Merger plan worth a closely watched try

Meeting its winter break deadline, the Communications Studies Task Force submitted its report to College of Liberal Arts Dean Steven Rosenstone. The task force proposed a marriage between a journalism school in decline and a speech communications department with regularly high national rankings. The resulting School of Journalism and Communication would be consolidated in a refurbished Murphy Hall.
While the idea of implementing a program that would greatly benefit the slowly sinking journalism school is commendable, the benefits to the speech communications department are unclear at best. According to the task force, there are some courses offered in each program that could potentially be combined, but in doing so these classes would lose the unique approach each program brings its curricula. The task force reported that it wants to bring excellence back into the journalism program and enhance the excellence of speech communications.
It comes, of course, as no surprise that administrators say they are encouraging excellence. But it is a subjective quality, and many in the journalism program have argued that although their school needs some work, the quality of the courses and instructors remain high. It’s a program in need of buoying, not restoring, journalism’s defenders say. That argument is even stronger from the speech communications department; its faculty and curricula are not generally seen to be in decline. As it stands, each program attracts hundreds of students — and the fact that they find these programs worthy of their time, effort and money says a great deal about the quality of education offered in each.
The real test, though, is not the quality of the plan — even the ugliest buildings have attractive blueprints — but the administration’s ability to sensibly execute their intentions. Turning the task force’s suggestions into reality will not be easy. Rather than starting slowly, changing things at a moderate rate and creating a broad constituency for further reforms, the proposal calls for radically transforming the two departments in one stroke. While no one can say which is the right approach, any changes should be approached with caution.
The task force calls for reversing some decisions made only two years ago, such as the discontinuation of professional journalism graduate programs and photojournalism classes; care must be taken that costly changes made today will not simply be repealed in another few years. Prudence, however, should not prevent real change. Significant new efforts are required to heal what ails the journalism program.
The proposal also laid out ideals for what a “new school for the 21st century” would entail. The combined program would attempt to teach skills needed for dealing with the latest communications technologies. The proposal implies preparing students for technologies that haven’t been invented yet, but who is to say that these technologies will really benefit the student? No one can determine what technologies students will need to use after they graduate and are participating in the work force.
On the whole, the task force’s proposal amounts to a sensible prenuptual agreement. But it’s still unclear just how well the two departments can get along under the same roof.