Columbia J-School's Secret Memos Are Incredibly LongColumbia Journalism School Dean Nick Lemann pulled a hilarious oopsy-daisy the other day when he mistakenly sent his personal evaluation of himself and the future of the entire school to all his students, rather than just to his boss. It would have been more hilarious if it was forwarded pictures of Ken Auletta in a tutu or something, but whatever. Lemann basically says that, yes, we have a ton of money and we are the most elite elitist journalism institution in the history of elitism, but it's not all good because, you know, at some point kids are gonna figure out you can't make any money doing this stuff, and they'll probably go to cheaper schools, so let's figure that one out pretty soon. The evaluation is essentially exactly the same as a New Yorker article by Lemann on the current state of Columbia J-school would be, except nobody would ever pay for such a thing. For a better understanding of what Lemann means when he says "mercifully brief," the entire memo reprinted [via Romenesko], after the jump.

2/18/2008 3:48:26 PM


I would like to begin this with a (mercifully brief) overview of journalism education as a whole, because the Graduate School of Journalism aims to be a worldwide leader in its field.

The idea of higher education in journalism appears to have originated with Robert E. Lee, of all people: he opened a journalism department, which still exists, at Washington College when he became its president after the Civil War. The next big step was taken here, when Joseph Pulitzer finally persuaded Columbia to accept a large gift to create a school of journalism. Pulitzer's vision was of a school that would be closely tied to the rest of the university, focused on teaching journalists how to understand complicated subjects and communicate their essence to the general public, and minimally concerned with practical matters like the business or production aspects of journalism. It's significant, however, that between 1903, when Pulitzer made his gift, and 1912, when the school opened, the University of Missouri had started its journalism school, which was the first such freestanding school within a university.

Missouri's school is the model for this very large and thriving field in American higher education to a far greater extent than Columbia's. It is at a relatively low-tuition public university. It teaches mainly undergraduates. It teaches journalism along with other "mass communications" fields like advertising, marketing, and public relations. And it understands the teaching of journalism in a spirit consistent with that of the Morrill Act of 1862: it is a practical skill, not an intellectual endeavor. Of the hundreds of degree-granting journalism programs in American universities (this field in higher education is growing rapidly, and it is beginning to take hold internationally), we are the only one that offers only graduate professional education in journalism at private-university rates. Conversely, Columbia's peer universities have thus far let pass the opportunity to offer for-credit journalism education, for the same reason that they don't teach many other practical-minded skills that one regularly finds among the offerings of the great mass of colleges and universities. Last year Harvard initiated a journalism program in its continuing education school.

For most of its existence, the Graduate School of Journalism has been overwhelmingly "craft" or "trade" oriented (which adjective you choose depends on whether you approve or disapprove). During the 2002-03 academic year, Lee Bollinger convened a task force on journalism education, of which I was a member, whose purpose was plainly to push the Journalism School to upgrade itself intellectually. That was my primary assignment as dean, and the attractiveness of it was what led me to accept the job.

After five years, I can report that this effort has borne fruit to a greater extent than I would have dared to expect — though I would also say that the overall culture of the school has changed only partially, and the culture of journalism education around the country very little at all, even though our work here has had a strong endorsement, backed by money, from the most influential figure in higher education philanthropy, Vartan Gregorian of the Carnegie Corporation. In additional, journalism, to an extent that nobody on the Bollinger task force would have predicted, has undergone a technological revolution and a related economic crisis over these last five years, and that has substantially affected both my deanship and the field generally.

Here are some specific changes — I believe for the better—at the Journalism School over these last five years:

We have started our first new professional degree program in more than 70 years, the Master of Arts in Journalism, which is the vessel for most of the curricular innovations that grew out of the Bollinger task force's work. This program is now in its third year, with forty students; mature size will be in the range of 48 to 60. Graduates from the first two classes are working at such news organizations as The New York Times, Time, Newsweek, The Washington Post, The Times of London, CNN, The Wall Street Journal, and Foreign Affairs.

The M.A. program does not offer traditional skills classes; instead, it is organized around the understanding of complicated subjects. It is divided into four majors: science, business and economics, politics, and arts and culture. Unlike almost all university programs for journalists that emphasize subject-matter instruction, the M.A. program's classes reside primarily inside the school; distinguished journalists in the field, who have joined our faculty, invite faculty members from elsewhere at Columbia (and sometimes from other universities) to come to the Journalism School and co-teach with them. This forces our own faculty to focus on matters of intellectual content as well as craft, and it gives our students the opportunity to transform the technical material they are learning into journalism.

The biggest surprise about the M.A. program is that its students are mainly not members of the previous year's class in our Master of Science program, as we had anticipated, but young working journalists who are coming to the school for the first time. The strong interest from outside is gratifying and the weak interest from inside is disappointing. That demand for the program has moved in the way direction it has indicates that we should probably keep our two masters degree programs as conceptually separate as possible and recruit for each one aggressively but distinctively. Thus far we have been able to offer very generous tuition relief to the M.A. students, thanks to start-up funds from the president's office. After two more classes this will run out; our greatest challenge is to maintain demand and student quality after that, via fundraising, demonstrated success in job placement, and spreading the word about the quality of the program.

Fourteen new full-time members have joined the faculty of the Journalism School since 2003. Some of these are people who were already here as visiting faculty or heavily employed adjuncts, but at least half of the total came in through broad, open national searches of a kind that the school historically has not done. We hope to add two or three more new faculty by the mid-summer. At that point more than half the full-time faculty will be new, and that changes the overall tenor of the institution significantly. In general, our new faculty members are highly accomplished and productive journalists, people who lead the way in their realm of journalism and who are happy to take part in the more intellectual atmosphere of the school. We have also developed written standards for tenure-track and non-tenure-track faculty that have led to a high level of consensus about what kind of work faculty members should be doing, and to a happy results from ad hoc committees.

Our school now has a full-dress development and alumni relations office for the first time in its history. In 2004 we launched our first-ever major fundraising campaign. Some time in 2008 we will reach the campaign's goal of $100 million raised, four years before the announced campaign deadline. Our annual total of alumni contributions has more than tripled. Our endowment has more than doubled. We have also significantly tilted the balance within our fundraising away from grants and toward endowment gifts, and away from ancillary programs and toward our degree programs. We have more than doubled the portion of our endowment devoted to financial aid, and established two new endowed chairs. The largest single piece of our campaign total comes from our portion of John Kluge's gift to Columbia, but beyond that we have achieved our results without the kind of lead gift that would ordinarily be considered necessary. We have eighteen seven-figure donors but, other than Kluge, no eight-figure donors.

We are toward the end of the largest physical construction project in our building since it opened in 1912. The project aims to create a physical manifestation of the new emphasis on our core educational function: It is a three-level student center, encompassing a large open space for work and social interaction (something we never had for our students before), a library, a newsroom-like area for making phone calls and writing, several classrooms, the offices of those administrators whose work puts them in most frequent contact with students, and a kitchen and outdoor cafe. The cafe portion of this project — new construction in the space between the Journalism and Furnald buildings — is running late, but we expect it to be done by late summer. We have also built a new broadcast studio that makes our television and radio facilities far better and more current than they had been.

The most important change in our skills-oriented Master of Science program has been adjusting its curriculum in response to the rapid onset of the Internet as the dominant delivery medium for journalism. In 2008, for the first time, all our students will have participated in building Web sites in classes, and our New Media major is growing rapidly. This year we created three new sections of an elective New Media course, and began requiring all sections of our basic skills course, RW-1, to operate Web sites and all students to learn the rudiments of gather audio and video material for the Web. This has been a large and expensive effort, and I hope it is only the beginning. We are actively seeking a substantial endowment to enhance our work in this area by, among other things, hiring new faculty and developing new curriculum.

A few other curricular innovations are worth mentioning. Thanks to a major gift, we have a new investigative reporting center with a superb director, Sheila Coronel. Its presence is attracting first-rate students who are doing excellent, regularly published work, and getting good jobs. Thanks to another gift, we have started what we believe to be the only case-study curriculum at a journalism school, on roughly the business school model. We hired a longtime case writer from the Kennedy School at Harvard, Kirsten Lundberg, and under her direction we have produced enough cases to have begun, this semester, a new course entirely based on them — "Decision-Making in Journalism," taught by Professor Michael Shapiro. We have just decided to lengthen our course to degree for documentary students, who, starting with the class we will admit in a few weeks will have to stay on for a third semester that will be entirely devoted to their capstone projects. In the future we may offer a third semester as an option to students who want to do projects in other media. We have redesigned most of the fall-term core curriculum in our M.S. program; for example, all students now are required to learn at least some of the history of journalism. We have just signed an agreement to launch our first dual degree program with a non-U.S. institution, the new journalism school at Sciences Polytechnique in Paris. We hope to set up four or five similar arrangements around the world, and to use these as a way of expanding our reach internationally. We are in the process of an extensive review of our Ph.D. program, and we have hired two new faculty members to work primarily with our Ph.D. students.

Outside of our degree programs, we have, for the moment, gotten Columbia Journalism Review out of perpetual financial crisis mode, through fundraising and a new management and budgeting regime. CJR, under the direction of Victor Navasky, is now a daily publication on the Internet, as well as a six-times-a-year print magazine, with a quite respectable audience of about 150,000 unique visitors a month. The print edition, which has moved in a more intellectual and analytic direction, got its first-ever National Magazine Award nomination last year. We have started several significant new programs, the most important of which are a year-long executive leadership program we began last year with a major gift from the Sulzberger family, and a resident fellowship program for education journalists that we will launch in the fall, on a grant from the Spencer Foundation. The first of these has wound up being mainly an effort to help journalism think its way through the economics of the Internet age, and the second is, in the spirit of the M.A. program, an attempt to marry university-resident subject-matter expertise with journalistic practice.

In the administrative realm, we have gone through two rounds of reorganization that have given the school a coherent reporting structure, an evaluation and goal-setting system for staff, and a formal planning process. We have an entirely new admissions staff and a relocated admissions office, and we are putting into place for the first time a coherent financial aid system. I am concerned that our applicant demand, though high, has fallen slightly, and the new admission staff is charged with devising and putting into place a much more aggressive recruiting system than we have had before. Our career services office also has entirely new personnel, and has gone from one person to four; because of its efforts, our job placement record is as better than it has been in many years, during a very tough time for journalistic employment. We are now engaged in a search for a new position called Dean of Academic Affairs. That person will be charged with developing systems for evaluating teaching and for making our curriculum better and more consistent. We have also created a new associate dean position for communications — aimed not so much at our relations with the press as at recruiting applicants. Toward that end we have gone through two redesigns of our Web site and launched Internet advertising and direct-mail efforts.

To have been be able to accomplish all of this, with generally quite a lot of enthusiasm and relatively little resistance from everyone here, counts as a stroke of unexpected good fortune. The school is in fundamentally healthy shape. There is reason to hope that most of the new efforts I have just mentioned will long outlast my deanship. I do, however, have some concerns.

I cannot be sure how long our school can continue to thrive if the profession it serves is not thriving. We have many advantages, including our financial resources, our location, our worldwide reputation, our strong relationships with employers, and the quality of our faculty and curriculum. We do not have the advantages almost all other journalism schools have: a large and not very job market-sensitive undergraduate student body and low tuition. In the short run, we are benefiting from journalism's replacing older reporters with younger ones, but in the long run we must be as attentive to recruiting and to placement as possible, and we must teach our students to be journalists in ways that are as broadly applicable as possible geographically and across the different media.

I don't think I have been nearly effective enough in persuading either our own Journalism School community, or other journalism schools, or the wider world of the profession, that the professional education of a journalist should include intellectual content. The primary orientation of journalism schools, including ours, is toward conferring skills associated with entry-level practice; almost the entire discourse in journalism education is internal to journalism and concerned with professional norms and practices, rather than with how to understand the world we are supposed to cover.

When journalism schools feel moved to take a next step after skills instruction, they usually devote their energies to exhorting the profession to do a better job — a good cause, certainly, and something we do a lot of here. Developing non-skills curriculum generates very little interest in the world of journalism education. In the Carnegie-Knight Journalism Initiative, the portion devoted to curriculum reform, in which we are the officially designated lead institution, is the clear laggard, attracting minimal interest from the other schools despite the availability of funding. It is true that the move of journalism to the Internet has generated some interest in new curriculum, but most of this comes under the heading of retooling skills courses for the new medium. The question of what journalism amounts to as a discipline — what distinctive body of knowledge, which intellectual and analytic tools, what way of thinking might be associated with it and might therefore be taught in journalism schools — simply doesn't energize journalism educators, even though every manifesto and mission statement we as a group produce mentions it as a desideratum.

I could have forced the issue more here by taking the approach of substantially changing the M.S. program rather than starting the M.A. program. That would not have been achievable without the school's having been put into receivership (Northwestern has put its journalism school into receivership, though in service of a quite different major curricular project, integrating the offerings of its journalism and "integrated marketing" departments). Besides the unpleasantness that would have entailed, all the evidence we have would indicate that a longer course to a more intellectually oriented degree program would substantially decrease our applicant pool. So, rightly or wrongly, I elected to take the route of an alternate and optional degree program, and now that it exists it has changed the tenor of the school to some extent, with more change to come, I hope. I still wonder whether I should have, or should in the future, spend political capital to push more substantial and systemic change through the school.

A big question on my mind is what I can do in the coming years to be more effective in persuading both the Journalism School community — students, faculty, alumni, employers — and the wider world of journalism education that the new ideas we are putting into place here have merit. I don't have to tell you that one part of this challenge is the difficulty of extracting oneself enough from the relentless daily and weekly demands of the job, the operations-level stuff, for long enough to be able to think in a deeper way. It may be that writing and speaking more, in just the right places, if I can fine time to do it, would be the most effective way of getting the message across; or it may be that focusing closely on the school itself would be more effective, because making all our new initiatives work well could be the best way of ensuring that in the long run they will have the influence I would like them to have. I would appreciate any counsel I can get about this, because I find the situation frustrating.

I'll close by saying how much I appreciate having been given the opportunity to do this job. I was not in any conventional way qualified to do it, so hiring me must have been a risk. I have had nothing but the most complete and generous support from everyone in the university for these past five years. It has been a privilege to be welcomed into a great university so fully, as an uncredentialed outsider. Thus far this has been a great adventure, and Columbia feels like home now.