Columbia Rethinks Journalism Education

Three years after president questioned its role, university announces a new approach to the field -- while keeping existing program.
March 28, 2005

Three years ago, Lee C. Bollinger set off a debate about journalism education, when he suggested that it focused too much on skills and not enough on the kind of intellectual growth that would prepare journalists for a long career. Bollinger, then the new president of Columbia University, made his comments in rejecting the finalists for the deanship of the university's Graduate School of Journalism.

Now -- with a new dean running the school -- Columbia is introducing a new journalism curriculum. But it is doing so in a separate program, maintaining its old program, which has many of the characteristics Bollinger criticized. The new program is a one-year M.A. degree that draws more heavily on the liberal arts and broad areas of study, rather than the traditional, one-year M.S. program at Columbia, which focuses on specific skills like news writing.

Nicholas Lemann, the journalism dean at Columbia, said in an interview that the two programs are different enough that he expects many students in the new program to be graduates of the older program.

"We want to teach things [in the new program] that you cannot pick up on your own on the job. It's our supposition that people in this program will never be full-time at a university again in their jobs, but they will be in journalism for decades," he said. "We are trying to teach people things that will be useful to them over the long term as journalists."

The M.S. program, in contrast, is for people "who don't have the ability to walk into a newsroom and say 'I can perform tomorrow as a general assignment reporter, writing a story every single day.' "

Why maintain the old program when Columbia's president (and many others) have criticized journalism schools for lacking enough intellectual rigor and failing to help graduates do anything but get their first job? Said Lemann: "The M.S. program has been running for 70 years and it's been running very successfully. Employers like it. Students want to be in it."

Currently, the M.S. program has about 200 students each year. The new M.A. program will start with about 20 students and grow to 60.

The M.A. program will involve a focus on "majors" that will allow students to spend more time learning about the subject matter they hope to cover than they might in a traditional journalism program. Students will specialize in fields such as government, science or economics and business.

Lemann noted that plenty of journalism schools offer courses in similar fields, such as covering government. But he said the M.A. program would offer a broader background. Rather than introducing students to comparisons of state governments or federal agencies, as Lemann said most programs do, Columbia will focus on "conceptual themes" such as identity, justice and power. "This is going to be a fundamental concepts course that will help students whether they are later covering a local school board or the new Iraqi parliament," Lemann said.

Another hallmark of the new program will be a year-long course, "Evidence and Inference." The course description says that it aims "to instill in students a combination of skills and habits of reflection that are much more easily acquired in a university than in a newsroom, and that will stand them in good stead over the long haul of their careers as working journalists. Students ought to finish the course with a mix of enhanced confidence about their ability to obtain and understand complex information, and increased humility about how subtle and necessarily imperfect concepts such as facts, truth, and proof really are."

The changes at Columbia -- and the review process that led to the changes -- have been closely watched by journalism professors all over the country. But for all the talk of how revolutionary the changes are at Columbia, many elsewhere believe that Columbia is playing catch-up.

Sharon Dunwoody, a professor of journalism at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, and president-elect of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication, said that Columbia's M.S. program has long stood out as being "all skills, all the time." She said that the trend in master's programs has been toward including more liberal arts and subject matter instruction, and less skills education.

At her university, for example, she said that master's students complete their program in 1-2 years, and take a third of their courses outside the journalism school, with the idea of developing subject matter expertise.

"What the Columbia changes mean is that those students who take the first year and then are accepted for the second year are going to get a kind of skills/liberal arts mix, more like the hybrid program in place in many journalism programs around the country," she said.

Dunwoody speculated that Columbia officials may not have been able politically to revamp the existing program, but may do so down the road, if the new M.A. becomes popular. "This is how organizations change," she said.

Lemann acknowledged that the M.A. program could influence the M.S. program over time, but he said that the focus for now needs to be getting the new program right.

"I wanted to proceed with some care because some parts will work, some parts won't work," he said. "It's more intellectually responsible to see what we have than to suddenly order everyone who comes here to take a bunch of new stuff."


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