6 foundations tell journalism schools to change faster or risk future funding

As thousands of educators head off to Chicago for the 100th anniversary convention of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication, I can promise that one of the most talked-about topics will be the recent open letter to university presidents signed by six foundations that have a special interest in journalism.

It was a letter that brought even more attention and focus to discussions about the future of journalism education.  At its core, the foundations want university presidents and provosts to move faster and further to change the way journalism is taught. And that was said in bold language.

We believe journalism and communications schools must be willing to recreate themselves if they are to succeed in playing their vital roles as news creators and innovators. Some leading schools are doing this but most are not. Deans cite regional accreditation bodies and university administration for putting up roadblocks to thwart these changes. However, we think the problem may be more systemic than that.  We are calling on university presidents and provosts to join us in supporting the reform of journalism and mass communication education.

The open letter, signed by the Knight Foundation, the McCormick Foundation, Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation, Scripps Howard Foundation, Brett Family Foundation and the Wyncote Foundation, argues that schools aren’t keeping pace with the new career opportunities for journalists and there’s resistance to changing the courses that are taught and how they are taught.

We firmly support efforts by The Accrediting Council on Education in Journalism and Mass Communications to modernize standards. The council recognizes that schools need to provide students the ability to pursue career paths as journalist-entrepreneurs or journalism-technologists.

Furthermore, we believe ACEJMC should develop accreditation standards that spotlight the importance of technology and innovation. University facilities must be kept up to date. Currently, many are not.

That urging is all well and good. But if you are a foundation that gives money, why not put it in terms that gets the attention of university presidents, many of whom are their school’s chief fundraiser?

Schools that do not update their curriculum and upgrade their faculties to reflect the profoundly different digital age of communication will find it difficult to raise money from foundations interested in the future of news. The same message applies to administrators who acquiesce to regional accrediting agencies that want terminal degrees as teaching credentials with little regard to competence as the primary concern.

While it is difficult to accurately gauge reaction from the academic community, a selection from the AEJMC Newspaper & Online News Division listserv provides a sampling of opinions about the foundations’ push for more and faster change. (All quotes are used  with the writer’s permission.)

From Dane Claussen, former professor and chair of faculty at Point Park University’s School of Communication, believes that the proposed teaching hospital method (teaching by doing) is already being used by many schools.

This is a huge topic. But I’ll say for now that many programs are doing something approaching a “teaching hospital” within the confines of being able to get curriculum passed by Faculty Senates, approved by regional accrediting agencies.

… I’ve heard all this rhetoric for years about journalism schools teaching “too much theory.”  I don’t know about you, but I don’t consider a well taught media ethics course to be only “theory,” and the same goes for a well taught media law course and a well taught media management course. Media history is, I think, extremely valuable in showing students what the news media have accomplished and still, more or less, can, and it can be a powerful socializing agent in terms of students’ philosophy of journalism (what is it for? and why is it important?), career goals, etc.

Carrie Brown, assistant professor at the University of Memphis, thinks the letter will be helpful to those in the trenches, many of whom have been pushing for such change:

I think the letter and continued pressure from top foundations will be a big help to those of us in the trenches. I’ve seen it get forwarded around by administrators who are not typically among the most forward thinking, so it got their attention. You would think the writing would have long been on the wall, but nothing speaks like the money men (they are mostly men I think), especially in desperate times for schools suffering from massive state budget cuts.

Many of us pushing for this kind of change are on the bottom of the academic food chain, and while many of us have done many of the things [Eric] Newton et. al. call for in our own teaching and research, it’s harder for us to have a bigger institutional impact, which I found out the hard way.

A more skeptical view of the letter comes from Jerry Ceppos, dean of the Louisiana State University’s Manship School of Mass Communication and a former journalist with decades of experience at Knight Ridder. Ceppos has also written about the debate.

The foundations certainly are entitled to their say, but I find it insulting that they would use such a broad brush: “Some leading schools are doing this [creating and innovating] but most are not.” If I were a president or a provost, I’d stop reading at that point. In my 21 years on the Accrediting Council, I’ve read reports of probably 1,500 site teams. Hundreds upon hundreds of the schools visited offered experience-based journalism education, now more than ever.

There is a huge disconnect on the issue of hiring professionals. All I know is that at least a dozen universities have hired deeply experienced professionals as deans in the last few years. In fact, one of my most promising young administrators told me the other day, after looking at recent appointments, that she assumes she can’t be a candidate for a dean’s position because she doesn’t have that deep professional experience.

Those watching this debate (and adding our voices to whether journalism education can evolve) wonder how much change is possible. I like the perspective of Chris Martin, vice president for university relations at West Virginia University.

I have also been wondering for the last four years when the need to revolutionize the journalism education paradigm would finally run head-on into ACEJMC accreditation requirements and standardized promotion and tenure requirements. It seems now —  in the face of a quickly deteriorating traditional media landscape — that the head-on cluster-crash with journalism, journalism education and accreditation is here.

How will it play on a university-wide scope?

I think that universities will be supportive of change  — even radical change — in journalism education. Most universities are not run by media scholars or former journalists… so most senior administrators aren’t closely familiar with what J-Schools and mass communications colleges do, why they do it or even how. University presidents worry about enrollment, fund-raising, and grants. If J-Schools and their deans meet their goals in those areas, most administrators are fairly hands-off, in my experience.

But professional accreditation is extremely important to universities.

When schools and colleges lose or risk their discipline-based accreditation, provosts and presidents do get involved. And deans lose their jobs. The loss of accreditation is seen as a threat to enrollment and grant funding. So, it seems to me that the funding agencies have made a pre-emptive strike in stating that they will not fund schools and colleges that persist in valuing pure research over innovative practice and research applied to that innovation. The ball, it seems, is in ACEJMC’s court.

That’s the bottom line. Can we change the way journalism schools are judged, rewarded and motivated? It is time for a very serious and frank exploration about the nature and value of a journalism degree. This is not simply a discussion about theory courses versus practical courses. This should be a discussion about the essential skills needed to create good journalism today and in the future. It’s a perfect topic for AEJMC convention attendees.

My Poynter colleague Vicki Krueger and I will be hosting a NewsU panel session about some of these issues during a presentation at the convention on Friday, Aug. 10, at 8:15 a.m. in the Denver/Houston room (5th floor). If you’re there, come join us.

Correction: Jerry Ceppos is dean of the Louisiana State University’s Manship School of Mass Communication, not chair.

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