focus, just as acquiring laboratory skills is not the focus of natural science degree programs."

The committee recommended two options to advance innovation and scholarly excellence, provide a more efficient use of monetary and human resources, and honor the university's commitment to SJMC students, faculty and staff.

The first option – the one preferred by the committee – would "achieve the goal of fostering excellence and innovation" by creating a new unit that would include some programs currently offered by the SJMC.

Under that option, the committee recommended:

  • That "journalism" be included in the title of the new unit "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."
  • That faculty and other interested parties explore options for a revised undergraduate curriculum in journalism education including collaborating with other faculty to "establish a program that attains national recognition for its conceptual and technical innovation."
  • That tenured and tenure track faculty be placed in appropriate new tenure homes. "At the current moment, the committee believes it is most likely that media studies faculty in SJMC will become part of the College of Arts and Sciences as members of an independent department, with other faculty placed in the new unit or elsewhere."
  • That the media studies graduate degree programs should be separated from the Ph.D. and master's in communication and reconstituted as independent degree programs. The current master's program in journalism should be suspended and reconfigured as a professional master's within the new unit.
  • The tuition rates for the degree programs offered by the new unit would be set to provide the kinds of courses required for those degrees, so the new unit can operate without subsidy from the rest of the campus.

The second option recommended by the committee would be to make the undergraduate degree program in journalism and mass communications a bachelor of arts program in the College of Arts and Sciences. The undergraduate major would no longer be focused on providing professional training.

That option would also find homes for tenured and tenured track faculty and separate the media studies graduate degree programs from the Ph.D. and master's in communication programs.

"I am heartened by the recommendations," said SJMC Professor Len Ackland. "At least it holds out some hope for the future of journalism education at CU Boulder. The committee made a strong statement about Option A. The question is, will top administrators go along with (the first option), which is a much more interesting, lively and potentially innovative program or will they say they can't do it" for a number of reasons, especially budgetary concerns.

In a letter dated Nov. 17, Provost Russell Moore, formally accepted the report. The acceptance is a formality; his recommendation on the findings will be made to Chancellor Philip DiStefano by Dec. 1. The chancellor has until Jan. 1 to make a recommendation to President Bruce D. Benson, who will have an additional 30 days to consider the results before forwarding it to the Board of Regents. A vote of the board is required to discontinue, restructure or reconstitute the school.

The formal process of program discontinuation for the SJMC began Sept. 1. In late August, university officials announced that the institution was considering closing the traditional journalism school and formed an exploratory committee to weigh the possibilities of a new interdisciplinary program of information and communication technology.

DiStefano said the process of discontinuance was necessary "in order to strategically realign our academic strengths and resources" in a way that will "meet the needs of our students, the labor market and our rapidly changing global society."

The Exploratory Committee on Information, Communication and Technology (ICT) is examining the educational assets dealing with information, communication and technology on the Boulder campus (including those of the SJMC) and will make recommendations that could be used to create an ICT program.

The exploratory committee will use the program discontinuance report materials to develop a preliminary report, due to the provost Dec. 31. A final report is due Feb. 1.

Discussions about revamping the school aren't new. Proposals have popped up several times in the past 15 years, although they never gained much traction. But a year ago, former Interim Provost Stein Sture appointed SJMC Dean Paul Voakes and John Bennett, director of the Alliance for Technology, Learning and Society Institute (ATLAS), as co-chairs of a College of Information Task Force to consider options concerning the school.

The task force delivered its report April 15. Because "information is ... ubiquitous," the report said, "the challenge to today's students is not the acquisition of information, rather how to select, evaluate, integrate and synthesize information into usable knowledge." The report noted that while "universities have historically existed to impart special knowledge and skills ... that role is changing."

At the same time, DiStefano received a letter from the external Advisory Committee of SJMC suggesting that change was needed and that the school be closed.

Although faculty members generally accept that change is inevitable, even exciting, some say the decision to begin the discontinuation process was sudden and opaque. Several forums were conducted to allow students, staff and faculty to discuss the process with members of the discontinuance committee.