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Forums next step as SJMC begins evolution process

Faculty will be charged with developing plan for new information technology program

By Cynthia Pasquale

The formal process of program discontinuation for the University of Colorado's School of Journalism and Mass Communication (SJMC) begins today, but it is still uncertain what the result might be for the school and its faculty and staff.

Last week, university officials announced that the institution is considering closing the traditional journalism school and forming an exploratory committee to weigh the possibilities of a new interdisciplinary program of information and communication technology.


The Academic Review and Planning Advisory Committee (ARPAC) will begin the process of program discontinuance today. Two meetings to allow university faculty and staff to participate in the discussion of the process have been scheduled for noon-1:30 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 7, and Wednesday, Sept. 8, in the University Memorial Center, Room 235. Separate meetings have been scheduled for students.



In a letter dated Aug. 24, Chancellor Philip P. DiStefano said the process of discontinuance is necessary "in order to strategically realign our academic strengths and resources" in a way that will "meet the needs of our students, the labor market, and our rapidly changing global society." He added that changes to any academic program that included tenured faculty could not be undertaken without following the policy of program discontinuance.

The Academic Review and Planning Advisory Committee (ARPAC) is in charge of the discontinuance process. Members will host forums Tuesday, Sept. 7, and Wednesday, Sept. 8, with faculty and staff to answer questions about the process, which must be completed within 60 days. Interim Provost Russell Moore will then review the report and make recommendations to the chancellor within 30 days. A final determination on whether to close the school could come as soon as spring of 2011.

At the same time, a committee of faculty members will develop a plan for a new school or college of information and communication technology.

Discussions about revamping the school aren't new. Proposals have popped up several times in the past 15 years, although they never gained much traction. But a year ago, former Interim Provost Stein Sture appointed SJMC Dean Paul Voakes and John Bennett, director of the Alliance for Technology, Learning and Society Institute (ATLAS), as co-chairs of a College of Information Task Force to consider options concerning the school.

"That's when the idea of creating something very new and different for a space that involves digital media and new communication technologies and information started to take hold," Voakes said. "We talked to 30-some institutions around the country to see what other people had done in this area and started to craft ... how that might work on the CU-Boulder campus. The idea is not coming like a bolt out of the blue."

The task force delivered its report April 15. Because "information is ... ubiquitous," the report said, "the challenge to today's students is not the acquisition of information, rather how to select, evaluate, integrate and synthesize information into usable knowledge." The report noted that while "universities have historically existed to impart special knowledge and skills ... that role is changing."

At the same time, DiStefano received a letter from the external Advisory Committee of SJMC suggesting that change was needed and that the school be closed. Doug Looney, a CU alumnus and chairman of the committee, called the school and its faculty and staff "dysfunctional" and, essentially, out of date. He also has criticized the school for decisions concerning the student-run news website, the CU Independent, and other faculty issues.

Although faculty members accept that change is inevitable, even exciting, some say the decision to begin the process that could potentially close the school was sudden and opaque and the criticism leveled at them unfair.

Over the years, the school has added courses and programs that allow students to learn more about technology and the processes of disseminating information in the Internet age.

"Ironically, we had just completed a comprehensive curriculum reform that was going to be implemented this fall that included a lot more digital media," said Rick Stevens, an assistant professor whose specialty is new media.

One of his classes, Digital Newsroom, teaches students multimedia methods of storytelling. Though not a required course, the class fills up every semester, and it, along with other new media courses, became part of the core curriculum under the recent reform.

"It takes a long time to make changes in an academic environment," said Stevens, who came to the university in 2008. "Most of the courses were put there because of strategic and political reasons. You can't just throw them out without examining each one and determining ... what you want to change and the personnel ramifications. And we had just completed an extremely long and thorough process, but it might not have been as public a process as it might have been."

Stevens and others say the school had taken major steps to balance new media forms with traditional journalism values.

"Every journalism program in the country is struggling with this issue and has been for several years. The program here has taken significant strides," he said. The school has several digital-only courses, and has produced one of the first, student-run, online-only news products in the country along with other entities, including the Resolving Door – an interactive crowd-source form of journalism – and an innovation lab called the Digital Media Test Kitchen where iPhone apps and other services are produced.

"I'm not sure all of our critics have put all the pieces together," he said.

While the discontinuation process might provide a speedier path to change, including collaboration with other programs around campus, some worry that the focus on technology doesn't leave much room for traditional journalism education.

"The open question is whether this process is going to be used to kill journalism education or strengthen it," said Len Ackland, associate professor and co-director of the Center for Environmental Journalism. "I'm very concerned that the statements from the chancellor and the provost don't mention journalism other than giving lip service to the importance of journalism in a democracy. When they talk about the program, they're only talking about information and communication technology. Journalism is about gathering and verifying information as well as presenting it."

A democracy rests on an informed public, Ackland said, and given the turmoil in print media, good journalism has never been more important. Likewise, the importance of good journalism schools and a good journalism education also has increased.

"I think our efforts should be aimed at making sure that journalism has the prominent role in the new entity as created, not that it be given the back seat or marginalized the way it was in the task force report or marginalized by the CU administration in terms of their statements," said Ackland, who joined the faculty in 1991. In 1992, he was founding director of the Center for Environmental Journalism, the first such program in the country and one that is nationally and internationally recognized.

Ackland and others say they are concerned that the committee charged with considering the formation of a new program for information and communication technology (ICT) doesn't include anyone with a significant journalism background.

Voakes, in a letter dated Aug. 26, said the media landscape is changing fast, requiring the need "to redefine journalism, advertising and media education to reflect those changes."

Those changes, he said, have exposed the inertia that happens at universities, and the discontinuance process will allow the university to break that inertia and break down the barriers among disciplines.

"We live in silos right now and it's hurting our students to not be able to take as much business or applied technology as they need. There are so many things that go into the skill set of journalists now. In (SJMC) now, you are pretty much limited in curricular offerings. We can do the best we can to integrate technology in the courses we teach, but you would be so much more empowering to the students if they have coursework in those parts of computer science that make sense for media people, for example.

"If you want a media education in the 21st Century, the traditional journalism/mass communication curriculum isn't going to give you everything you need as a young person," he said.

Voakes said the best advice he received from the schools around the country was that integration of previously separate units is key. "It's a lot more difficult than just smashing together departments and giving it a new name. It's creating courses, some that might even be team-taught ... and research partnerships. That's the integration that will start to make a difference."

It's no secret that budget has been a big issue at the university, and faculty at the school are concerned about what reorganization might mean for their jobs. There are 28 full-time faculty members and 30 instructors, along with 13 staff members, and faculty salaries make up the school's No. 1 expense.

Although DiStefano's letter said "discontinuance" is based upon strategic and budgetary criteria, Dean Voakes said in discussions with faculty and staff, Moore has stressed the strategic implications of the realignment.

Tenured faculty members are guaranteed a position, but nontenured faculty receives no such promise.

"Every one of our current crop of assistant professors was hired because he or she has an interest in teaching in one of these new areas of digital media," Voakes said. "The most likely scenario is that when part or all of us will be moved into the new entity, even those untenured assistant professors will be snapped up for the new entity and offered the opportunity to go up for tenure in the new entity."

If there is not a match, or if a person would rather go up for tenure in another department on campus, that could be arranged by mutual agreement, he said.

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