Reputation of J-School faces ups, downs

Chris Hamilton

Editor’s note: This article is the first in a two-part series about the University’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication and plans for its future.

The School of Journalism and Mass Communication opened in 1915. But by the 1970s, lack of funding, out-dated equipment, faculty dissension and rising enrollment began to erode the once top-ranked school.
But if University administrators have their way in the Legislature this session, they say an infusion of about $23 million could pull the school back on top and toward new heights.
If not, the school’s future is in dire jeopardy, said Al Tims, interim director of the School of Journalism and Mass Communication.
“It’s all or nothing right now,” Tims said.
Quickly after accepting his job last February, University President Mark Yudof made reinvesting and reinventing the journalism school a priority.
He enlisted help from Steve Rosenstone, the dean of the College of Liberal Arts. Rosenstone formed a task force in August composed of professionals in advertising, public relations and journalism. Their charge was to define goals for the New Media Initiative, a plan to train in developing digital media technologies.
The task force offered a merger between the School of Journalism and Mass Communication and the Speech-Communication Department. Faculties, students and alumni rejected the idea, and the dean followed their lead.
Included in the new plan are initiatives for programs in graphics, film and photojournalism, as well as new master’s degrees and CD-ROM and Internet design tracks. Several new computer labs could be installed, along with a digitalized library and commons area for students.
The communications research side of the plan is fine with Yudof. However, he said emphasizing students’ preparation for well-paying jobs is how he’s selling it to legislators.
“The students should be able to come through here and be able to take journalism courses, but they should have a wide array of courses they can take,” Yudof said. “And they should be on the creative side — that is how to do these things.”
The school won’t become another trade school. Yet, students could learn how to operate a digital camera or write Hyper Text Markup Language code, administrators said.
That means investing in technology such as a new broadcast studio. On a recent tour of Murphy Hall, several members of the capital investment committee declared it “stuck in 1970.” And while he acknowledged the equipment was shoddy, Rep. Dave Bishop, R-Rochester, wondered aloud if that was because student demand wasn’t great enough to require upgrades. He expressed similar concerns over other untried or failed programs.
“I’m just trying to figure out if they’re putting the chicken before the egg or vice versa,” he said.
The crown jewel of the new plan would be an interdisciplinary and private business-associated research center for New Media Studies, molded from a similar program based at New York University, said Yudof.
Administrators said they hope the institute would become an economic engine for the state and the school.
“You give us money and we’ll name this room for you,” Tims said after a meeting to stump for the proposal with students and faculty last week.
The final project counts on $18.9 million for renovating Murphy and Ford halls and more than $2 million for eight new faculty members and two staffers. Fifteen million dollars, to be split between molecular, cellular biology and digital technology initiatives, could go toward buying new equipment.
Without the state money, which is part of the University’s $249 million capital budget and $41.5 million supplemental requests, CLA funding for the school must be diverted. Strategic financial strengthening might go to high-ranked programs by the National Research Council, such as psychology or economics, Rosenstone said. How much is yet to be determined.
Rosenstone says the journalism school’s economic hardships are on par with the rest of CLA. Full-time faculty throughout CLA shrunk from 592 in 1980 to 483 in 1996.
But the journalism school wasn’t always taking on water.
In the beginning
In 1915, on the agriculture campus in St. Paul, the first handful of journalism courses was taught with 10 students enrolled. Three years later the classes were moved to Pillsbury Hall, and the major was offered.
Meanwhile, William J. Murphy, publisher of the Minneapolis Tribune, left the University $350,000 to expand journalism education. However, World War I intervened and the money sat in the bank collecting interest.
By the time 1926 rolled around, the department had grown to the largest in the country. With Murphy’s endowment, it was the second-richest. The department’s competitor, Columbia University, was number one.
The Board of Regents approved spending part of the money 10 years later. In 1939, construction on Murphy Hall began. It was the first building in the nation to exclusively house a journalism department.
Funding for the $250,000 brick building came primarily from the Murphy endowment and a depression-era federal grant.
Additional funds came in to provide space for The Minnesota Daily, which began in 1900, and the now defunct Gopher yearbook, Ski-U-Mah magazine and Literary Review.
When Murphy Hall opened in 1940, a Daily article proclaimed it “very modern.” The facilities boasted of typography lab, teletype machines and televisions, a microphone-equipped radio room and a host of typewriters. It was complete with an auditorium for movies.
The previous year, the department became the School of Journalism. The title was intended to distinguish itself as a professional program within what is now the mostly academic CLA.
But the school’s first director, Ralph Casey, wanted to be one of the first to legitimize journalism by academic standards. In 1944, the school began the country’s first research division. Its inception helped fuel the debate over journalism’s membership in academia.
From the beginning, journalism has struggled for respect as an academic discipline. However, the master’s program boomed. The faculty quickly won awards for producing books on media law and history. The school’s national reputation soared.
That research and book production continues to buoy its reputation. But ironically, research that contains elements of public relations battles a nationwide image problem. The root of the argument lies in academia’s general disdain for mass media and its responsibility for cultural problems.
“I came over here with some skepticism,” said Ken Doyle, an advertising professor with a Ph.D. in psychology. “Anything that has a professional training component is looked at with some suspicion.” He added that some of the research conducted in the school “knocked those stigmas out of me.”
The golden age?
Soon after WWII, returning GI’s flooded the school. Enrollment went from 198 in 1945 to 496 the next year year. More faculty members were added to combat the onslaught of ex-soldiers.
The students who passed through the school at this time are among the most well-known. National television broadcasters Eric Sevareid and Harry Reasoner took courses in the school and wrote for the Daily. Columnist Carl Rowan, ambassador Geri Joseph and CBS News President Sig Michelson, among others, helped create a legacy.
But since then, the school hasn’t produced many names that easily fall off the tips of the American publics’ tongues. Professor Don Gillmor, who’s taught at the school for 33 years, pleads for patience.
“Sevareid didn’t become famous until he was middle-aged,” Gillmor said. “You’ve got to give these people some time.”
Tims said their graduates may not be as visible because they’re out of the public spotlight and dominating local newspapers, advertising agencies and public relations firms.
Gillmor first arrived on campus in the late 1940s to get his master’s degree. He said that while the published production of the faculty was substantial, the quality of teaching certainly wasn’t. The faculty at that time lacked professional experience. Today, most faculty have some professional experience and 22 adjunct professors direct from the workplace teach most skills courses.
“As great as those guys were in academics, they weren’t as skilled in the classroom,” he said. Gillmor said he ended up learning more about reporting in a week at a newspaper than he had during his entire academic career.
Gillmor wondered aloud if today’s professors with less academic production and resources but more teaching skills and professional background were better than the old professors. “Is the school in a golden age now or in a burnt-out hulk?” he asked.
Burnt out or not, journalism students are still finding work.
Almost 85 percent of students still find jobs in newspapers after the first year out of school, according to 1996’s Becker Report, a study of job searches for mass communication graduates across the country and the University.
A 1992 Freedom Forum report, however, criticized journalism education as unnecessary. One editor commented that it’s not brain surgery.
Journalism Professor William Babcock said he understands the criticisms. But he said the schools are still useful. “We’re like the minor leagues for the newspapers,” Babcock said while twisting and imaginary baseball in his hand. “We’ll teach you the slider that will get you in the door.”
Strange bedfellows
As part of a post-war trend around the country, the school became one of many to introduce an advertising curriculum. It began in 1948 and would later include public relations.
The corporate and governmental world snuggled up to journalism. The partnership of communications-based learning seemed a natural fit at the time.
“We’re strange bedfellows,” Babcock said. “But we’ve been together for so long we know each others’ sleeping patterns and can make accommodations.”
A conflict of interest arises because student journalists may hurt the companies students in public relations may work for.
“On the other hand, they are going to be working together,” said Ron Faber, an advertising professor.
In recent years, national debate in journalism circles has centered around whether to move the public relations and advertising tracts to business schools.
Some faculty members don’t want to lose their influence on one another.
“We want to inject them with our journalistic, democratic values,” Gillmor said. “And we don’t think the business schools can do that.”
Undergrads are upstaged
The Ph.D. program was initiated in 1951. Since 1956, 160 doctorates have been awarded by the School of Journalism and Mass Communication. Many students with master’s and doctoral degrees went on to direct programs at other universities such as Indiana, Wisconsin and North Carolina.
The master’s and Ph.D. programs’ success has consistently carried the rest of the school since cutbacks in undergraduate education began in the 1970s. While the undergraduate program has hovered around the bottom of the top 50 programs for 20 years, according to rankings from U.S. News and World Report, the graduate program made the magazine’s top 15 in 1996. Several faculty, who place more faith in rankings from other groups, contend the graduate program is among the top five nationally.
Overgrown
The 1960s were a period of growth. By 1970, journalism had become the most popular major in CLA. Enrollment went from less than 300 in 1960 to more than 600 at the end of the decade. To match the student explosion, the faculty was raised to an all-time high of 24.
By the end of the decade, journalism was buffing itself up with photojournalism and television broadcast news courses.
Yet, soon after being tied for the number-one ranking with Columbia University by U.S. News & World Report in 1975, the school’s status and faculty solidarity began to crack.
— Chris Hamilton is a senior in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication
— Chris Trejbal, staff librarian, contributed to this report

Tomorrow: A look at the reasons for the school’s decline in reputation and some insight into its future.