Remarks presented December 7, 2002, at Stanford University. Palo Alto, California
by John M. Hamilton
Dean, Manship School of Mass Communication, Louisiana State University
Thank you very much. I appreciate this award as the Freedom Forum Journalism Administrator of the Year. I also appreciate the nice words that have come with it.
A couple of weeks ago, after being told of this honor, I read the letters of nomination. They made me feel like Socrates after hearing the case against him at his trial. He said, more or less, that he found himself persuaded about everything that was said until he realized that they were talking about him.
Of course the outcome for me is far more pleasant than it was for Socrates, to whose fate I shall return later.
What is most meaningful is what the award says about our school. In the last decade faculty and staff, students, and senior administrators on campus – in league with alumni and others from business, government, and media -- have reshaped and energized the Manship School.
The circumstances of my learning about this award suggest just how much of a shared honor this is. When the phone call came, I was off campus – and had been for nearly two months -- doing research. I was named the administrator of the year when Ralph Izard was running the school.
As I have come to learn in this job, the university is a complex environment in which to work. A fellow faculty member once related to me an insight about shared academic governance from his father, also a professor. The Navy, as an old saying has it, was designed by geniuses to be run by idiots. Universities, the father noted, are just the opposite.
Deans can get in the way of the progress. But if progress is to be made, they must harness themselves to a wide collection of bright, energetic, committed colleagues inside and outside the university. These people must not only do the pulling, but also read the compass to set direction.
Gandhi may have expressed this best in a story I have always liked. In the middle of a conversation with Lord Mountbatten, then Viceroy of India, he noticed a crowd of demonstrators outside and got up to leave. Montebatten protested that he did not have to go. Gandhi said he must. He was their leader, he said, and he therefore must follow them.
I have had much more to learn about the mechanics of universities than virtually any academic in this room. Most of you have been on campuses for years. I have had only ten years.
My one great advantage when I took the job was a frank recognition of my ignorance. I had worked in many different bureaucracies—in the news business, the World Bank, the State Department, the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Each one had its own way of doing things, and I realized that the first order of business was to find people who could tell me what made this one tick.
Bill Ross, long time head of the Texas Tech program, and Sig Mickelson, the first president of CBS News, happened to have short-term appointments on the faculty when I arrived. Their leadership was picked up and carried on by Lou Day, Ron Garay, Linda Rewerts, Adrienne Moore, and Ralph Izard.
Here a few words about my ever-supportive wife, Gina, are imperative. She took a chance with me, uprooting her career as a Washington, D.C. attorney to relocate to Louisiana. But that scarcely explains her contribution. Possessing superb judgment and vast reservoirs of patience, she has restrained me from exercising my less admirable impulses, born of what one of Henry James’ characters called “an irritable imagination.” The faculty, students, and university administrators owe her a great debt—but not so great a debt as I do every day.
I have learned many lessons at LSU.
One is that no job is too small for a dean. This was impressed on me the day a faculty member sent an email about a student awards event. The professor complained that there should have been more celery sticks in the buffet line.
Another lesson is that academics are not congenitally resistant to change, as popular images suggest. Our faculty – lead by the senior faculty -- has accepted the idea, first, that change is essential to create a quality program and, second, that anything is possible when that is the goal.
A decade ago we were an unheralded department in the college of Arts and Sciences. Our faculty set out to change virtually everything in the school: curriculum, administrative structure, admissions standards (which, by the way, are now the highest on campus). Today we are not only a college-level unit, but also the only instance in which the administration has singled out an entire college as one of its priorities.
We were told at one point that a doctoral degree would not be approved. We went forward with a proposal anyway, and now have a thriving Ph.D. program. This is linked to a well-funded center for media and public affairs, which runs a survey research laboratory serving the entire campus.
Several years ago, our Journalism Building was not on the very long list of facilities to be renovated. Reconstruction is under way right now.
The faculty has taken direct responsibility for recruiting superb junior and senior level colleagues.
Our school is small by LSU standards, with less than five percent of the student population. Last year the outstanding LSU freshman, junior, and senior were Manship students.
Still another lesson I have learned is that the public is wrong in its monochromatic view of faculty as pampered and self-indulgent. Faculty have more autonomy – and job protection -- than most other professions, and, no question about it, this freedom can be used for good or for ill. What is interesting is the extent to which it is used for good.
Long before we had democratic governments or newspapers, institutions of higher education thrived and its professors established models for intellectual honesty and service. One such model is Isaac Barrow. He was so impressed with the work of Isaac Newton that he resigned his chair in mathematics at Oxford, insisting that it be given to the young genius.
During my first days at LSU, we suffered serious financial problems. One summer it was difficult to offer all the courses students needed. Without any prompting, one of our faculty -- Lou Day -- offered to teach media law for free. When I told him that I did not like the idea, but would consider having him teach the short summer term, he said he would only teach for free if he taught the long course. That was the only way to teach it properly.
As for tenure, yes, there are downsides. Certainly faculty must police themselves and protect students from colleagues who do not take their responsibilities seriously.
But tenure helps preserve intellectual autonomy against hostile forces, which are apparent as we meet here this evening. Our government, beginning with the last administration, has sought to force bookstores to supply details on patrons’ reading habits. This administration has called critics of its Middle East policy unpatriotic. One official has suggested “sending swat teams into journalists’ homes” to get details identifying leakers. All the while, veteran journalist Jack Nelson has noted, top officials selectively leak classified information when they find it convenient.
I am not keen to leave faculty without a shield. If our society needs anything it is more disputatious people, not fewer. The right to dispute is only safe when there is little to be disputatious about.
Just ask General William Westmoreland, who said during the Vietnam War that “without censorship, things can get terribly confused in the public mind.”
Which leads to the most important lesson of all. Schools like ours – that is, schools of journalism and mass communication – have an extraordinary advantage when it comes to disputatiousness.
I guessed that this might be the case when I applied for my job at LSU. I was writing on the global economy at the time and, in tracing the global operations of a small data entry company, saw how the Information Age worked. Karl Marx and Adam Smith did not agree on much, but they did agree that services would never be very important economically, let alone traded across borders. What I saw in the data entry company’s operations in Manila, Kansas City, London, Dayton, and the wind-swept Scottish coastal city of Ardrossan revealed how wrong they were.
Services are the fastest growing part of the global economy – and information trade is a leader in that sector. I wanted to try my hand in higher education because I was convinced that in an age when information is a global commodity, schools like ours could move from the fringe of the university to its vital center.
I have come to appreciate that the possibilities are greater than I envisioned. We have a comparative advantage that transcends the Information Revolution. As Robert Darnton noted not so long ago, every age is an Information Age. Communication of information is central to the workings of any civilized society, even if in 1750 Paris one of the best places to get news was under a large, leafy chestnut tree – the Tree of Cracow -- in the heart of the city.
The comparative advantage of our schools lies in our ability to be relevant in the ways that count most in a democracy.
My doctoral study was in history. I therefore have had much to learn about the study of mass communication. What I have seen is a field that is not rich in theory of its own. I sense that many professors are self-conscious about this. They seem to wish that they were like other, more narrowly defined disciplines on campus.
But I consider this liberating. No units have more opportunity to bring in diverse methods of inquiry or, for that matter, to include professors from different backgrounds. I am very proud, for instance, that we have three excellent political scientists at the Manship School, including one in an endowed chair.
We also can use tools from business, sociology, economics, history, and anthropology. No unit on campus is outside our orbit. That great journalist Norman Cousins ended up his career not on the Saturday Review of Literature but on the UCLA medical faculty. Hats off to the first mass communication school that appoints a physician as one of its professors.
The flip side of every opportunity is the possibility that we will not take advantage of it. In the last century academic disciplines have become increasingly inward looking and, as historian and academic administrator Thomas Bender has noted, self-referential. They have veered away from the original idea that inspired graduate education in this country—public service. “The only kind of expert that democracy will and ought to tolerate,” Charles Beard concluded, “is the expert who admits his fallibility, retains an open mind and is prepared to serve.”
We do well to remember that during the Renaissance, the most serious intellectual activity in the arts and sciences took place in workshops and studios outside the university. Dante, whom we study so assiduously in universities today, revolutionized literature by writing in a common Tuscan tongue that ordinary people could read. This was the basis for the written Italian language we have today.
Lest I am misunderstood, I am not arguing against the use of sophisticated research techniques to answer questions. But we must use these techniques to answer questions that matter. And we must not hide behind data, as I fear we often do, drawing only tepid conclusions. Scholars must boldly and imaginatively interpret data, and they must project their findings onto a public screen.
As everyone in this room knows, one of the perennial difficulties in journalism education has been the divide between scholars and professionals on our own faculties. It is easy to see why this has happened and why it remains a challenge for administrators. But having people from both worlds on the faculty is a powerful advantage in being useful.
Just as we should expect relevance on the part of scholars, we should expect thoughtful intellectual inquiry from seasoned professionals on our faculties. We should then reward that inquiry when it comes in venues that are not peer-reviewed in the standard academic way. Our school has a committed, persuasive national Board of Visitors, and I am grateful to them for having made the case on our campus for professional intellectual pursuit.
This ability to be relevant is especially valuable today when universities are under great stress. Legislatures and parents increasingly question whether higher education is too self-serving in its research and teaching agendas. If we concentrate on our strengths, our schools will be campus leaders in addressing such concerns.
But there is another reason to be relevant: because the media desperately need help. Not even the casual observer can fail to notice that the media are unsure of themselves. They are grappling with new media technologies, with greater public ownership of their enterprises, with political interests that have become highly effective at manipulating communication, and with an increasingly distrustful audience. We have brilliant examples of new journalism such as Bloomberg News and disgraceful examples of irresponsible journalism such as Matt Drudge and Dick Morris, whom networks present as if they were worthy of our attention.
Media scholars are more important than ever in designing best practices and damning bad ones, and, verily, in critically assessing the professional standards that underpin media and shape our discourse. As my faculty colleague political scientist Tim Cook says, journalism is too important to be left to journalists alone. Scholars must look over their shoulders.
If we do not do this, shame on us. We not only concede strength, but also an obligation.
The Hutchins Commission on Freedom of the Press noted in the late 1940s that “no public service was more important than the service of communications.” It also pointed out that the freedom to perform that service was fragile. “The press itself,” the commission concluded, “is always one of the chief agents in destroying or building the bases of its own significance.”
We can say the very same thing about education in journalism and mass communication.
I would be remiss in ending my remarks by pointing out that as much responsibility as our profession carries, we have a comparative advantage in having fun. Being a journalist is endlessly exhilarating. Most people stop taking field trips after they leave grade school. Journalism is one field trip after another. We can knock on any door and ask questions.
And if they don’t let us in, we can go around to the back.
We can write the big stories that win Pulitzer Prizes. But the small stories tweaking the noses of authority are gratifying and revealing, too.
One of my favorite nose-tweakers is John Aubrey, the 17th century chronicler of the rich and famous. Aubrey had the characteristics that one finds in many good reporters: boundless curiosity and a chaotic personal life. Careless with money, he mostly sponged off friends. Here is part of his delightful profile of Sir Walter Raleigh.
My old friend James Harrington Esq. was well acquainted with Sir Benjamin Ruddyer, who was an acquaintance of Sir Walter Ralegh’s. He told Mr. James Harrington, … [of] Sir Walter Ralegh being invited to dinner with some great person, where his son was to goe with him; He sayd to his son, “Thou art expected to stay at dinner, to goe along with me; but thou art [so] engaging in quarrels that I am ashamed to have such a Beare in my Company.” Mr. Walter humbled himselfe to his Father and promised he would behave himselfe mighty mannerly; so away they went, and Sir Benjamin I think with them; he sate next to his Father, and was very demure at least halfe Dinner time: Then, sayd he, “I this morning, not having the feare of God before my eies, but by the instigation of the devil, went to a Whore; I was very eager of her, kissed and embraced her, and went to enjoy her, but she thrust me from her, and vowed I should not, ‘for your father lay with me but an hower ago’.” Sir Walter being strangely supprized, and putt out of countenance at so great a Table, gives his son a damned blow over the face; his son, as rude as he was would not strike his father, but strikes over the face of the Gentleman that sat next to him, and sayd, “box about, ‘twill come to my father anon.”
This quote brings us back to Socrates, perhaps the ideal journalism professor. “I am,” he said, “that gadfly which God has given the State and all day long and in all places am always fastening upon you, arousing and persuading and reproaching you…. I dare say that you may feel irritated at being suddenly awakened when you are caught napping; and you may think that if you were to strike me dead, as Anytus advises, which you easily might, then you would sleep on for the remainder of your lives, unless God in his care of you gives you another gadfly.”
Socrates’ life – and death – presents an awful paradox. We venerate ancient Greece as the first democracy. Yet this democracy killed Socrates. The moral of the story is that democracy must always be on guard – sometimes even against itself. As Louis Menand said in his brilliant recent book the Metaphysical Club, “the purpose of the democratic experiment is to keep the experiment going.”
And so it is for educators, especially those of us fortunate enough to be in schools whose goal is the communication of all information and all ideas.
Who could not want to belong to a profession like ours?
I thank you for this award. And above all, I thank my colleagues at LSU for giving me such a rich opportunity to be part of this grand democratic enterprise.
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