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Thursday, October 28,2010

Save journalism education at CU

By Jefferson Dodge

It´s about time someone started asking some hard questions about the discontinuance of CU’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication.

But in the spirit of full disclosure, I should tell you that I’m a proud alum of the school, and I teach a class there on occasion.

I’ve noticed that CU officials are fond of saying that “discontinuance is an unfortunate term” when they talk about the closure of the J-School. (And even though a committee is still considering that closure, I think it’s a done deal — they just have to study it for a few months to preserve the deliberative spirit of the university. Kind of like when they announced a study into whether Ward Churchill should be fired.)

CU officials bend over backwards insisting that, gosh, they hate to use the term “discontinuance,” because the journalism program is not necessarily going away. It is probably just getting moved to some sort of new college of technology, they say, and — sigh — the school simply must go through this “program discontinuance” process because regent policy requires them to when they want to merge programs under one roof.

What a bunch of malarkey. If that were the case, why aren’t CU officials also discontinuing the other programs being considered for this new college, like computer science and communication? Why not just let the journalism school absorb the other departments and rename it a college, as was done years ago when the business “college” was renamed a “school” because of a large donation? Why would you initiate discontinuance before it has even been decided whether — or how — journalism should be included within the new college?

CU officials answer these questions by saying that it would be too extreme to discontinue all of the other programs being discussed for this new college. When asked why journalism is being singled out, they say it’s clear that the J-School is a central, key program for this new college. (Wait, I thought nothing had been decided yet.)

They don’t rule out the possibility of having the journalism school absorb other departments. They don’t rule anything out, even the possibility that the J-School will remain unchanged and no new college will be created.

But look it up. The majority of the CU Board of Regents program discontinuance policy is about how to fire professors without getting sued. It is invoked when tenured or tenure-track faculty are likely to be canned, because it is a tricky legal process in which the university must give them a year’s notice and try to find jobs for them in other departments.

So, why would CU want to fire some of its journalism faculty? Because they have been a dysfunctional group for a long time? Because of the perception that they have been slow to embrace new media? Even if the latter is a valid concern, the faculty had just finished a year-long process of revamping the school’s curriculum, only to have the rug pulled out from under them.

Curiously, even if the goal is to get rid of “deadwood” that are just collecting their paychecks or are dragging their feet in embracing the 21st century, the discontinuance process actually protects tenured faculty, but not younger assistant professors and adjunct instructors — who presumably have the new media skills that students must now be taught.

Is this really about what CU officials say it’s about, which is simply the next logical step after a task force issued a report last spring on creating this new college?

Or is this about a disgruntled former employee, the previous advisor to the student paper, which in recent years was forced to convert to an online-only format, which was at the center of a bitter controversy over a student writer’s racial comments, and which was being told to vacate its space in the school and find offices elsewhere?

Is this about one of her allies, who happens to be a powerful alum, donor and (former) J-School advisory board member who thinks the dean is ineffectual and shared that sentiment with the powers that be?

Is this about losing a Pulitzer Prizewinning instructor who was lured away to another university because he got a more attractive offer than CU was able to provide? (For more on these questions, see David Accomazzo’s news story in this issue.)

Or is this about saving money in the face of budget cuts that could be as severe as 50 percent for the upcoming fiscal year?

(I am reminded of the quote used by CU spokesperson Ken McConnellogue when the university “discontinued” my old faculty/staff newspaper Silver & Gold Record: “We cannot afford to be in the newspaper business.”) By the way, you don’t save much money by closing the J-School, since most of the funding is tied up in salaries — and it is the highest-paid, tenured faculty who are protected in the process.

Whatever the reasons behind this “discontinuance,” it doesn’t seem to be motivated primarily by what is best for training future journalists.

Some seem to believe that we don’t need traditional journalism education anymore because daily print newspapers are folding left and right. Some think that all we need to teach budding journalists now is how to create websites, send tweets, blog and post to Facebook.

I beg to differ. When the telegraph was created, or the typewriter, did we create a new College of the Telegraph, or a new College of the Typewriter? Just because the medium of news delivery is changing doesn’t mean there is no longer a need for the core skills behind newsgathering.

If anything, we need journalism education now more than ever, given the miles of prattle and blog swamp on the Internet. Without true journalism, how on earth would you differentiate credible news sources from Joey in his parents’ basement?

My biggest concern, assuming parts of journalism education are preserved in this new college, is what will be thrown out with the bath water? There are a host of skills that are still crucial to giving journalists the ability to compete in cyberspace with the only remaining coin of the realm: credibility.

Journalism ethics. Media law.

Interviewing. Research skills. Writing ability. Critical thinking. Copy-editing skills.

Without these, what’s to keep a reporter from accepting gifts in exchange for positive news coverage? Will all Web content be replete with typos, making it impossible to figure out whose information to trust? How will a journalist know what to do when a judge tries to bar her from a public court proceeding? Who will file open records requests to keep government accountable? Journalism is the only profession expressly protected in the Constitution, because freedom of the press is crucial to a healthy democracy.

Aw, let’s just discontinue it. For those who say journalists can simply learn on the job and don’t need J-School any more, would you send a teacher into the classroom without an education degree or teaching certificate? How about sending a lawyer into the courtroom without a law degree?

And why is the word “journalism” not in any of the titles that have been floated for the new college? Some say this doesn’t matter, but can you imagine the outcry if someone wanted to call the engineering college the School of Gadgetry?

Names matter. Words have meanings. Discontinuance means cease to operate.

The truth is, journalism is one of the most popular fields to study at CU. Only 62 percent of applicants to the J-School were admitted last spring, so this is not a question of flagging demand.

So what is it a question of? We may never know completely.

But, as with most questions, if anyone is going to try to find out, it will be the journalists.

If they still know how.

Respond: letters@boulderweekly.com

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