Tenure is more than a job for life

TenureMountainThe letter was short, barely filling a page. But the message, for me, was a big deal. The vice chancellor for academic affairs at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln let me know this week that I had successfully run a 5 ½-year long gauntlet and qualified for tenure.

I choked up. I felt like a 17-year-old getting accepted into the college of his dreams. The news about what technically is called “continuous appointment” meant more to me than I had expected. It meant more than just job security; it meant I had been accepted by my peers, my dean and the people who fill the upper reaches of my Big Ten university as someone they’d like to work with for as long as I could command a podium in a classroom.

That acceptance, that ratification of my role as a mentor to young people, that endorsement of my teaching and research skills – it was like getting my first car or going on a first date. It summoned up sepia-colored images of my father – someone who had not even graduated from high school – calling me and an academically inclined sister his little professors. We were the ones who pulled As, the ones he could see in classrooms, occupying places he respected.

I was surprised at my own reaction, though, partly because I’ve been conflicted about tenure. After all, I managed to stay 22 years at my last job, at BusinessWeek, without it, and had worked at three other news organizations before without it. At each place, I was only as good – and secure – as my next story. My job security depended on shifting arrays of bosses and the economic health of my employer. And that seemed fine to me – even just, if one believes healthy capitalism requires dynamic labor markets where jobs must come and go, where there is no room for sinecures.

For years I’ve been sympathetic to a view that a former colleague at BusinessWeek put into writing recently. Sarah Bartlett, marking her first anniversary as dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at the City University of New York, complained that the “tenure system can create a permanent class of teachers who may not feel much pressure to constantly refresh their skills or renew their curricula.” Tenure, she suggested, would atrophy programs rather than create the “vibrant academic cultures” that journalism schools, in particular, need at a time of great industry ferment.

SkeletonBut does tenure serve mainly to shield those who would resist change? Does it do little more than protect aging old bulls and cows who should long ago have been turned out to pasture? Does it guarantee that hoary old fossils will dominate classrooms, spouting outdated and irrelevant approaches? Does the pursuit of tenure, moreover, drive aspiring faculty members to do pointless impractical research that doesn’t help the journalism world or the J schools themselves, as Sarah also implied?

Well, I look around at my tenured colleagues at UNL and see the opposite. As one pursued tenure, she wrote a textbook for training copy editors. Sue Burzynski Bullard’s text – “Everybody’s An Editor: Navigating journalism’s changing landscape” – should be standard fare in any forward-looking J school. Because it is an interactive ebook, the now-tenured Bullard is able to – and does – refresh the book regularly. Another colleague, John R. Bender, regularly updates “Reporting for the Media,” an impressive text that he and three colleagues wrote. It’s now in its 11th edition. A third colleague, Joe Starita, produced “I Am A Man: Chief Standing Bear’s Journey for Justice,” setting a high bar for storytelling and research that contributes to an emphasis at our school in journalism about Native Americans. This was Starita’s third book and he’s toiling on a fourth, even as he inspires students in feature-writing and reporting classes.

And that productivity by tenured faculty isn’t limited to written work. Starita teamed up with multimedia-savvy journalism sequence head Jerry Renaud to shepherd the impressive Native Daughters project about American Indian women. Bernard R. McCoy, a colleague who teaches mainly (but not exclusively) in the broadcasting sequence, has produced documentaries including “Exploring the Wild Kingdom,” a public-TV effort about the most popular wildlife program in television history. Another of his works, “They Could Really Play the Game: Reloaded,” tells the story of an extraordinary 1950s college basketball team. And he’s now working on a production about WWI Gen. John J. Pershing.

Tenure doesn’t mean that creative work ends or innovations in the classroom cease. Each of my colleagues has had to adapt to the digital world. Some still prefer to teach in older ways – one quaintly requires students to hand in written papers that he grades by hand, for instance. But even he teams up with visually oriented colleagues to guide students to produce work as today’s media organizations demand it. Charlyne Berens, a colleague, and I teamed up with the Omaha World-Herald just last spring to guide students to produce a 16-part series that boasts print, online and multimedia elements, The Engineered Foods Debate. Charlyne, who recently retired as our associate dean, wrote several works, including “One House,” about the peculiar unicameral Nebraska legislature, and another about the former Secretary of Defense, “Chuck Hagel: Moving Forward.”

tenuretelescopeAs for me, the pursuit of tenure gave me the impetus to write my first book, “Transcendental Meditation in America: How a New Age Movement Remade a Small Town in Iowa.” I’m now working on a second book, exploring the reasons that drive people to join cults. I’m also developing curricula for business and economic journalism instruction that I hope will serve business school and J school students, including those interested in investor relations. The pursuit of tenure also drove me to develop research for academic journals, encouraging me to look into areas as far-flung as journalism training in China, as well as such practical work as the teaching of business journalism, the challenges of teaching fair-minded approaches to aspiring journalists, and the pros and cons of ranking journalism schools – all topics for forthcoming journal publication.

Forgive me for beating my own chest. I don’t mean to. I am humbled by the work that my colleagues at the J school and across the university do. It is an enormous honor for them to consider me a peer and, assuming that the university’s regents in September agree with our vice chancellor, I expect that I will spend the next decade or so trying to live up to that.

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.

Eastward ho! China beckons

The Chinese embassy has made it official now. My visa for a semester-long teaching gig at Tsinghua University in Beijing just popped in the front door. So it looks like a year’s preparation will pay off with a nearly four-month stay beginning Sept. 8.

I’m stoked.

The program, organized by the International Center for Journalists in Washington, D.C., and backed by my Dean, Gary Kebbel, and the far-sighted folks in the administration at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is thrilling. I get to teach two classes to budding Chinese journalists, grad students in the Global Business Journalism program at Tsinghua. They are keen to learn about business and economic coverage and about multi-media journalism.

For my part, I get to learn first-hand about the world’s second-biggest economy as it pushes even further into the global limelight. It will prove to be a fascinating, if paradoxical place, I expect. A “developing country” that is nearly 4,000 years old. The U.S.’s biggest creditor and yet a place with one of the lowest per capita incomes on the planet. A planned economy that seems to work, mostly anyway.

The university I’ll teach in is commonly ranked among the top three in the country. China’s current president, Hu Jintao, studied and taught at the 100-year-old school. Its journalism college, however, dates back to just 2002, as this technologically minded university — sometimes called the MIT of China — is still developing its humanities offerings. The ICFJ, led by China hand and former BusinessWeek colleague Joyce Barnathan, has been involved there since just 2007. I’m told the students at the Tsinghua School of Journalism and Communication will include some of the brightest kids in China, the likely leaders in their organizations in the future. I’m hoping they will challenge me as much as I challenge them and that, in my small way, I can make some lasting impact that will affect they way they see – and influence – the world.

It’s a daunting prospect. Will they behave like American students – in good and bad ways? Will they question and argue, for instance (probably not, I’m told, since deference to the teacher is a Chinese cultural trait)? Can I teach them about the cut and thrust of good journalism? Will they understand American-style journalism at all, or have a wholly different notion of the mission of media? Just think about how much some major pubs in China get quoted here as, more or less, the voice of officialdom.

Then there are the personal issues. Will the government particularly care what I have to say in the classroom or on the Net? Will it pay attention in either place? There are so many academic visitors to China from the U.S. nowadays that keeping track could be impossible and pointless for folks in official ranks. The Chinese want what we have to offer, especially in areas such as business and economic journalism. They think it a crucial skill as their business communities grow and globalize, and they’re right about that.

I’m going, however, as much as a student as I am a teacher. I’ve always felt that missionaries were fundamentally arrogant, assuming that they were bringing the truth to the ignorant masses. I’m a bit contemptuous – though usually more amused — when they knock at my door. So I’ll pack a sense of humility along with my syllabi. Yes, I can teach my young charges some useful skills – just as I do back home in Nebraska – but I expect I’ll learn far more from them and their country. China, after all, does have a few years on us in the U.S. as a civilization.

I plan to keep a blog of my experiences. This opportunity will vastly enrich me as a teacher, not to mention how much it could broaden my worldview. The three-week trip colleague Bruce Thorson and I took to Kazakhstan with eight students last year was good preparation. It gave me a sense of how people in a developing place look on us in the West, and on how they look on life in general. I expect to get more than a glimmer of that in the coming semester and look forward to sharing that both here and in classes to come.

Stay tuned. Should be one heckuva trip.