Like just about every subject we journalists touch, the argument about the value of journalism schools gets continually forced into a false dichotomy. Some editors lament journalism education’s increasing prominence, swearing instead by the smart young person with a good liberal arts education. Others contend there’s no guarantee like a good journalism degree that a job candidate has the essentials.

This is an endless and unanswerable argument since the only proof is in the work of an individual. Some folks find themselves a good liberal arts education while they are at journalism schools. Some don’t get one at Harvard. Some learn more from editing the college newspaper than from attending classes. Some folks who drank too hard, lived too hard, and never went to college write like angels and become great journalists. Others are sentimental drunks.

The notion of either/or clarity on this question is false, as is the suggestion that Columbia must hold fast to peerless teaching of lede-writing lest it veer into terminally useless chin-stroking. Columbia, like all of us, could use a good self-examination, yet journalists work in a trade famously averse to change. Our academy is no different.

Embracing Broader Issues

Answering the questions, “Why do we need journalism schools?” and “What ought Columbia to be?” comes down to this: Journalism needs the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism—as it needs Missouri and Medill and all the rest—because for journalism to thrive (or perhaps even to survive) it needs a thoughtful, smart and practitioner-enriching academy. Just as our nation badly needs more intellectual and moral leadership from its university presidents, journalism needs leadership from its journalism schools. We need a place where thoughtful people do instructive research and make interesting pronouncements and produce illuminating case studies, a place that can bring all this to bear on the education of students—and also on the trade and even on the civic life of the nation.

Leadership from journalism schools could, for example, inform and elevate the long-running debate about profit pressures on journalism through research. Such study could focus attention on a comparison of media-company practices with what other industries are doing in training and research and development. Or it could examine the community impact of different kinds of newspaper ownership or provide measurements of journalism excellence that could be used alongside profit numbers when media executives gauge success. Such leadership could be there to respond with a powerful accounting of the ways in which press freedom has served the American public during the past year when yet another survey shows plummeting support for the First Amendment. This leadership could, during crises like the Washington-area sniper shootings, enrich the debate about police/press relations with a thoughtful and detailed affirmation of the value of making information public.

Good business schools do this kind of thing for the business world, law schools for law, medical schools for medicine. Journalism is as essential as these professions. It isn’t possible for us to renew our craft without thoughtful places to stimulate and nourish the minds of those who lead the way.

What Columbia does, matters. Columbia is in the nation’s media capital. It is the only Ivy League journalism school. It is also home to the Pulitzers and other visible recognitions of excellence. The outcome of the Columbia deliberations will matter—to journalism educators, to journalism, and even to the public.

Journalism is sick today in ways that make our democracy sick as well. Lee Bollinger, the president of Columbia, has a promising background to bring to this challenge. He’s an editor’s son, a Freedom of Information Act lawyer by training, a university president of evident skill and largeness of mind. His interest and desire to do something other than allow the journalism school to continue along its set path honors journalism. Ours is hardly the discipline, after all, that most academics would choose to take so seriously, to spend so much time on, to attract so much attention to.

I take Bollinger’s concern as a positive thing for journalism, a positive thing for a craft that demands a probing and thoughtful examination. Such an examination might not be his intent, but I prefer to think the university will enter into deliberations that are at least as substantial as the predictable debates about skills vs. theory. As one of five people who examined Columbia’s journalism school in a report to the provost when the previous dean took over, I’d be inclined to assure the worried observer that the traditions of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism are sufficiently well lodged as not to be easily shaken. And I say this as an admirer of good, solid craft training.

For craft training to be accorded due respect does not mean all else must be shunned. To ponder the suitability of the school engaging in the study of broader issues is not the same thing as consigning it to the production of dreary communications theory papers no one will read. Indeed, the questions I have in mind go in the opposite direction—toward relevance, rather than away from it. In our craft, we need leadership. We need to have the hardest questions asked and sound and thoughtful answers sought. We need an academy that embraces journalism with all its heart, but that also is civically engaged and intellectually substantial enough to nourish journalism.

That’s what I hope Bollinger can accomplish. I can’t imagine that a commission of 36 can accomplish it. But I can imagine that a great university president could come closer to mobilizing these forces to get the task accomplished than anyone else. I wish him luck, that all of us might benefit.

Geneva Overholser, a 1986 Nieman Fellow, is the Curtis B. Hurley Chair in Public Affairs Reporting in the Missouri School of Journalism’s Washington bureau. A frequent media commentator, she writes a regular column on newspapers in the Columbia Journalism Review and a Weblog-style column about the connections between the business and the craft of journalism for Poynter Online. She is the former editor of The Des Moines Register, ombudsman of The Washington Post, and editorial board member of The New York Times.

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