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You Want ME to Write the Institutional History?

You Want ME to Write the Institutional History?

April 17, 2008

For all that they are seen as bastions of knowledge and unfettered flow of information, colleges and universities are not typically known for welcoming rigorous scrutiny of themselves. They often have love-hate relationships with the journalists who cover them.

So imagine my surprise in 2002 when R. Dean Mills, dean of the University of Missouri’s Journalism School, asked me, an investigative reporter on its faculty, to write an institutional history of the school, the world’s first and arguably best, to commemorate its centennial.

The offer felt like an attractive one -- he agreed to pay a sum commensurate with what a New York City book publisher would pay for a trade title found in the country’s major bookstores, and had lined up the University of Missouri Press, a first-rate academic press, to publish it. Still, I said no -- I was under contract to write a trade book, I did not think I could handle a second book project at the same time, and the idea of an institutional history sounded potentially boring. But the dean demonstrated persistence. Each month that passed, the money became increasingly appealing, in part because my advance from the trade publisher had long since run out.

I was sure, though, that my unshakeable demand -- complete editorial independence – would cause the dean to draw back. I was wrong. When he agreed to that condition, I said yes, despite my reservations.

You have it right: Mills chose the person most experienced at unearthing skeletons, digging up dirt, (substitute your own clich√©, if you like), to tell his institution’s history. Was he crazy, or gutsy, or what?

Protected by my written promise of complete editorial independence, I began digging -- er, researching. What happened over the next five years surprised me, a veteran of seven trade books, over and over.

Surprise Number One: The secrets hidden in archives. As an investigative reporter, I am accustomed to being stonewalled when I seek information from government agencies, private sector corporations and even not-for-profits such as charities. Yes, I had used archives before, so I grasped their importance. That said, what I found at the University of Missouri archives astounded me at times. The dedicated, skilled archivists delivered box after box to the table where I was taking notes. They never withheld folders, never inquired about my motives, never complained about the voluminous nature of my requests.

Inside the boxes I found revealing information about journalism school programs (including budget increases and cuts) as well as documents about faculty, staff and students, many of them still living. Negotiations preceding faculty hires, disciplinary panels, tenure and promotion applications and votes – all there for my consumption.

Surprise Number Two: The prickly questions of self-censorship I faced. Access to sensitive files meant potential invasions of privacy if I decided to publish what I found. As an investigative reporter writing in the omniscient third person, I worry about invasions of privacy infrequently. A story important to a broad readership must usually trump concern about an individual. That formulation might sound heartless, but those uncomfortable with it should never become investigative reporters.

I felt differently as the chronicler of the journalism school’s history. My name would appear as author, but I did not consider the book so much “mine” as I did “ours,” with me representing current and former faculty, staff and students. I understood from the start that lots of folks constituting “ours” wanted me to produce an upbeat centennial history rather than an expose. As a result, I discussed only the tenure and promotion controversies necessary to document themes, such as the troubles faculty at what is partly a vocational school encounter when being judged for tenure/promotion by a campus-wide committee of Ph.D.s in biology, physics and history.

Not all the self-censorship puzzlements arose from archival material. For example, I knew from my decades at the school of faculty on faculty extramarital affairs; faculty on staff extramarital affairs; and faculty members who began romantic liaisons with students. How to handle those, especially because at least a few affected the educational atmosphere within the school? I considered writing about the impact of some affairs without naming names. But that would have violated my personal ban on anonymous sources and subjects. Furthermore, failing to name names would have cast a shadow on the uninvolved. For better or worse (probably worse), I omitted all such sexual liaisons from the book, except for rumors involving the founding dean and a student, rumors that had been published previously. That student became a faculty member, as well as the dean’s second wife after he spent years as a widower.

Surprise Number Three: Examining my biases. I arrived at the University of Missouri in 1966 as a student. I graduated from the journalism school in 1970. In 1978, I joined the faculty, eventually became a full professor with tenure, and continue to teach there part-time. That means for more than 40 years I have known many of the people mentioned in the book. I never pretended to put aside all biases. I devote more paragraphs than some other author might to my mentors. I devote more paragraphs than other authors would to Investigative Reporters and Editors, a professional group with headquarters at the journalism school; I served as executive director of IRE from 1983-1990, and still serve as an editor on IRE’s magazine. I did my best to avoid score settling, but probably failed to erase or even hide all my negative reactions to certain individuals. In the preface, I warn readers: “When I possess firsthand knowledge of people and occurrences, I have allowed that knowledge to inform the narrative. I am acutely aware that my firsthand knowledge is open to interpretation by others with different values and vantage points.”

Surprise Number Four: The dilemmas of context. The journalism school has been home to ugly episodes of racism, sexism, religious intolerance, homophobia and ageism. I worried about slamming the journalism school for such behavior when the same ugliness permeated the entire university (the first African-American faculty member did not arrive until 1969), city, county, state and nation. I eventually decided to cover a few of the most significant ugly incidents in depth, and omit the rest.

Well, the book is generally available now (press.umsystem.edu). Its main title is The Journalism of Humanity, part of a quotation from the founding dean Walter Williams, who, by the way, never attended college but eventually became the University of Missouri’s president. The subtitle is “A Candid History of the World’s First Journalism School.” I believe the word “candid” is accurate, despite what I omitted.

 

 

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