To: Eric Newton, Knight Foundation; Clark Bell, McCormick Foundation; Bob Ross, Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation; Mike Philipps, Scripps Howard Foundation; Linda Shoemaker, Brett Family Foundation; Davis Haas, Wyncote Foundation
From: Jason Akst, journalism instructor, Northern Illinois University
Re: Response to your open letter
I write to respond to your open letter of Aug. 3 to university presidents in which you say – and I’m paraphrasing here – that you don’t like how college journalism programs roll, and we need to change our M.O., big time, if we want your money.
I thought someone should get back to you right away, but my response has caveats.
I’m not authorized to speak on behalf of NIU, and like most universities, we’re neck-deep in back-to-school preparations, so it might be a while before anyone official responds. I’m also not authorized to speak on behalf of tenure-track colleagues. I’m also not authorized to speak on behalf of this newspaper.
I do, however, have respectable academic credentials (not enough to be a professor), significant professional experience, and I teach college journalism. Basically, I’m a worker bee who educates tomorrow’s journalists.
Generally, I agree with your endorsement of a “teaching hospital” as a model for academia to re-create journalism for the future, but I have been in journalism in higher education at three public universities, and there are some problems I don’t think you considered carefully.
“This [teaching hospital] model requires top professionals in residence at universities,” you write. “It also focuses on applied research, as scholars help practitioners invent viable forms of digital news that communities need to function in a democratic frame.”
That’s a problem, because being near Chicago, I sample the talent of “top professionals” every day …
And I’m often startled at what they don’t seem to care about, such as accuracy, fairness, overt bias and a focus on information over infotainment. Things are better in print than TV, but we need to be careful about which top professionals we want interacting with faculty and students. Also, are y’all paying these top professionals to be in residence, or is that on us?
Your letter also warns against “administrators who acquiesce to regional accrediting agencies that want terminal degrees as teaching credentials with little regard to competence as the primary concern.”
Professional experience usually factors in pretty strongly in an academic search (at least, the ones I’ve heard of). I don’t have a terminal degree, but am married to someone who does and work around lots of Ph.Ds. Please be wary of the stereotype that a doctorate and competence are mutually exclusive, and don’t worsen the perverse notion that smart people are losers.
Your letter also predictably praises technology, hails digital innovation and laments our equipment.
“University facilities must be kept up to date,” you write. “Currently, many are not.”
To which I say, “Blah, blah, blah.” Technology is not our savior, many universities are broke, and will you ask Adobe to stop issuing new, expensive, noncompatible software every five minutes? Thanks.
Finally, I worry that you wrote to college presidents. I have known a few, and they’re mostly good people, but consider the problem from their perspective.
It’s not like journalism will cure cancer. Mostly, we criticize people in charge. Your letter tells people in charge you’re not happy, and they need to pour more resources into people and programs that will criticize the way they do things. Or else.
• Jason Akst teaches journalism and public relations at Northern Illinois University. You can reach him at email@example.com.