CU journalism school possible-closure headlines went from premature to inaccurate, dean says

Nothing gets journalists more hysterical than perceived attacks on journalism. It's no surprise, then, that an announcement the University of Colorado at Boulder was considering discontinuing its journalism school in favor of a new media entity prompted big play for panicky pieces implying that the move was another sign of journalism's impending death. In the view of J-school dean Paul Voakes, "the first wave of headlines was somewhere in the range of premature to inaccurate."

Voakes doesn't specify the worst offenders from his perspective, but "It's a Wrap for CU's Journalism School in Current Form," which dominated the front of the Denver Post's metro section yesterday, is a likely suspect despite the inclusion of the "current form" caveat and a sidebar noting that a number of other colleges across the country are doing pretty much the same thing.

From Voakes's perspective, the word that set off the press was "discontinuance," a formal term for the procedure required whenever the university considers this kind of change. Hence, the deluge of CU-is-closing-its-J-school reports, which particularly upset new journalism majors, who were in the midst of orientation -- and hadn't been given any hint of potential changes -- when the story broke.

Such enrollees shouldn't be concerned, Voakes stresses. There's been no final decision about doing away with the journalism school thus far, and the process is lengthy.

First, an exploratory committee with members chosen by the provost will "start to work on questions of whether a new academic entity makes sense," Voakes says. The committee's report isn't due until December, at which point "the provost and the chancellor together will mull it over," he goes on. "They hope to make their own decision by late January or early February. And if they decide to make a change, all effected parties start the process of implementing, and while we're trying to be more agile and responsive, the wheels of academia do grind slowly. I think the fall of 2011 would be premature, but the fall of 2012 might be possible if all the stars are in alignment and unanticipated controversy doesn't slow the process down."

We'll have a better idea about the potential for outcry next month. The Academic Review and Planning Advisory Committee will host forums for students and faculty on the subject on noon on Tuesday and Wednesday, September 7 and 8, at the University Memorial Center, room 235, plus two more forums for j-school students on Tuesday and Wednesday, September 14 and 15, in the same location from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. on day one, noon to 2 p.m. on day two.

As for the fear among current students that a CU journalism degree will be devalued by any possible switchover, Voakes says, "it's possible at some point in your CU career, you would jump over to the new entity once it's up and running, or stay and finish the degree in what you enrolled in as a first year student. All current students will have that option. I think most students will probably see the wisdom of taking advantage of the new program, because it will have so much more to offer. But if you come out of CU with a journalism degree in the year 2015, even if we are able to establish a new program, it will still be an extremely valuable degree."

The idea of changes in the journalism curriculum isn't new for either Voakes or CU. He was interviewed for a February 2008 Message column about the journalism department's hiring of three Pulitzer Prize winners, including Jim Sheeler, a writer for the now-defunct Rocky Mountain News. Here's a telling passage from the piece:

Students keep enrolling in journalism programs regardless of uncertainties surrounding the profession. According to Voakes, CU caps journalism enrollment at 600 undergraduates, and over the past five years, the number of students in pre-journalism categories has never dipped below 800. And although Voakes concedes that fewer students "show an interest in paying their dues at a community or rural paper and then working their way up to the Post or the Rocky," he says a similar amount "are learning these skills so they can go into entrepreneurial work that's more web-based -- and I'm thinking that's not such a bad thing." With this shift in mind, CU is tweaking its curriculum to emphasize the sort of multimedia and cross-platform skills that the 21st century demands.

What's changed since then? For one thing, the number of students applying to the journalism school is starting to slip. "Going back over the past ten years, we have historically admitted 52 percent of the CU lower-division students who apply to the school," Voakes says. "But now, by the latest measure, which was applicants for our spring semester, we were up to a 65 percent acceptance rate. And the higher acceptance rate and the steady state of open seats logically implies that there are fewer applicants."

While Voakes doesn't have any surveys to show that today's students associate the word "journalism" with the fading print industry, and are therefore avoiding it in favor of degrees that presumably offer a better chance of post-graduation employment, he sees rebranding and expanding the offerings as a sensible approach given the myriad changes in today's media landscape. Yet he emphasizes that any new entity will include plenty of journalistic verities, including training in ethics, critical thinking and so on.

In other words, journalism will still be a big part of whatever emerges from CU's current efforts, even if it no longer has a school in its name.

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts