CU J-school shakeup as much about marketing, management as education

The University of Colorado Boulder made a grand spectacle and garnered a great deal of media coverage in announcing Wednesday that it was formally considering shuttering its school of journalism, which has been awarding degrees for the past six decades. Media reports began posting from the moment of the announcement and have been multiplying and rocketing around the news landscape for the past 48 hours.

Indeed, digital news readers learned about the administration’s decision at about the same time the faculty was being informed that it had been made. The lightning reporting came partly as a result of the fact that at least one news organization, 9News, seemed to have learned about the plan in advance of the routine semester-opening faculty and staff meeting where the decision to rework and perhaps close the school was first discussed and where it came as an unscheduled shock to the people in the room.

“It was a surprise. The whole thing was kind of melodramatic and over the top and that’s how the coverage has been,” Dan Schaefer, a tech consultant and part-time instructor with the school told the Colorado Independent. “We all asked, you know, What are these reporters doing wanting to come into our meeting?”

9News didn’t return messages asking for information on how it was tipped off to the announcement.

“In the age of Twitter and texting, messages get out,” Schaefer said.

At the announcement press conference Journalism School Dean Paul Voakes was clearly rattled. The information conveyed in the announcement may not have come as a surprise to Voakes but having to talk about it Wednesday in front of television cameras seemed to have taken him unawares.

“I was dean yesterday. I’m dean today. I expect to be dean tomorrow,” he said, trying to stay on the solid ground of clear facts but sounding like he was finding them less solid as he went. “Um, I’m committed to serving this school for as long as I am able… I serve at the discretion of the provost and the chancellor so I’m not in a position to say what my job will be at any given moment.”

The top outlets reporting the story, 9News and the Denver Post, so far have delivered a narrative about a dramatic shakeup instigated by university leaders and designed to deliver true digital-age education in part by cutting loose out-of-step educators. That’s pretty much the same narrative put out by the university press team but with meatier supporting quotes. That narrative is good advertising for any university when one of the biggest news stories running is the wrenching changes remaking the journalism industry on the ground.

Reports make it clear there were also management considerations at play. Former chairmen of the school’s advisory board Doug Looney, quoted in the 9News and Post stories, said the school’s infighting faculty was “dysfunctional” and “hopeless” and “kind of a high-button-shoe in a Nike world,” the kind of people who “can teach looking backward great but it’s looking forward that gives them trouble.”

Looney, who wrote a report on the department in April recommending change, is referring to certain of the school’s hard-to-oust tenured faculty. The shakeup under consideration could well parcel those professors out to various departments and break them up as a bloc.

In fact, however, the reordering may not include closing the school at all. Absent in most of the coverage of the announcement are the voices of faculty talking about the journalism school curricula and the strides the school has made to enter the digital age.

Yes, they admit, the school has clearly struggled. Last spring, for example, the head of student internships reportedly told applicants that they couldn’t get student credit for interning with the Colorado Independent because the Independent rents no permanent office space in the state– an office headquarters being something about as vital as a typewriter (or a printing press) for putting out news product today. Yet telling anecdotes like that have been coming out of journalism programs for a decade.

At CU Schaefer runs a citizen journalism / crowd-sourcing series of courses called the Resolving Door. His students have built innovative platforms that encourage new forms of reader participation and interaction. The experimentation is technological and social, where new software is teamed with various incentive programs. Resolving Door students and their online audience have crowd-sourced interactive detailed maps and reviewed services and have worked to make student government more transparent and accessible, spinning off new avenues for news reporting.

Voakes also pushed for a new experimental space called the Digital Media Test Kitchen to try out new “recipes” for journalism content and production.

New faculty has been hired to teach standard “digital newsroom” online journalism courses prepping students to be multimedia reporters who can code and load their own stories.

Schaefer says the picture now emerging of faculty sitting around on their hands is just the product of lazy reporting.

“I got my masters degree here in 2004 and now I help faculty with technology. I can gauge what’s been happening. We’ve been changing. Professionals from the industry come and give regular trainings here… We haven’t been ‘doing nothing for fifty years’. We’ve been studying the industry’s evolution as well as advances in technology.”

[Image: CU J-school Dean Paul Voakes and Interim Provost Russell Moore ]

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