Guest poster Michael McDevitt is professor in journalism and mass communication at the University of Colorado Boulder. He conducts research in political communication and is working on a book, Where Ideas Go to Die: Anti-Intellectualism in American Journalism. His e-mail address is email@example.com.
The killing of a school is never pleasant—especially when it’s your school—but a comedic moment occurred in Boulder when members of an advisory board expressed genuine surprise that the University of Colorado administration was unwilling and unable to immediately fire tenured faculty. In the May-June issue of Academe, I chronicle the bumblin’, stumblin’ exploits of the former advisory board, and the process that led to discontinuance of the School of Journalism and Mass Communication. The board, comprised of publishers and CEOs in Colorado media, journalists, and would-be philanthropists, did not feel a need to observe instruction or to consult with faculty. My colleagues had completed a systemic revision of the entire undergraduate program to accommodate convergence, entrepreneurial journalism, and storytelling across platforms. Undeterred, the board delivered a letter to the chancellor, calling for closure of the school, thereby exploiting a zeitgeist of technological disruption and populist suspicion of a plodding, obstructionist faculty. According to an accreditation team, board members were frustrated with a media studies faculty they imagined as intransigent in failing to update the curriculum to keep pace with digital media. The specter of anti-intellectualism emerged in the board’s disregard for the scholarly mission of the school. One would have thought that the humanities and social sciences would be more vital now than ever in guiding journalism through a tumultuous era.
Journalism’s precarious standing at research universities has made it vulnerable to unreflective instrumentalism. In a climate of upheaval and uncertainty, new-media entrepreneurs goad faculty to “blow up the curriculum” and prod student disciples to “hijack your school’s assets.” Instrumentalism intertwined with rhetoric of the digital sublime is ultimately driven by fear and opportunism, but it has nonetheless empowered advisory boards. I argue that the assault on the school at CU illustrates the damaged standing of journalism in higher education and a resulting threat to academic freedom. All faculty—not just instructors in journalism schools—should care about the revival of news media as a context in which ideas and expertise are faithfully translated in ways that elevate discourse on complex and contentious issues. A journalism of expertise represents a strategy for scholarly outreach, and it would also help shore up the legitimacy of a university system undergoing its own crisis.