Swatting at Gadflies
Will real-world journalism be banished from the University of Arizona?
by Joe Gold

PRESIDENT MANUEL T. PACHECO, Provost Paul Sypherd and Social Sciences Dean Holly M. Smith are redesigning a leaner University of Arizona for the 21st century. They speak in platitudes about quality education, student mentoring and minority recruitment. But their actions say something quite different.

In the name of cutting costs, these arrogant academics plan to slice into the muscle of the institution and eliminate a department with a strong tradition of close ties between faculty, students and the community.

The UA Department of Journalism has consistently excelled in teaching real-life news gathering, writing and editing. Decades before it was fashionable, the journalism department maintained an open-door policy with students to discuss assignments, the profession and life in general. The UA Department of Journalism has been a national leader in recruiting minority students, particularly Latinos, to take their places in the nation's newsrooms. They produce newspapers for Southern Arizona communities and spread good will for the university in South America, Mexico and around the United States.

These days, the UA administration marches to the mantra of total quality management, and let the casualties be damned. They take disagreement as disloyalty, and 1,300 impassioned letters pleading for reconsideration as just so much junk mail. They ignore pleas from the editorial pages of the Arizona Republic, the Phoenix Gazette, and Tucson's local newspapers. They scoff at letters from the Arizona Press Club, publishers from around the country and alumni who take enormous pride in the quality of their professional training.

First Dean Smith, then Provost Sypherd and now President Pacheco have signed the death warrant for the Department of Journalism. By June 30, 1998, it will be gone.

The Faculty Senate is assembling a committee to hold hearings terminating the department, and will report back to Pacheco with a non-binding recommendation within 90 days. An endorsement from the Faculty Senate would suggest that terminating journalism isn't just the notion of Pacheco, Sypherd and Smith, but a broadly supported campus consensus that journalism just isn't pulling its own weight.

WHEN THE MATTER first came up last spring, merely threatening to eliminate journalism appeared to be a clever ploy. The administration had faced an early round of budget cuts a few years back. Then officials announced with a nod and a wink they would have to eliminate the UA marching band. The community rallied to the support the band, and local business people rescued "The Pride of Arizona" half-time shows.

In 1994, upon the altar of re-election, Gov. J. Fife Symington III offered up the state income tax. The almighty dollars he sacrificed are bled from the budgets of Arizona's three state universities. For the sake of his immediate personal political triumph, the governor cuts a handsome slice from Arizona's future.

After all, if God had wanted Arizonans to have educations, he'd have granted each newborn a diploma.

At first, journalism seemed perfect for Holly Smith's budget review committee to threaten to amputate from the university. What department but journalism could better inflame the righteous indignation of the press? The media could rally to apply its considerable pressure, and force the governor and his legislative cronies to relent and restore money to the university budget. The university could get its money and administrators could shed their crocodile tears for the beleaguered department that almost got the ax.

And Gov. Fife could swat at the media gadflies that threatened his reelection.

Except it didn't quite work out that way. Instead, UA officials stuck to their guns with a non-academic vindictiveness that has the whole campus puzzled. In the process, they have created a public relations nightmare that could haunt them for years.

IN APRIL, DEAN Smith's recommendations went to Provost Paul Sypherd, who could accept or reject the findings. In May, Sypherd and Smith paid a courtesy call on the journalism department. Faculty members recalled that Sypherd never quite gave a straight answer to direct questions.

As the story unfolded over last spring and summer, his explanations kept shifting ground. Some of Sypherd's stated rationales:

  • It's about money. We can't afford the luxury of journalism education.
  • Your 1994 accreditation committee said you were too print-oriented. You need to cover broadcasting, public relations and advertising.
  • There just aren't enough jobs for journalists in Arizona to justify your existence.
  • You need to do more research. Yeah, that's the ticket, academic research like counting how many times a TV network can say "OJ."

Sypherd ordered Jim Patten, head of the journalism department, to meet with representatives of library science and media arts last summer to discuss a possible combined program. There were two meetings where nothing happened. Without the threat of termination, neither library science nor media arts felt any urgency to participate in the process.

By July, Sypherd forwarded his own recommendation to President Pacheco: terminate journalism. Student letters popped up in the Arizona Daily Wildcat decrying the decision as an arrogant administrative act that never took student concerns into account.

To placate public opinion, Sypherd wrote a column published on the Arizona Daily Star op-ed page citing a 1994 journalism accreditation report that faulted the department for focusing too narrowly on print journalism.

A week later, the Star published another column by Trevor Brown, the dean of the journalism school at Indiana University, who headed the 1994 UA journalism accreditation committee. Brown scolded Sypherd for deliberately misrepresenting the report, which had much praise for the journalism department and a few suggestions for improvement.

Sypherd declined an interview, and forwarded my request to Vice-Provost Kenneth R. Smith, the former dean of the College of Business. Smith (no relation to Holly Smith) didn't want to discuss journalism, but the general philosophy behind cutting a department.

"We've been in an environment of enormous support for higher education for the past 30 years," said Kenneth Smith. "That's changed now, and we have to respond. It's like the federal government cutting back on bases. Everybody agrees that it has to be done, as long as it happens somewhere else."

The administration cries crocodile tears for a department they see as vulnerable because much of its six-member faculty is nearing retirement age. Speculation on what they're really up to has run rampant on campus.

Some thoughts from people who prefer to not be quoted:

They're setting up a test case to bust the tenure system protecting academic freedom and faculty jobs.

They're striking back at the department that dared to object to a major donation from Kemper Marley, who was implicated in the murder of Arizona Republic reporter Don Bolles.

They're taking aim at the academic mother of all reporters, and thereby swatting at the gadflies who buzz around state and local government, looking for the truth behind official explanations.

The issue, originally over journalism, is now a fight over who's really in charge, and Pacheco, Sypherd and Smith refuse to bow to public pressure as a matter of arrogant pride.

Journalists aren't a rich lot, but they do have access to people in power. So they usually make lousy ass-kissers. In fact, the Department of Journalism's ineptitude at the art of sucking up may indeed be the hidden crime for which they are executed.

More of the crime may be that journalism just isn't academic enough. The real world that journalists cover is an ugly intrusion on ivy towers. Apparently mere professional training is beneath the dignity of what President Pacheco would like to be called "The Harvard of the West."

HOLLY SMITH, DEAN of the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences, argues, "Journalism is preparing people, and preparing them competently, to go into a profession in which many more people are being trained than there are jobs available. The national figures show that about eight per cent of the people with journalism degrees get a journalism job."

This sudden new administrative concern for how students fare in the workplace would be touching if it weren't such obvious hogwash. Never mind that the statistics are narrowly drawn and wildly inaccurate and that about 88 percent of j-grads get employed, more than half of them in the media. Just consider the 225 undergraduate and 25 graduate psychologists this university annually tosses out onto the mean streets. Or scan the classifieds for even one job in Holly Smith's own discipline of philosophy.

"There are people who wrote in who said you're right." Smith says "the real jobs out there are in media relations, public relations and advertising, and you have to start up a new department. The trouble is, to do justice to that demand, we would have to find money from somewhere else, and we don't have the money to do that. The question is whether we should maintain them as they are now, because that's the best we can do."

Smith seems to prefer training media manipulators, who are paid to shape the truth for corporate ends through carefully worded non-information and misleading TV commercials. It appears odd that she has no academic qualms an exploitative disinformation industry while killing the one discipline turning out competent generalists who pursue information and who are trained to render it fairly, accurately and comphensibly to the public.

The battle moves now to the Faculty Senate, who will consider Pacheco's recommendation. The Faculty Senate may deal as well with the issues of allowing a crack in the long-established tenure system that provides professional security for faculty members. They will consider that if the administration can succeed in dismantling this small but respected department, how long will it be before they go after bigger prey act. Rumors are they might consider dismantling of the College of Law and the College of Architecture.

What department in political disfavor might next face the ax under the growing power of administrators with the unhappy task of chopping into a shrinking budget?

The final say about the Department of Journalism is up to the Arizona Board of Regents, perhaps by the end of the spring semester. As Tucson's weather heats up, so will the battle.

Meanwhile, the school kids who have been looking forward to journalism at the UA can watch and wonder.


Author's postscript: Two months after this Tucson Weekly cover story, the Arizona Board of Regents voted to retain the Department of Journalism. Within the year, Manuel T. Pacheco resigned as president of the University of Arizona. His sucessor, Peter Likens, dropped in on the Journalism Department's annual banquet to personally deliver a formal apology.

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