The details emerge as part of the latest chapter in a controversy that has devolved into allegations of incompetence and in-fighting, and heated public meetings, discussed in previously undisclosed documents critical of the school’s faculty and dean.
On Aug. 25, officials at the University of Colorado announced that the School of Journalism and Mass Communication (SJMC), one of the university’s most popular degree programs, was to undergo a process called “discontinuance” — potentially marking the end of the journalism school in its current form. The reasons, as given in the university’s statement, were “strategic and budgetary realignment.”
The move to discontinue, or axe, an entire academic school attractive to so many undergraduates raised a few eyebrows, and the university quickly pointed out that the move was mainly for procedural purposes. CU officials said discontinuance was an unavoidable step dictated by academic bylaws necessary to fulfill the university’s true goal: the formation of a new “interdisciplinary academic program of information, communication and technology.”
The idea to reform the journalism school into a technology-oriented academic discipline had been in the works for some time, university officials said, pointing to schools that had undergone similar makeovers, such as the University of California at Berkeley and Cornell University.
The university created an exploratory committee, consisting of eight professors from outside the journalism school (SJMC faculty were left off the committee to avoid potential conflicts of interest), tasked with investigating ways to restructure the journalism school into a new academic entity better suited to teach a tech-savvy style of journalism consistent with the modern, rapidly shifting media landscape dominated by constant changes in technology.
“We want to strategically realign resources and strengths currently existing on the CU-Boulder campus to ensure that course and degree offerings meet the needs of students, the labor market, our campus mission and the communications needs of a rapidly changing society,” Chancellor Phil DiStefano said in a press release. “News and communications transmission as well as the role of the press and journalism in a democratic society are changing at a tremendous pace. We must change with it.”
Discontinuance is a formal process governed by a policy set by the Board of Regents. Officially defined as “formal termination” of an academic unit, discontinuance can be initiated for educational reasons, budgetary reasons, or for strategic realignment. The chancellor, the vice chancellor for academic affairs, the president and the Board of Regents can all request that a program or school be discontinued; in this case, the move came from the chancellor. The discontinuance committee’s first report to the provost is due Oct. 31. The university expects the chancellor to make the final recommendation on program discontinuance to the regents in early 2011. Students currently enrolled in the SJMC will be able to complete their degrees.
The driving force behind discontinuance, says Provost Russell Moore, is strategic realignment of the university’s resources — the other two reasons, educational and budgetary, come into play naturally. However, the “budgetary” realignment aspect of the discontinuance is what might have some SJMC faculty nervous. In the private sector, a company lays off employees. In the world of CU academia, tenured professors must be “discontinued.”
When asked if tenured faculty might lose their jobs as a result of the discontinuance process, Moore tells Boulder Weekly it is too early in the process to say.
“You wouldn’t think there would be much of a danger of that if you’re realigning current assets,” Moore says. “That said, everything is on the table.”
The SJMC has undergone serious changes in the past few years, which raises the question of why discontinuance was necessary. The journalism school recently completed a major overhaul of the undergraduate curriculum, and the faculty was about to start overhauling the graduate curriculum.
In addition, in September 2009, then-provost and now-chancellor DiStefano and then-interim Provost Stein Sture formed the College of Information (COI) Task Force, a 20-person committee charged with crafting a plan to create a “School of Information” that would include aspects from many academic departments on campus, including journalism; business; computer science; law; and the Alliance for Technology, Learning and Society. The task force submitted its report to DiStefano on April 14.
Nine days earlier, the chancellor had received a seething “white paper” about the SJMC authored by SJMC alum and donor Doug Looney, who worked at Sports Illustrated for more than two decades.
“Chaos reigns. Distrust and surliness are rampant,” Looney wrote in the document, which was marked confidential. “The SJMC and its dysfunctional faculty are hopeless. Prospects for improvement are non-existent. It should be closed.”
Looney saved his harshest words for the school’s dean, alleging that his management is responsible for the school’s plight. He also wrote that he intended to sever ties with the SJMC, including pulling donations he’d made to the school.
A few weeks after the task force issued its report, DiStefano received another letter recommending closure of the journalism school. This time, it was from the SJMC Advisory Board, a group of alumni and others who issue non-binding recommendations to the school.
Signed by 10 board members, the letter said the SJMC in its current form lacked the necessary structure and resources to adequately prepare students for journalism in the 21st century.
“We acknowledge the checkered reputation our school has, its past accreditation problems and the overall budget woes of the entire university,” the letter said. “We propose that select curriculum within the SJMC — our best classes, our core classes — be consolidated with ATLAS into an academic unit that is steeped in the core values of journalism and media ethics, and embraces the positive nature of change and entrepreneurship.”
It was in the context of these reports that DiStefano convened the exploratory committee alongside the discontinuance process in August. A university press release said the the new exploratory committee was convened because the COI Task Force report did not address the future of the journalism school. The provost tells Boulder Weekly that having both committees operate at once allows the university “maximum flexibility.”
Moore says that the white paper and the letter from the advisory board were two of many pieces considered as evidence by the chancellor before he initiated the discontinuance process. Many factors informed the decision, Moore says, including how other universities have redesigned their journalism and communications curricula.
“I can’t say that the letters and the white paper had nothing to do with it, but it’s one of many, many pieces that informed that process,” Moore says. “That said, there was nothing from the letter from the advisory board and the white paper that we hadn’t heard before, but it provided more weight to what we had been hearing.”
At an Oct. 20 public forum hosted by the exploratory committee, Linda Shoemaker, an SJMC alumna who serves on the CU Foundation Board of Trustees, wondered why the chancellor “rejected” the COI report.
“The public has not been told [why],” Shoemaker said at the meeting. “I don’t really know, of course, but here’s what I understand from talking to some of the people involved. The task force vision, while bold, was not bold enough; it was too focused on computer science and didn’t include journalism. Why didn’t it? Because too many SJMC faculty were either unwilling, or unwanted, partners in the task force vision.”
Moore says that the task force’s report had good and bad qualities and noted that, at the very least, the report made clear it was time to restructure the way media journalism was taught on campus.
“The problem with the College of Information Task Force is that while a number of positive things were recommended, other things were missing from the report, not the least of which was a broad interdisciplinary requirement for these kinds of things to go on campus,” Moore says.
Paul Voakes, dean of the journalism school, served on the COI Task Force as co-chair. Discontinuance wasn’t even on the minds of the COI Task Force members as they made their report, Voakes says, noting the task force focused more on using existing academic resources and relationships between departments to form their vision for the College of Information, thinking existing units would continue to function regularly with additional responsibilities in the new college.
“The assumptions were always that whatever academic units you see now would continue to be around,” Voakes says.
The new school to be created by the two-pronged process of discontinuance and exploration has some worried that the core of journalism taught by the SJMC — ethics, reporting, research, storytelling — could be weakened as other departments influence the new journalism curriculum.
Dan Pacheco, an SJMC advisory board member, now regrets signing the letter recommending discontinuance.
“I feel the advisory board was duped into believing that closing the journalism school was a necessary step to create something bigger that would bring journalism together with other disciplines,” Pacheco writes in an e-mail to Boulder Weekly. “Now that there’s an exploratory committee that has no journalism representation at all ... I question CU’s original intentions.
“I feel their real agenda all along may have been to completely remove journalism from CU.”
The Colorado chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists wrote an open letter to theatre and dance Professor Merrill Lessley, chair of the exploratory committee, offering the SPJ’s guidance in creating a new academic program.
“Students still need a basic and thorough grounding in objectivity, fairness, ethics and media law,” the letter read. “As journalism programs add more courses in technology and delivery methods, it’s critical to emphasize reporting skills and ethical standards.”
SPJ Colorado Pro President Cara DeGette told Boulder Weekly that as of last Friday, the exploratory committee had not yet contacted the SPJ.
On Aug. 25, SJMC faculty members gathered for the first faculty meeting of the fall semester and were greeted by TV cameras and reporters.
“We were at a faculty meeting, and Nelson Garcia and a cameraman from 9News walked in and I thought, ‘Hmmm, this is different,” says Professor Elizabeth Skewes, who teaches courses in reporting, political communication and ethics. “Then we got told at noon when the provost came to our meeting that we were going to undergo the discontinuance process.”
It’s unclear who tipped off 9News. Both Looney, the former SJMC advisory board member who wrote a white paper to the chancellor recommending discontinuance, and Shoemaker, who also supports discontinuance, have expressed the desire for a new dean to oversee the new direction of the journalism school, whatever that may be.
Shoemaker called for the creation of a digital media college with a powerful new dean.
“You’d need to do a nationwide search for a dean capable of fulfilling this vision,” she told the exploratory committee.
In his white paper, Looney questioned Voakes’ actions during a controversy involving the CU student newspaper and asked the chancellor to request that Voakes step down as dean. He also called for the media studies program to be eliminated, saying, “It’s our phys-ed major.”
Voakes’ handling of the student newspaper was particularly vexing to Looney. In February 2008, the Campus Press (as the student newspaper was formerly called) reporter Max Karson wrote a failed satire piece called “If it’s war the Asians want ...” in which he said Asian students on campus should be rounded up with butterfly nets, “hogtied” and “forced to eat bad sushi ... with forks.” Various groups on campus perceived the piece as racist and reacted furiously, and CU officials were quick to denounce the piece.
Soon the journalism school moved to cut ties with the paper, and myriad changes occurred. The paper changed names. Students could no longer receive course credit for a semester spent at the paper. And some faculty members suggested the CU Independent (CU-I) move out of their current location inside the Armory Building on the northernmost side of campus.
Looney tells Boulder Weekly that had the CU-I forced been to move from its room on campus, it would have killed the paper, which was already dealing with financial problems.
“It’s atrocious,” Looney says. “What kind of journalism school doesn’t want a place where the students can practice journalism?” The CU-I is not moving anywhere anytime soon. The paper simply can’t afford to operate outside the Armory, Voakes says.
“Ideally in the future, [the paper] would be independent enough that they could afford their own digs independently,” Voakes says. “I think the only decision to be made here is to let them stay for as long as they need to.”
Regardless, Voakes says, the student paper’s newsroom in the Armory was made possible by a donor. Forcing the CU Independent out of the Armory would violate that donor’s intent, Voakes says.
Still, the issue of donor intent didn’t come up at a March 30 faculty meeting, when the issue of the CU Independent moving out of the Armory appeared on the agenda — as a “discussion” item, not an “action” item, Voakes points out.
By several accounts, which Voakes disputes, the faculty became hostile after then-adviser Amy Herdy and a student editor showed up at the meeting. Looney, who also attended the meeting, and Herdy describe a very hostile environment, in which professors openly ridiculed the student paper. Herdy says several professors alluded to better uses of the space occupied by the CU Independent.
“It was horrifying to watch this crazed man go nuts,” Looney wrote in his white paper of a professor at the meeting. “I was appalled.”
Looney also criticized the dean for failing to keep Pulitzer Prize-winner Jim Sheeler employed as a faculty member at the journalism school. Sheeler left Colorado for a job at Case Western University in Cleveland.
Looney told Boulder Weekly why the loss of Sheeler was frustrating.
“There was a position open. Sheeler applied, He was not one of seven finalists selected by the faculty,” Looney says. “Seven finalists? Come on. We didn’t all just ride into town on the back of a turnip truck.”
Voakes says leaving Sheeler off the semi-finalist list was a grave mistake, and the SJMC did in fact offer Sheeler an assistant professor position, something Sheeler himself confirms.
“CU did offer me a tenure-track position as an assistant professor, but it wasn’t comparable to the Case Western Reserve job, which included the opportunity to join the faculty as a full professor in an endowed chair at another esteemed university — a rare opportunity that, in the end, I couldn’t pass up,” Sheeler writes in an e-mail to Boulder Weekly.
The school has long taken heat for not adequately adapting to the changing media landscape.
“Despite a few incremental improvements [during the last four years], the pace of change has been abysmal when compared to what’s happening outside the halls of academia,” Dan Pacheco wrote in a blog post on his website.
Still, it’s too early to tell what sort of academic Frankenstein the two-headed discontinuance/ exploratory process will create. But Moore thinks this is an exciting opportunity for the university.
“I have a feeling that, quite frankly, journalists are sometimes hooked into this term ‘discontinuance’ and are looking for a juicy story,” Moore says.
“I’d say over 90 percent of people on campus, including members of the faculty of the school of journalism and mass communication, are very excited about the opportunity to build something that is truly unique and is better suited to serve students moving to the future. That’s just my personal thought on it.”