FIU reshuffle could sting journalism, education programs

FIU President Mark Rosenberg.
FIU President Mark Rosenberg. José A. Iglesias

By some measures, the output from Florida International University’s School of Journalism & Mass Communication is impressive: eight Pulitzer Prizes won by its graduates, a first-of-its-kind Spanish-language journalism master’s program, and a top three national ranking in the number of bachelor’s degrees awarded to Hispanic students.

But in the dollars-and-cents goals important to FIU administrators — fundraising and boosting enrollment — the J-school has lagged. Enrollments have been stagnant at around 1,700 students for three years, and fundraising hasn’t met expectations.

Perhaps influenced by those monetary concerns, FIU is now considering a merger between its journalism school and College of Architecture + The Arts. The new combined college would probably get a new name (such as adding “communications” somewhere in the title), and journalism would continue as a “school” within this larger umbrella college. Journalism would still be an available degree track, as would the school’s other offerings in broadcast media, public relations, and advertising.

“We’re under a lot of pressure to reduce administrative overhead,” FIU President Mark Rosenberg told the Miami Herald editorial board last week. “So it makes sense to at least have the conversation.”

Some local media executives are aghast at the proposal. When FIU Provost Kenneth Furton presented his plan last month to the journalism school’s Dean’s Advisory Board, the response was uniformly negative. The 16-member board is made up of local and national professionals in communications fields.

The board’s chair, Sun Sentinel editor Howard Saltz, told the Herald that board members worried that a less-prominent journalism school would struggle even more in the fundraising department, as media-focused donors would be turned off by the architecture/journalism combination. The board also worried that the J-school’s decreased stature could hurt graduates’ ability to get jobs.

“We were making the argument that the perception will matter even if the education doesn’t change,” Saltz said in describing the meeting. “And we are people who hire, everybody in that room is in a hiring capacity, so it’s kind of something we know.”

Saltz said board members also stressed to the provost that the nation’s most well-regarded journalism programs — schools like Northwestern University and the University of Missouri — have standalone journalism schools that operate independently. Saltz said he believes FIU’s program is on the verge of reaching its own national prominence, in part because it excels at graduating “students who are bilingual or trilingual, or who come from diverse cultures.”

“It can’t be long before the rest of the country takes note of that,” he said. “And the rest of the country absolutely needs that.”

Alex de Carvalho, a Miami Beach social media strategist who also serves on the advisory board, said the FIU proposal is another setback for journalism — an industry which has already been hit by layoffs and cutbacks in newsrooms across the country.

“Already, coverage is not as good as it used to be,” he said. “Here we have a major public institution who says ‘Well, we don’t really believe in journalism, so we’re just going to throw them in with architecture.’ 

FIU hasn’t yet committed to the change. A formal announcement is expected to come this week.

Journalism is one of two schools where FIU is considering consolidation. Also on the table: a plan to merge the College of Education with the College of Arts and Sciences. An online survey of College of Education faculty, taken about a month ago, found roughly 60 percent were opposed to the move, according to Benjamin Baez, president of the faculty union chapter at FIU.

“We are dealing with a faculty who really is not sure about this, at best,” said Baez, who also works in the College of Education.

In pitching the plan, Provost Furton has insisted the moves aren’t about cost cutting — the only jobs that would be eliminated are a couple of dean positions. Furton told the Herald that having different academic fields under the same college encourages collaboration between professors and can enhance fundraising because there’s a larger team of staff to join forces and attract donors.

Furton rejected the notion that a well-qualified journalism school graduate would be turned down by a prospective employer because the journalism school isn’t an independent academic unit.

The provost promised that the quality of education delivered to students won’t be negatively impacted. He noted that the architecture school already includes one communications-related major, communication arts. Under the merger idea, which Furton calls an “integration,” communication arts — a degree track for future corporate communications directors and the like — would be transferred into the journalism school, which would now exist under a larger “college” that includes architecture, music, and art history.

The provost has created two “integration feasibility committees” composed of faculty to help guide the process. If the reshuffling moves forward, it’s expected to take effect for the fall 2016 semester. FIU President Mark Rosenberg will have the final say.

FIU has been offering journalism courses since 1974. The first communication degree began four years later — then housed in the Department of Technology. A couple of years after that was the creation of the Department of Communication in the College of Arts and Sciences, which expanded to house majors such as public relations and television.

A freestanding school — the School of Journalism and Mass Communication — was born in 1991, the same year FIU earned its first approval from the Accrediting Council on Education in Journalism and Mass Communications. FIU still holds that accreditation today — only about one-quarter of U.S. journalism programs are accredited.

Furton said “it’s absolutely critical that FIU maintains a very strong school of journalism and maintains the quality of our graduates … the president and I are totally committed to that.”

In formulating the plans, Furton said enrollment and fundraising numbers were considered, but were “not the deciding factors.”

Growing university revenues through fundraising and increased enrollment has become more important for FIU and other state universities as state funding has plummeted. Between 2008 and 2014, Florida’s per-student higher education funding dropped more than 31 percent, according to the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association.

The budget woes hit FIU’s journalism school, which eliminated its television production degree track in 2008. Television production returned as an option for students in 2013.

In Rosenberg’s meeting last week with the Herald editorial board, he minimized the importance of the mergers proposed for the colleges of journalism and education. The president said “universities regularly consolidate academic units, so this isn’t anything new.”

The president added that fundraising for the journalism and education schools is “not that strong.” The journalism school received more than $3 million in gifts and grants between 2009 and 2014.

Earlier this year, FIU’s School of International and Public Affairs received a much bigger gift: $20 million from former U.S. Ambassador Steven Green. That school, which used to be part of the College of Arts and Sciences, got the honor of being spun off as its own independent unit.

Meanwhile, at the thriving architecture college, its communication arts program has “booming” enrollment, Rosenberg said. Placing journalism in that college might be unconventional, he said, but that doesn’t mean it’s wrong.

“Maybe the way to maintain and enhance journalism is to make sure that, in effect, there is an envelope that is stronger and growing,” Rosenberg said.