Students in the School of Mass Communications received an email during spring break from the College of Arts and Sciences Dean Eric Eisenberg saying exciting new changes were coming their way.
The changes will include severing ties with the accrediting agency that placed the school on two years of probation after a site team visited in January and found deficiencies in governance and assessment, and replacing the interim director of the school with the current director of the School of Information, Jim Andrews, who will maintain both positions.
In his email, Eisenberg said the changes have come about because the field of mass communications is no longer what it once was.
Ive been thinking for a long, long time about the changes to the industry and Ive been trying to figure out whether were doing everything we can for our mass comm students to be prepared for the industry in which theyll apply when they graduate, Eisenberg said in an interview with The Oracle. It just seems like its changing so fast … you blink, and like two years later, all the things you thought are going to be useful, arent anymore. Ive been trying to think about how to embrace that change. When the accreditors came out, they asked a number of questions. It really got me thinking You know what? There might be another path for us at USF. … I thought about USFs DNA and what were known for. It seems like interdisciplinary innovation is our thing.
Eisenberg said he met with the provost and the president who supported the idea of abandoning the pursuit of accreditation.
Gil Thelen, the former interim director of the school who had been appointed to an 18-month term after former director Fred Pearce resigned a month before the accreditation site team was to visit, said he wasnt privy to the plans to create a different path.
Thelen, who has formerly served as Executive Editor, Publisher and President of the Tampa Tribune and has held several leading editor positions at other newspapers in the past 35 years, said Eisenberg had asked him his thoughts about the pros and cons of accreditation a week earlier, but Thelen said he was unaware of the changes until Eisenberg sent him an email the same day the email was sent to students and faculty, announcing his intentions to pursue a different path and dismissing him as director of the school effective last Friday.
I dont know how it came up, Thelen said. I took this job with priority one as securing accreditation, and it wasnt until Dean Eisenbergs email that I knew there was significant planning already underway to go in a different direction.
Thelen, USFs Clendenin professor, said he is currently considering whether he will continue to teach, and said he hoped some of the findings of the Accrediting Council on Education in Journalism and Mass Communications (ACEJMC), the accrediting body, will continue to be taken into account.
I dont believe that accreditation and rethinking of structure of communication at the university are incompatible, Thelen said. I know for a fact that the ACEJMC is strongly in favor of innovation. The benefits of accreditation are in terms of rigor that accreditation imposes upon the institution in terms of class sizes, faculty teaching loads, technology and equipment, support, curriculum and governance. Those are all important things, and I would hope those will not be lost sight of as this process goes forward.
According to a 2011 article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, which argued that the accreditation of journalism schools was an exercise in external validation, only one-fourth of about college journalism programs pursue accreditation from the ACEJMC. Eisenbergs email mentioned the statistic and stated that USF would follow the lead of many of our top university peers such as Ohio State, Wisconsin, Michigan, Virginia and Rutgers.
But Will Norton, dean of the Meek School of Journalism and New Media at the University of Mississippi who led the ACEJMCs site team visit to USF, said the schools in the email did not provide appropriate context.
Wisconsin has not been accredited since something like 1987, Ohio State hasnt been accredited in more than a decade, I dont think Rutgers has ever been accredited and I dont think Virginia has ever had a journalism program, Norton said. Accreditation standards are set by academicians and leading professionals and are voted on by each of the schools that are accredited. Those standards are basically standards that the profession endorses. It shows youre going to an institution that has repute by academicians as well as professionals.
The Hearst Journalism Awards Programs, one of the leading awards competitions for college journalists, only accepts submissions from students from accredited schools, Norton said.
Peter Bhatia, ACEJMC president and editor of The Oregonian, said he thinks its a shame USF has decided to abandon accreditation.
Im someone who does a lot of hiring of recent journalism and mass comm school students, Bhatia said. There is a huge advantage to students who come out of accredited schools when it comes to hiring. Although I couldnt tell you that 100 percent of the people we hire are from accredited programs, the majority are, because we know that students who have come out of accredited programs have had a level of academic rigor and training to be successful, particularly in todays multimedia workplace.
Though he said students in non-accredited programs can still stand out through involvement with student media and gaining internships, accreditation provides an advantage.
Eisenberg said over the next academic year he would like to put together a group of national and local professionals to shape what the future of the program will look like.
I want it to be really broad-based not just news, radio, TV, but also other forms of digital communications, web-based things, online services and maybe even gaming, he said.
Eisenberg also said he intends to look for more ways to incorporate The Oracle and WUSF TV with the school.
The Oracle, he said, could have a defined, better synergy with the school and WUSF has offered the school more bandwidth, which he said can be a really incredible place to create content and be the student station.
Additionally, Eisenberg said the School of Information director, Jim Andrews, who could not be reached for comment by the time of print, would be put in place as interim director of the School of Mass Communications for a two-year term to bring the schools closer together.
Increasing collaboration between journalism and computer/information sciences programs have been buzzwords at other universities in recent years.
In 2012, Northwesterns Medill School of Journalism created the Knight Lab, a partnership between technologists, journalists and designers in hopes of creating cutting-edge interactive journalism. In 2010, Creighton University created the department of journalism, media and computing, which combines graphic design, computer science and journalism education under one department. Indiana Universitys more than 100-year old school of journalism is currently fighting to maintain its independence after the provost of the university proposed moving it under the College of Arts and Sciences and creating a School of Communications, Media and Journalism for the sake of efficiency.
Bhatia said while he did not intend to comment on Andrews in anyway, he had some concerns about the decision to make the schools to have joint leadership.
Journalism isnt computer science and computer science isnt journalism, and I dont think they should be thought of in the same breath, he said. As we do more and more database journalism and more interactive things, for example, there are wonderful opportunities there. A college campus is a great place for that to happen, because you have great thinkers on both sides of the aisle, but theyre not the same thing and thats what worries me with journalism getting too lumped in.
Eisenberg said he would allow the relationship between the schools to evolve on its own in the next academic year through discussion.
All Im doing is creating an opportunity for people to talk to each other across a broader set of possibilities, he said. Im thinking whats going to happen is that students are going to have an opportunity for a broader range of faculty to work with and a broader range of courses … Theres no way Im trying to force a merger between the School of Information and the School of Mass Comm. They can start talking to each other and figure out what that looks like.
Thelen said while the School of Mass Communications had already been exploring possibilities to create a relationship with the School of Information, he hopes the basic elements of mass communications education will continue to be preserved.
My hope would be that the essential values of our craft is preserved in any streamlining or consolidation that occurs and that we have the requisite number of faculty to teach students and have a controlled-sized classroom, he said.
Bhatia said while platforms of journalism is constantly changing, some elements of journalism education will continue to be the same.
I think the basics always matter, he said. Regardless of how we deliver information, the ability to write and report will never go out of style. We are a society that loves storytelling and that will be with us as long as were human beings. The foundations of journalism and mass communication ethics are never going to go out of style. But wow, theres been a lot of change in the last decade and theres going to continue to be a lot of change in the next decade.