So what is your doctorate in?

hey-honeyNot long ago, newspaper editors thought the idea of a reporter getting a college education was about sensible as horns on a horse. Applying a slightly different comparison, New York Tribune founding editor Horace Greeley displayed a notice in his paper’s office saying: “No college graduates or other horned cattle need apply.”

Nowadays, of course, college degrees are basic requirements for journalists. Indeed, a former city editor of mine who had left our little New Jersey daily was denied advancement at Newsday a decade or two ago because he lacked such a degree, never mind his ample skills as an editor. The thinking, one presumes, is that only someone who has been broadly schooled in the textbook-learning on offer at university can bring to bear the intellectual breadth needed in a modern news operation.

Fair enough (except, of course, to my frustrated former editor). But what are the limits to creeping credentialism? Should a master’s degree now be the threshold requirement for a journalist? Beyond that, what should the credentials of a teacher of journalism at a university be? How about a dean? Is a Ph.D. a minimal requirement for a professor or a J school administrator?

DeanImageThis all comes to mind as we at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln ponder five candidates for the deanship at the College of Journalism and Mass Communications. Three boast doctorates, while one stopped at his master’s degree and another topped out academically with a bachelor’s. While the first three earned advanced degrees, the latter got their educations on the job, leading impressive advertising and news operations, respectively. (Indeed, all are impressive for differing reasons.)

So which one is best equipped to run a J school? Naturally, one cannot judge them on paper alone. To their credit, the members of our school’s selection committee did not toss the resumes lighter on academic credentials. Instead, they invited the contenders to pitch us on their ideas for how to run a school that aims to supply talented, well-rounded journalists and advertising and PR people to industry – a particular challenge as the industry changes fast around us and the demands for technical skills grow.

The open-mindedness of the committee members may reflect the makeup of our college faculty, a wondrous blend of sheepskin and shoe-leather. All of us have master’s degrees, but relatively few have doctorates. Those without the high-level academic pedigrees honed their craft in years of experience in such places as the New York Times, Newsday, The Miami Herald, The Detroit News, The Denver Post, The St. Petersburg Times (and Politifact), BusinessWeek, The Wall Street Journal and TV stations in markets such as Detroit and Omaha, as well as ABC News. Nebraska is a place where students learn from people who’ve gotten their schooling in the trenches as well as the classroom.

big10-11-nav-logoThe decision, of course, on who will take our mantle won’t really be made by that faculty. We get to weigh in. But, ultimately, the choice will be made by top officials at UNL, most of whom have earned Ph.D.s (though our chancellor’s degree is a juris doctor). Will they demand the Ph.D. union card, consciously or otherwise? Should they, in fact, given that research is a growing requirement for J schools to shine? And, does Nebraska’s entry into the Big Ten demand the credential, not only of our dean but of more faculty members over time, as well? Will the college be taken seriously alongside the likes of Northwestern if we don’t go toe-to-toe on the credentials front? What does it take to run with the big dogs these days?

For wisdom, readers might turn to a report issued last October by the Columbia Journalism School. It traces the growth of professionalism in the field and details longstanding tensions between industry and academia, along with the strains between journalism programs and the higher reaches of universities. “Very few schools are dominated by faculty members who have either journalism degrees or PhDs in communication. And many dean searches turn into contests between a journalist and an academic,” says the report, “Educating Journalists: A New Plea for the University Tradition.”

A.J. Liebling
A.J. Liebling
The authors argue for boosting the quality and quantity of graduate professional education in journalism. They say they hope this would lead to a master’s degree in journalism or a doctorate in communication becoming a standard credential for a journalism faculty member. Taking care to argue for top-quality instruction, they remind readers of Greeley’s thoughts and those of another journalistic icon, A.J. Liebling. The latter blasted his J school training (at Columbia) as boasting “all the intellectual status of a training school for future employees of the A&P.”

On requirements for deans, however, the authors punt. That may be fitting since one of the three authors, Nicholas Lemann, led Columbia for a decade even though his formal education didn’t go past a bachelor’s degree (he was busy cutting a deep swath at the Washington Monthly, Texas Monthly, Washington Post, Atlantic Monthly and The New Yorker). Indeed, Lemann’s successor at Columbia, Steve Coll, likewise didn’t spend more time in a classroom than needed for a BA, but instead put in his time writing seven books while laboring at The Washington Post and The New Yorker. Coll took the helm at Columbia just this year.

So what qualities will prevail at CoJMC? Will the Ph.D. be the price of entry to the deanship here and, increasingly, at J schools across the country (except at that titan in Morningside Heights, which improved a lot since Liebling’s day)? In time, will a doctorate be mandatory for tenure-track positions at all such schools, as it is already at many that are not as enlightened as CoJMC?

Stay tuned.

Everybody’s got a hungry heart — some more than others

What is it that drives winners? For some, it is living up to expectations set by demanding teachers, coaches or parents. For others, it’s simple “self-fulfillment,” as the cliché-peddlers would have it. For still others – perhaps more of us than would care to admit it – outward success is an attempt to fill deep emotional holes left by childhood deprivations.

A few things came together in the past week to raise this question anew for me. Nationally, there was Newt Gingrich’s surprising success in South Carolina, a victory that came about just after a revealing 1995 profile in Vanity Fair gained renewed life on the Net. In the piece Gail Sheehy sought to fathom the hungers that drive Newt, someone abandoned by a father, tormented by an angry stepfather and smothered by a manic-depressive mother. How can such trauma not sear one for life? Today, we know that Gingrich’s canyon-deep needs have proved too great for three wives to fill. Nothing less than the presidency might come close to sating him (and one doubts that will be enough).

Then there was the cover story in the New York Times Magazine about Oscar Pistorius, the would-be Olympian. The “fastest man on no legs,” he runs with prostheses since both his legs were amputated below the knee as an 11-month-old because of a birth defect. That’s not all he’s had to deal with: the runner’s parents divorced when he was six and his mother died when he was 15. He is estranged from his father. “Everyone has setbacks,” Pistorius told author Michael Sokolove, shrugging off his challenges in jock-like manner. “I’m not different. I happen to have no legs.”

Closer to home for me, there were the autobiographies my Journalism 202 students wrote. As always, too many of their tales were troubling. Despite their fresh faces and youthful eagerness, some are hauling a lot of baggage for kids barely out of their teens (some perhaps still in them). Divorces, infidelity and alcoholism at home. Dread diseases in those close to them. One told of struggling as a single mother in high school in a religious rural community.

Will these kids overcome the bad hands life has dealt them? Will they, like Gingrich, Pistorius and plenty of others, figure out how to turn shortcomings into sources of strength? Can satisfying their cravings lead them to successes in journalism or whatever field opens for them?

There are heartening signs. Take the single mom, for instance. She was the “moral symbol” of her Christian school with a laundry list of accomplishments from church group leadership to sports and student-council activities. Then pregnancy got her kicked out. (So much for Christian charity.) Today, though, she calls her 2½-year-old son her “precious little gift from God.” She says he’s the source of her inspiration to pursue a broadcasting career.

There’s the young woman whose life has been scarred – three times – by divorce. Her mom divorced twice before she was six, a third time when she was in high school. Through it all, she threw herself into athletics, band and academics. Today, she’s making her mark in college sports. “My past has built me into a strong, tenacious woman,” she wrote. “I have only scratched the surface the surface of what is going to be an amazing life.”

Then there’s the young man who told, unblinkingly, of his mother’s failings. When he was 10, he wrote (in the third person), she “cheated on his father with her coworker.” She often came home late and drunk. She and the boy’s father split and eventually the father remarried, recreating a family. The student, who excelled in high school theater, choir and speech, told of how he’s following a passion for telling stories. “For now, I’m living my life the way I want to lead it,” he wrote.

I’m encouraged by the determination these kids feel. They seem to know that the same things that nearly hobbled them are the things that can put steel in their spines. There’s no self-pity in their tales, though there is, of course, hunger. There’s a need for recognition, a need for someone to listen.

Such needs are not bad things in a journalist. Richard Behar, an award-winning investigative journalist for Time, Forbes and other publications, came to UNL a while ago and told of his personal history. He grew up as a ward of the state of New York, knocking around its foster-care system. Clearly, in sharing that story, he was suggesting the challenges he dealt with were responsible, in part, for the successes he has had.

Journalists, after all, want to be heard. My longtime editor at BusinessWeek, Steve Shepard, added bylines to the magazine years ago, understanding that recognition drives writers to do their best work. For years, the philosophy had been that magazine writing was a group effort. That’s still true, but he felt – rightly – that pursuit of the limelight was too powerful to ignore. What journalist worth his or her salt doesn’t want a cover story or front-page piece bearing his or her name?

In politicians (and perhaps journalists), overwhelming hungers can be dangerous, of course. Insatiable needs nearly derailed the otherwise successful presidency of Bill Clinton. They crushed the presidency of the much-tortured Richard Nixon. Soon, voters may have to judge whether Gingrich’s psychological shortcomings will make him a good or impossible president. Oddly enough, they could face a choice between him and President Obama, a man shaped in large part by the lack of a father. Great needs may drive great winners, but an honest journalist will tell you they still they remain great needs.