The Killing of a School is Never Pleasant

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 mike.mcdevitt@colorado.edu.

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.

One thought on “The Killing of a School is Never Pleasant

  1. What the internet has done is change the business model for media corporations, not to change the fundamentals of good journalism. In fact, internet journalism is a far less radical shift from print than radio and TV journalism was. The notion that computer coding and web design has anything to do with journalism is utter nonsense. In reality, journalism has a much stronger connection to business (in the sense that journalists are controlled by corporations that employ them), but nobody imagines any logic in merging a journalism school and a business school.

    In all of this rearranging of the deck chairs and closing schools and creating new departments, has any money been saved, efficiencies created, or (god help us) “synergy” achieved? (I won’t even discuss the idea of improving journalism, since they clearly have no interest in that.) The Tribune Co. built an empire on the concept of synergy, and it promptly went bankrupt because synergy is, at bottom, a stupid idea. Now, the sloganeers who used to demand synergy have moved on to “convergence,” which is the same old crap in a new catchphrase.

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