Tuesday, June 26, 2007

A Mess At Medill: 'Basket Case' Education Awaits Journalists

If there's one thing a journalism school needs, it's a good reputation.

Already plagued with being left out of the U.S. News & World Report Graduate Schools guide as well as having little to no visibility on a national level, journalism schools can only rely on the quality of their institution -- and a reputation, especially among the public's disdain for a biased press, is paramount.

So it makes me a little sad to read a few days ago that the faculty and the administration at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism -- you know, arguably one of the "top 3" along with Missouri and Columbia -- is at an impasse in the form of, well, reform.

Chicago Reader's Michael Miner reports that the faculty senate at Northwestern has formally accused the university's administration of abolishing democracy at Medill. Only the worst can come of it, Miner writes:

"The backdrop to this blunt resolution is a series of internal and external audits in recent years that judged Medill--which enjoys seeing itself as a journalism school without equal--as an academic basket case."

A basket case. I'm pretty sure most news organizations try not to hire those! (operative word: "try")

The problem stems from Medill's future vision, Miner writes. "A new curriculum is going to be introduced over the next four years, and although professors have been consulted individually, one told me, 'We don’t vote on anything. We have no vote. Anybody who dissents is labeled "antichange." ' Another outsider heads up the new curriculum project--Mary Nesbitt, who'd been director of the women-in-newspaper-management project at the Media Management Center until Lavine brought her over."

Now I'm not sure of the details surrounding this alleged stifling of democracy, but what I do know is that right or wrong, those involved in this conflict must look at the bigger picture. Northwestern itself has a sterling reputation and its journalism school just as much. To have such a strong conflict -- and escalate it to public levels, even if we're talking about journalists here -- risks a journalism school's reputation. And if we can't trust a journalism school to churn out quality journalists, well, we're really in a pickle then, aren't we.

So, Medill faculty and administration: Please take the time and listen to each other. You're a bunch of people who advocate democracy on the page -- let's start practicing it. Because clearly someone's feeling cheated. And sooner or later, it's going to be the students.

Some of the comments are revealing:

"Current Medill Student" writes that "[Nesbitt] is very happy imposing her viewpoint on others, but, right or wrong, she seems unable or unwilling to listen to anyone else."

Robert Mentzer writes that he "just graduated from Medill's grad school and I found John Lavine's dictatorial management style appalling."

Another current student writes that the administration "has brushed aside all complaints that students currently enrolled in the school are getting a subpar education."

And another: "I feel sad that I, as a Medillian, am finding myself telling students who want to go to Medill to look other places, because of such poor organization and the lack of communication between the administration and professors."

It's hard to say there isn't something wrong when that many current and recent students sense a problem. It might even be damning.

Clearly, I'm a big advocate for the educated journalist. In fact, I'm a big advocate for working together to achieve change, in the form of synergy between journalism schools to raise the discipline's profile. But if we can't depend on our journalism schools to adapt amicably and benefit from withstanding internal and external pressure -- especially those at the forefront like Medill -- the whole system's at risk. In the non-journalism world, it's the equivalent of Harvard suddenly encountering great internal turmoil and tension. And with history as an example (President Summers, anyone?), we all know how well that reflects on the public perception.

As one of my old professors used to tell me: "Find a way." Medill grads out there -- what do you think?

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