Two successful former faculty members of the University of Colorado’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication (SJMC) are questioning the motives behind the recent effort to discontinue the school.
After months of faculty study and administrative recommendations, the Board of Regents voted this spring to turn the journalism school into a department and transition it into a new “Journalism Plus” program, in which students pursue a second major in addition to journalism.
SJMC alumni and former faculty members Don Heider and Lee Hood have been watching the process carefully. Heider began teaching broadcast journalism at the SJMC in 1992, and a year later started working towards his Ph.D. in journalism, completing it in 1997. In 2008, Heider left his CU faculty job to become the founding dean of Loyola’s School of Communication. Lee Hood, who taught at the SJMC for more than 16 years, also left CU for Loyola.
Heider says he is at a loss for why the closing was even a possibility, much less a reality. While the official reasoning included problems within the school and the changing nature of journalism, Heider suspects that budget cuts and political reasons are to blame.
“I read the report from the [program discontinuance] committee, and I thought it was, honestly, patently absurd,” Heider says. “I felt like it wasn’t a fair assessment of what has been going on in the school in the last 25 years. It’s really disturbing, and it seems to be politically motivated from within the university and isn’t in the best interests of the students or alumni.”
Hood seems to agree with Heider — she says she felt that the idea of closing the school was a hasty move in the changing environment of journalism. Simply adapting to the new environment might be a smarter move, she says, considering the importance journalism plays in both democracy and free speech.
“I firmly believe that there is a really important role for journalism communication in the new media atmosphere,” Hood says. “I really think that journal ism education is as important as it ever was to try and make good, solid journalists stand out from all the cacophony of voices that are out there. I don’t understand the argument that journalism education is somehow not as necessary. I understand that we can’t teach the same way we used to many years ago, because the world has changed. But I think if we change with it, there is still plenty of room for good, solid journalism education.”
Heider says that despite early indications that it might be the end of the road for the J school, following the money may reveal a different intent in the regents’ action.
“University officials have described it as a transition step towards a new college of some sort that would be more broad-based,” Heider says. “And so I think if that’s the case, this could be a very good thing. Alumni will be watching this very carefully over the next year or two to make sure that the university president and the regents do just that.”
While the school is closing, its assets, including the budget and staff, are expected to be temporarily transferred to Graduate School in the provost’s office, which Heider says is a good sign.
“If, indeed, it was just going to be forevermore a joint program in arts and sciences, all the faculty would be in the College of Arts and Sciences, all the budget would be in arts and sciences. They’ve decided not to do that,” Heider says. “So the fact that everything has been transferred to the Graduate School, from an administrative viewpoint, it’s a very interesting move, because what it tells people on the inside and the outside is they really are putting it on hold until they figure out what the next step is.”
Heider holds out hope. “Change doesn’t come easily to places, and there seemed to be an impasse [at CU] among some of the faculty for many years. Sometimes it takes something extraordinary for change to occur,” Heider says. “This is extraordinary, and worrisome in many ways — but if it brings about something stronger and better for students, then it could ultimately could be a good thing.”