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Reversing Course: A New Public Relations Degree

November 8, 2011

Michael Bugeja, director,
Greenlee School of Journalism and Communication,
Iowa State University of Science and Technology


Currently the Greenlee School offers degrees in advertising and in journalism and mass communication. Our enrollment has been holding steady, but we know that the public relations field is expected to grow more than any other area of communication in the next five years.

The US Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that employment of “public relations specialists is expected to grow 24 percent from 2008 to 2018, much faster than the average for all occupations.” This is particularly true in such fields as science and technology. For the record, Iowa State University’s official name includes the suffix “of Science and Technology.”

In August, at our School retreat, the faculty overwhelmingly supported a new degree in public relations. At the time, I was more cautious. Often professors believe that if they build a pedagogy, students and new positions will come. In this economy, though, we cannot assume anything.

Shortly after the economic downturn in 2008, we had a Ph.D. degree proposal in Science, Technology and Risk Communication one step away from Regents’ approval. It was tabled because of the poor economic outlook and impending budget cuts. That probably was an astute decision. Knowing how hard faculty worked on that degree, I was reluctant to propose a new one while the former one was still technically active.

I told this to the faculty and staff at the retreat, reminding them that we had our budget cut 24% and also scheduled three phased retirements ending in 2013, when a new degree conceivably could start. We had a spirited discussion. In the end, I persuaded enough colleagues to seek a certificate program in PR in addition to accreditation from the Public Relations Society of America. Those would provide data to support whether a new PR degree was viable.

In the ensuring months, however, we learned that PRSA could not accredit us because we were not tracking which of our journalism students were taking our slate of public relations courses. We could create a certificate program, but that might attract non-majors, adding workload to the faculty and staff without adequate financial support in questionable economic times. Also, the University would not allow us to create a certificate program for our majors only.

Thus, the decision rested with me. Was it time for me to reverse course and explain why to the faculty and staff? First, I consulted with my dean concerning problems we encountered with PRSA accreditation and certificate approval. He could make no promises for additional support but agreed that we might pursue the degree option in service to the state in the land-grant tradition of our institution.

Here is an excerpt from my memo to the faculty:

“There is general consensus at the College that proceeding with a PR degree is in our best interests. It is likely to increase enrollment as we anticipate significant growth in public relations in the US in the next five years. … At present we have the personnel and curriculum in place, so a new degree should not have workload implications, unless there is an influx of new majors into Greenlee.”
I then officially requested that professors who initially wanted to pursue the degree follow process, scheduling a meeting of faculty who teach public relations courses. “If there is consensus on starting the process for the degree,” I wrote, then procedure would call for the PR faculty to go to Curriculum Committee with a proposal. From there, the chair of the committee would bring the proposal to the faculty for a vote.

“The road to formal approval can take up to two years,” I cautioned. “That would bring us close to our ACEJMC site team visit for re-accreditation. We would have to work out at that time how we wish to be accredited as the bar will be expanded to three areas: journalism, advertising and public relations.”

Effective leadership often requires administrative reversals. You don’t lose face, but gain allies because colleagues know you are acting in what you believe are in their best interests.

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