What can journalism schools learn from watching the University of Colorado?

Last week, news reports hit that the University of Colorado at Boulder would close its journalism school. By the end of the afternoon, the story had morphed a bit – CU wouldn’t be getting out of journalism education, but instead convening a commission to look at restructuring the school, putting its future as a separate entity in question.

(By the way, does anyone have an explanation why several of the former Big Eight schools transpose their initials? How does the “University of Colorado” become CU? I digress….)

Colorado’s earned harsh criticism for the way it handled this announcement. Students, alumni and community members can’t rally around uncertainty. Yes, journalism education needs to evolve as the industry also must, in response to the economic disruption the Internet has brought to the field. But if Colorado administrators couldn’t have offered a specific plan for the future of journalism education at their institution, I’d argue they’d have served their community better by opening up their decision-making process, instead of putting forth closing the school as their primary option. Why leave your students and faculty hanging like this, especially when none of them will be on the commission deciding the school’s fate?

Still, every college and university that teaches journalism must be prepared to address some tough questions about the future of journalism education. For that, Colorado’s not alone.

A personal note: I’ve had some experience with university restructuring, having served as one of five student members of a 23-member student/faculty/administration task force charged with revamping Northwestern University’s undergraduate division back in 1988. Done right, this is tough work that stirs up conflict right away, but in the hope of securing long-term stability for an institution.

I see three huge challenges facing higher education today, challenges that aren’t unique to any journalism school.

1. The cost equation

It shouldn’t surprise anyone that we’ve got a generation of graduates who can’t afford to buy homes and start families. The cost of college has exploded past the inflation rate over the past generation, rising 32 percent at public schools and 24 percent at private institutions just between 1999 and 2009. And that’s after adjusting for inflation.

Students are borrowing more to keep up, and starting salaries for journalists aren’t rising at anywhere near the levels of tuition, student indebtedness or the cost of buying a house – which remains far above the traditional “three times your annual salary” limit in many markets, despite the recent slide in prices.

Something’s got to give, and what’s being given up is a quality of life – recent graduates are moving back in with their parents, delaying parenthood and limiting their spending as they try to pay back their loans, save for a home or just get by in a brutal employment market. With so little spending coming from people who should be starting their lives, is it any wonder the nation lingers in an economic slump?

That slump means less tax revenue for public college and universities, too, forcing spending cuts and even more tuition increases. Clearly, the cost equation for higher education is broken. Administrators must find ways to reduce the cost of higher education, so that they aren’t continuing to break their graduates’ and states’ budgets.

2. The lines between fields are blurring

What’s the difference today between a School of Cinema student filming a 10-minute documentary for YouTube and School of Journalism student shooting a 10-minute video story for YouTube? The medium, financing and distribution channel differences that once helped differentiate documentary filmmaking from broadcast journalism are evaporating as everyone moves toward online publishing. That’s just one example why schools, too, ought to be converging.

The most rewarding experience I’ve had to date in journalism education has been my work with the Marshall School of Business at USC, helping teach entrepreneurial skills to mid-career reporters and editors. Entrepreneurial journalism’s a hot subject in many j-schools now, and appropriately so. But many universities with journalism schools also have business schools with entrepreneurship faculty. Given the need to contain costs in the university, do j-schools really need to duplicate resources already available in the business school? If school policies and customs are keeping one school’s students from accessing another’s faculty, doesn’t that point to the need to re-evaluate why those divisions and barriers are permitted to exist?

As the lines between fields disappear, the lines dividing schools must be erased as well.

3. Students are teaching themselves

I raised this issue last month. With more kids exploring online, they’re picking up not only digital skills, but also accessing a wide and deep range of instruction available on the Internet. Some elementary students today have mastered digital production skills that graduate journalism students struggled with just a few years ago.

This ought to be changing the focus of higher education – not just in the classroom but within the admissions department, as well. And it should be prompting university faculty to engage with secondary and elementary teachers, to get a better feel for how the Internet is affecting student learning – for good and for bad – so that all educators can better address and adapt to those changes. Let’s never forget that higher education is merely the continuation of a process that begins in pre-school. College and university faculty who ignore opportunities to participate earlier in the education process only harm their own teaching and understanding of student learning.

Take these three challenges together, and it ought to be clear that we’ve arrived at the time when colleges and universities need to start blowing things up and recreating higher education. We need to find a way to better educate students who need more interdisciplinary instruction, and at a lower cost than we’ve able to do so in the past.

School administrators would do well to handle this process better than their colleagues at the University of Colorado did last week. But for all of Colorado’s clumsiness with its announcement, it should be clear that the more irresponsible thing for a college or university to do at this point would be to plan no changes at all with its line-up of schools and subjects of instruction.

About Robert Niles

Robert Niles is the former editor of OJR, and no longer associated with the site. You may find him now at http://www.sensibletalk.com.


  1. says:

    Why University of Colorado is CU . . . UC was already taken.

  2. What can journalism schools learn from watching the University of Colorado?

    Apparently, nothing. At least, nothing about journalism.

    Let me take your points in order:

    1) So it’s tough to buy a home, start a family and pay off student loans on a starting salary in journalism. When was that ever not the case? We’ve all been there. Journalism is like ministry. If you’re in it for the money, you’re in it for the wrong reason.

    2)The lines between fields are indeed blurring. It’s up to us as journalists to unblur those lines and clearly explain to students and the general public what we do, why we do it and how it differs from what other people with video cameras and websites do.

    3) Students are teaching themselves digital/video skill. So what?

    My generation didn’t go to college and major in journalism to learn to use a typewriter or develop film. We went to study the craft, ethics and rich history of a profession that used to pursue a somewhat higher truth than how much water a Shamwow can hold. We learned to gather facts and report them and to follow a story wherever it led. You won’t be learning that in cinema or biz school.

    Getting rid of J-school has been a goal of college administrators as long as I can remember. Some saw it as not being academic enough, others just didn’t like answering all those pesky questions from reporters at the college paper.
    The change in medium from print/broadcast to online is just the latest in a long series of excuses.

  3. I submit that there is a huge difference between being “in it for the money” and being having enough money to live on one’s own and start a family after obtaining an education. Today’s graduates face a very different – and far, far more expensive – world than Baby Boomers did.

    And suggesting that cinema and business schools do not teach their students to “to gather facts and report them and to follow a story wherever it led” shows an ignorance of what other schools in the university actually teach. I know documentary and business instructors who teach their students exactly that.

  4. says:

    RE: Why it’s CU? Because that’s how the students, faculty, administration, and just blame folks who live in Colorado call it.

  5. says:

    Back when Jesus was a copyboy, you didn’t need to go to j-school. You learned on the job from rewrite people and editors and started out at the bottom and fought for bylines. Now, long-time experience isn’t valued. Copy-editing is deemed a “non-core” skill. If you’re personable, curious, literate and a quick learner, you’ve got all the skills the trade requires.