URBANA — The abrupt resignation of the dean of the University of Illinois College of Media has once again stirred fears about the college's future.
Interim Provost Edward Feser reached out to department heads after Jan Slater's May 12 resignation to assure them that the campus has no "master plan" to dissolve the small, 99-year-old college. He promised to appoint an interim dean quickly so that operations can continue uninterrupted in the fall.
But Slater's departure after her five-year review came as two of the three departments had already been exploring a move to other colleges.
And budget challenges facing the campus have only added to speculation that the college might be a target for downsizing.
On Thursday, Feser said his goal is to stabilize the college and determine how best to support the departments. The college includes the Department of Journalism, Department of Advertising, Department of Media and Cinema Studies, Institute of Communications Research and the Division of Broadcasting, which includes Illinois Public Media/WILL.
"At this point, I'm focused on an interim dean who can come in and make sure we're ready for the fall," Feser said. The interim dean would work with faculty to determine the timing for a permanent dean's search and the future of the college, he said.
Since 2000, the College of Media has survived several rounds of scrutiny by campus committees that considered whether it should be reorganized or merged with other units. Those reviews were prompted by budget considerations and a perceived lack of cohesion in the college.
"That's certainly high on people's radar," said Professor Rich Martin, head of the Department of Journalism. "A logical person could conclude that you can only go through these so many times before you decide, 'Well, maybe we've done this enough,' and move forward. But that's not what the provost said."
Martin expects a "rigorous review" of the college that will determine the next steps.
Feser said that likely won't include another campus task force but more consultation in-house.
"I'd really like to better understand what the college has been trying to do, and what the disciplines would like us to do" before committing to a dean's search, Feser said.
"What I've been trying to stress to faculty is that the goal is to have robust disciplines. But I think under the circumstances, we have no choice but to ask ourselves whether or not the way we're structured today is the best way for us to be successful in journalism, advertising or media studies. I honestly don't have a master plan I'm trying to force them into. I have a legitimate interest in trying to understand how best to support these areas."
Units want out?
With roughly 50 faculty members and 1,100 students, Media is the smallest college on campus. But that's not a reason to conclude the college isn't viable, Feser said.
"Size is really not my concern. My concern is whether or not the disciplines and the mix of research and teaching strengths hang together in a robust way such that a college structure can advance those fields," something that applies to any college, large or small, he said.
According to numerous faculty members, the Department of Advertising is exploring a move to the College of Business, and the Department of Media and Cinema Studies is interested in the College of Fine and Applied Arts, where Feser is dean. But it's unclear whether those colleges are interested.
Jeff Brown, dean of the College of Business, would say only that his college partners with the College of Media on projects relevant to both colleges and "we will continue to do so."
In an email Martin sent to journalism faculty, obtained by The News-Gazette, Martin said Feser suggested "conversations" between FAA and the College of Media but "never imagined a complete merger of the two colleges," just that "some units might fit better somewhere else."
The heads of the advertising and media and cinema studies departments did not respond to requests for interviews.
Martin said he'd like to see the college stay together.
"Collectively, we're stronger than we are if we're put into" larger colleges, such as Business or Liberal Arts and Sciences, he said. "There's a lot of synergies and commonalities that we share."
Feser said Thursday the fact that one or two units are considering other colleges "says to me that it's worth understanding the reasons, and exploring whether or not we have the right structure and configuration before I would invest in going out and searching for a new dean."
That was the motivation in 2003 when then-Chancellor Richard Herman called off a year-long search for a new dean and appointed a committee to make recommendations about the college's future. He said the search had raised "fundamental" questions about the college, such as whether the units had a coherent vision, were well-served by the current structure or could function effectively together.
The committee suggested major structural changes within the college, criticizing its lack of a shared mission, "walls between units," an advertising department that had "imploded," and declining quality in the Institute for Communications Research. It recommended reconfiguring the Department of Journalism as a school and including WILL radio and television, to offer more broadcast education opportunities; disbanding the advertising department and possibly making it an area of specialization within journalism; and eliminating the Institute of Communications Research or more clearly defining its scope.
The report angered many in the college, who felt it misrepresented the issues. A college task force asked to address the problems ended up recommending instead that it become a four-year college, to improve student opportunities; that the advertising program be strengthened rather than eliminated; that WILL offer student internships in marketing and journalism; and that media studies be expanded.
Then in 2009-10, the college was one of four small academic units examined for possible consolidation, along with the School of Labor and Employment Relations, the School of Social Work and the Graduate School of Library and Information Science. A campus budget review committee concluded that no significant savings could be gained from merging those units. But it recommended that the college continue discussions about possible reorganization.
A new dean
Slater, an advertising professor, was then appointed interim dean, succeeding journalism Professor Walt Harrington, who had served as interim for a year after Dean Ron Yates stepped down following his five-year review in 2009. The campus had called off the search for Yates' successor, given the bleak financial conditions facing the university.
Slater was asked to address a growing budget deficit and questions such as the best size and structure for the college, its funding sources and how it could secure more grants and donations. At the time, the advertising department had asked to move to LAS, and the college's finances were murky, campus officials said.
Feser praised Slater for developing a new strategic plan for the college, promoting interdisciplinary initiatives and more alumni engagement, launching new fundraising efforts, strengthening WILL and making diversity a priority. She also whittled down a sizable budget deficit.
But faculty members have criticized the growth of the college's administrative staff and a lack of budget transparency, and say promised improvements in teaching facilities haven't materialized. A recent academic review of the Department of Journalism referred to a poor relationship between the dean and the faculty.
Slater was out of the office last week and could not be reached for comment.
Feser said he's aware of the "long history" of proposed changes to the college, but he clearly doesn't want to rehash the past.
If faculty "are wondering whether this campus needs to have strong media programs, let me put their fears to rest: We must have strong programs focused on media, whether it's media studies, whether it's advertising, whether it's journalism. Media is too essential, too critical, too much a shaper of our democracy and our society that we would not want them to be a focus of research and teaching," Feser said.
Feser hopes to choose an interim dean by the time Slater returns to the advertising faculty on Wednesday, or shortly thereafter. He said the provost's staff is prepared to help the college "keep things moving this summer" if necessary.
Martin said Feser wants the interim dean to be a strong administrator and a "good listener" who can lead conversations "about what the college needs to do and what it needs to be, somebody who can work with other deans on campuswide matters, somebody who can build consensus."
College of Media
Founded: 1927 as School of Journalism.
Later iterations: Became College of Journalism and Communications in 1957, renamed College of Communications in 1968 and College of Media in 2008.
Includes: Department of Journalism, Charles H. Sandage Department of Advertising (first in the country), Department of Media and Cinema Studies, Institute of Communications Research (Ph.D. program) and Division of Broadcasting/Illinois Public Media.
Faculty: 43, plus eight adjuncts.
Students: About 1,100.
Degrees granted: 300 to 400 per year.
Budget: About $9 million (including Illinois Public Media but not grants/contracts).
Sources: College of Media, UI Division of Management Information