The University Record, April 4, 1994

Narrowing the Field

By Marion T. Marzolf,
professor of communication

On January 14, Dean Edie Goldenberg called a meeting of the faculty of the Department of Communication. We were all urged to attend. She announced that our chair of two years, Neil Malamuth, currently on leave, would leave Michigan. (We later learned that he would return to his previous position at UCLA.) He found us ungovernable, she said, and the Department was in such chaos that she would not begin a search for a new chair. A dean would supervise us for the following academic year. Our executive committee and bylaws and search for a junior faculty member were suspended. She would appoint a committee to decide our fate.

The Department would be represented on the committee, the dean said. There was no preconceived plan, but she would charge the committee to consider the widest possible range of options.

This is a Department that the College created by forcing a merger of the Department of Journalism and the Department of Speech/Communication (which included radio, television and film) in 1979, in order to offer a broad curriculum and research mission embracing the entire field. The Speech Department’s doctoral program was phased out in favor of an interdepartmental doctoral program that originated in the Journalism Department. There were three M.A. programs: Journalism, Telecommunication Arts, and Communication Studies.

At the undergraduate level, Michigan became one of the first schools in the nation to develop a generic curriculum that relied on the interplay of academic scholarship and performance in the print and audio/visual media. The Department was fifth and sixth in recent national rankings. Now, as mass media industries merge into multimedia orientations, create an “information highway” and produce multiple forms of media mes-sages through hypertext, this approach is being adopted by other schools.

Undergraduate enrollment increased rapidly, The new unit has double the previous enrollment, but tenured faculty positions did not keep pace. The tenured faculty today are: five full professors (excluding the departing chair); three associate professors (one of whom is on leave to another program and does not vote); six assistant professors (three of whom were denied tenure). The rest of the faculty are full time or part-time lecturers with little or no job security. Lecturers are carrying an increasing amount of the teaching responsibilities.

The new chair, who was thought to represent a stronger commitment from the College, was welcomed by the Department. The dean assured us that we were to work with him to chart our Department’s future. Our large enrollments, our low cost to the College, and our few tenure lines make this a daunting task, further complicated by College budget cuts or caps. This has been the Communication Department’s playing field for several years. It was true seven years ago when the decision was made to bring in the best six assistant professors on tenure-track to strengthen the teaching and research base of the Department. Stars would then be attracted to the reinvigorated Department — that was the plan. But the College also pressed for and got the Department to reduce the scope of its work to mass media and journalism. Now, the dean is calling for a still narrower focus.

The outgoing chair was reluctant to discuss details of his vision for “achieving national prominence” for the Department, but in last year’s five-year plan it became a bit clearer. The plan proposed to focus on two areas: mass media and public affairs and mass media and social behavior, with future hiring limited to those two areas. Cultural studies, media law, ethics, history and criticism, reporting and editing, and creative expression in print, film, and video were little discussed, and left undernourished.

This plan polarized the faculty, coming after the dropping of the M.A. in Communication Studies, attempts to close down the Telecommunications Arts M.A. program, several proposed revisions of departmental bylaws that would disenfranchise all but tenured and tenure-track faculty, and frequent references to plans for converting the funds for lecturers into added tenure-track positions while decreasing the number of concentrators and course offerings.

The recent article in the Ann Arbor News (March 21) covers many of the problems. It does not discuss curricula, departmental mission, long-range planning, or the future of the mass media in a global society. These are subjects that the faculty wanted to address and had begun doing in a series of open meetings last fall, after the College rejected the Department’s proposal and expressed concern over the split vote and lack of consensus. These open meetings ceased with the dean’s January visit.

The Department of Communication has never been given a full-scale internal or external review since it was formed. It would seem reasonable to do so now, whether the unit is to be closed, subdivided into programs, or expanded. An open and complete review, drawing on faculty and students, as well as nationally recognized experts in this academic discipline and in the mass media professions seems in order.