What J-school Closures at Top Universities Portend

University of Michigan

Ohio State University

University of California, Los Angeles

Stanford University

Rutgers University

University of Arizona

University of Wisconsin

University of Washington

University of Colorado (in progress)

This is an impressive group of American universities. Its members span the continent and these schools frequently set the scholarship bar for generations in a variety of disciplines and subjects.

It’s also a group of universities that once included schools of journalism and mass communication (and in some cases journalism departments).  At these institutions of higher learning, however, SJMCs have been dropped altogether, drastically downsized or morphed into communication programs.  Or, in the case of the University of Colorado, the verdict still is out on exactly what will become of its 700-student SJMC program.

Since many, if not most, mass media organizations are extensively staffed with former SJMC students, changes in mass media programs at top universities affect the number and quality of hires not only at the professional media organizations, but also at the industry’s most respected institutions.

While there are a variety of reasons for universities dropping or changing their SJMC programs, certain similarities may be seen in J-school closures at these and other institutions.

Many of the most prestigious U.S. universities are increasingly mirroring the British “Oxbridge” model, which has for many years viewed journalism education as unsuitable for study, thus relegating such studies to trade or more smaller, more regionalized institutions.

America’s Ivy League universities have never included SJMC as an area of study, preferring to focus instead on the more established liberal arts, sciences and humanities disciplines.

This elitist bias also is seen in California, where the prestigious University of California system has all but abandoned undergraduate SJMC programs, foisting such professional programs off onto the more local California State University system. (WHY this bias in a media crazed society?)

While many top American universities embrace professional education, journalism education seldom has been granted full-fledged “professional” status.  And as major universities attempt to shore up their image, SJMC programs, lacking the same professional caché of law, medicine and engineering, can be seen as expendable.

When a major California research institution dropped its J-school late last century, a senior administrator at that university reportedly said dropping the journalism program was an act of “euthanasia.”

Part of the issue has been the long-term, intractable battles between the “chi-squares” and the “green eye-shades.”  Faculty members in the former category usually have focused primarily — if not solely — on social science research.

Accordingly, advertising programs are a natural fit for SJMC programs, given the audience-research component of integrated market communication.

The “green eye-shade” faculty, usually fresh out of the media industry and often without graduate degrees, have geared their attention almost exclusively to teaching writing, news/information gathering, editing and production courses.

While both camps sometimes agree that areas such as First Amendment law, media ethics and journalism history constitute viable curricular and research areas, social-science researchers and media professionals still view each other as enemies at many SJMC programs.  Though most media programs have elements both of research and professionalism and a number of faculty members have both professional experience and advanced academic degrees, individual programs often tend to focus heavily either in the theory- or practice-based camp.

Not only have a number of

high-brow universities essentially rid themselves over the years of SJMC programs, but a handful of mostly East Coast media organizations have in recent decades preferred to bring liberal arts-educated Ivy League graduates into what were essentially media apprenticeships, rather than hire students with J-school degrees from other colleges and universities.

As a result, university presidents at non-Ivy League institutions often do not think highly of J-schools.

While a number of major J-school programs have been eliminated or neutered during the past 30 to 40 years, the overall number of accredited SJMC programs has grown since the early 1980s from 85 to 112.

That said, upwards of two-thirds of students in most J-school programs report they are there for the skills-training they receive, not with the expectation or desire of working in the mass media industry.

With few English programs any more teaching much professional writing, J-school writing classes — along with information-gathering, editing, and production courses — usually are filled, peopled by students knowing they need such skills for whatever 21st Century employment they subsequently will pursue.

However, students filling seats in such skills classes often are those most in need of remedial writing, editing and grammar training. Thus such students seldom make up the sort of clientele likely to become word-smiths in any profession, let alone in journalism and the mass media.

And the students increasingly attracted by SJMCs often are not the crème de la crème of their respective universities.

Even if these issues were not on the table, journalism education mirrors the journalism industry.

As advertising revenue and audiences decrease and technological transitions loom at every news and information media juncture, parents may be disinclined to think a journalism education is as valuable for today’s children as it was at the end of the post-Watergate Woodward and Bernstein era when many J-schools experienced big enrollment bubbles.

When SJMC programs today are linked to journalism hires, the programs appear to be over-subscribed — too many students, not enough jobs.

Still, with a number of students and their parents, journalism jobs are a key factor today, and where do students go with a degree when newspapers and other media are either downsizing or closing? The online sites can’t absorb the grads, and don’t pay much anyway.  And being an “on-your-own” blogger gets old very fast when there are rent bills to pay and food to buy.

Also, universities continue to look for ways to make cuts and there often is little support for SJMC programs from other academic units. While most major universities can’t truly exist without history or philosophy departments, they can still be respectable without a communications or journalism program.

Given the financial state of the mass media, there’s likely to be little professional pressure any time soon for SJMC’s to regain their prominence in U.S. education circles.

Rather, such programs no doubt will increasingly be part of communication and information studies curricula, where the focus is on more non-journalistic media and technology issues.  And more of the pool of college graduates from which most mass media have traditionally drawn will come from less selective SJMC programs at less prominent universities.  The end result portends a mass media with a less qualified pool of new hires and interns from which to choose.  And this does not bode well for the credibility of journalism.

One hopes this dark scenario of what fewer top SJMC programs mean to American journalism — and indeed to the democracy fueled by a well-educated group of reporters and editors — is unrealistic.  Unfortunately, however, if there is a grain of truth to this prognosis, it’s likely too late to reverse the trend.

William A. Babcock is editor of the Gateway Journalism Review.

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