Vive la Différence

About two months after the Board of Regents for the University of Colorado voted to discontinue the school of journalism and mass communication at the Boulder campus, the university’s administration is bringing in a department head with no background in journalism to oversee the program's next phase.

June 23, 2011

About two months after the Board of Regents for the University of Colorado voted to discontinue the school of journalism and mass communication at the Boulder campus, the university’s administration is bringing in a department head with no background in journalism to oversee the program's next phase.

Christopher Braider, a professor of French and Italian, will assume the role of director of journalism and mass communication faculty on July 1, replacing outgoing dean Paul S. Voakes, who resigned before the decision to close the school was announced. In that position, Braider will oversee administrative operations, including the creation of the “Journalism Plus” program housed temporarily in the university’s Graduate School, which will allow students to take journalism and mass communication as a second major or minor. Current plans call for him to serve for two years while the university deliberates about how to reinvent its journalism and media education program.

While numerous journalism schools are trying to adjust to a field that has been radically transformed in recent years, Colorado's decision stands out because, unlike other journalism schools that have undergone transitions, administrators decided to completely eliminate the existing unit and start again from scratch.

Bringing in a faculty member from outside the department is a rare but not unheard of occurrence, especially at times of significant transition or problems within a department. It is a key component of receivership, when university leadership replaces a mismanaged department's chair with an outsider. While an outside administrator can often present challenges, Colorado journalism faculty, citing Braider's managerial experience, said they welcome him while the campus decides how to reinvent its journalism program.

The decision to bring in Braider underscores some of the reasons administrators sought to tear down the school before creating a new one. Multiple faculty members said the decision to hire an outsider to both the school and the field of journalism was done partially to avoid ongoing divisions between faculty members focused on academic research and faculty members focused on practice.

"The transition from the School of Journalism and Mass Communication to a new program requires a fair-minded leader who will not be influenced by past conflicts and issues in the school," said Provost Russell L. Moore in a press release. "Chris Braider has demonstrated in a number of positions at CU-Boulder that he can lead with fairness and objectivity while carrying out the many administrative tasks required to run a program."

Faculty members said these past conflicts tended to revolve around divergent views between academically and professionally oriented faculty members about the future of the school. Because each camp was focused on its own goals, the school had a hard time reaching consensus about how to move forward and address changes in the job market.

“Journalism had been marginalized over the years,” said Len Ackland, who serves as co-director of the Center for Environmental Journalism at Boulder. He said the school had moved toward focusing on “media studies” as an academic discipline at the expense of actual training. Ackland, along with his co-director at the Center for Environmental Journalism, were the only remaining tenure-track professors in the school who are not academics. All other “professional” faculty members are adjuncts.

Braider said he has heard about these divisions from faculty members since being named director last week. On one hand, he said, more-traditional journalism faculty members worry that the school's mission is being co-opted by researchers. On the other hand, he said, research faculty question the value of vocational training at a major research institution like Colorado.

"I think you're seeing this at a lot of journalism schools," he said. "What exactly is a journalism school supposed to do at a research university, and can you serve that special function without sacrificing the vocational training at the center of it?"

Braider, a specialist in 17th-century French literature, has no background in journalism, but he does have a wealth of administrative experience. He previously served as chair of the department of French and Italian and chair of the department of comparative literature and humanities. Like the journalism school at present, both those departments were divided and factional when he took them over. Braider said he had success at bringing the departments to consensus about their missions, which he said is one reason the administration approached him about directing the journalism faculty.

His role will not be to set a new vision for the department, but to make sure that the “trains run on time” for the next two years. He will make sure the books are balanced, attend conferences to represent the school, and help schedule courses. Administrators are hopeful that a planning process begun recently will conclude at the end of the next school year, and that the university can consider leadership the following year.

"I don't feel that the primary skill set that is required for our program's leadership at this time is someone with a background in journalism," said Andrew Calabrese, one of the journalism professors, in an e-mail. "Rather, I believe that what we need is a sympathetic and supportive colleague who has administrative experience and no personal agenda other than to steer us through the transitional stage we're in with intelligence and equanimity."

While Braider manages the faculty, the administration is convening various groups to help share the vision of a new school or college that could potentially comprise journalism, communication, media studies, and other related disciplines. These focus groups range from the broad idea of "cross-platform delivery of nonfiction content" to more specific themes like "advertising and design" and "journalism."

Administrators said this part of the process has been overlooked while media outlets have focused on the decision to shutter the school, despite the fact that both recommendations came from the same report.

Jeffrey N. Cox, associate vice chancellor for faculty affairs, is organizing this phase. He said he doesn't want to limit the number of discussion groups. All ideas will be funneled through a steering committee, which will begin developing more concrete plans. He said he hopes this phase is wrapped up by May 2012, so the university can begin to develop what comes next and find new leadership.

"It's unfortunate that the term we used for reorganization was 'discontinue' because that has such negative connotations," Cox said. "But now everyone can look to the future. We're hoping this is the fun part."

Braider said he is also optimistic about the transition and what can be learned from it. "These people are living through a transition that our culture is living through, which is fascinating," he said. "I just hope I can help get them through to the other side."

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