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Change in direction planned at USF communications school

TAMPA — The University of South Florida's School of Mass Communications went through a shakeup over spring break, bringing a change in leadership, a sharper focus on digital technology and plans to take a "fresh look" at the campus newspaper and television station.

A merger with another school on campus also could be on the horizon.

News of the changes came in emails sent Wednesday by Eric Eisenberg, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. He said the school would let its voluntary accreditation lapse. And it would look at new ways to bring the program deeper into the digital era, convening an advisory board of professionals to figure out how to do it.

As of Monday, former Tampa Tribune publisher and president Gil Thelen will be out of his role as interim director of the school, while still maintaining his title as Clendinen professor of critical writing. Thelen said Thursday he did not know yet if he would continue to teach. He was named interim director in December and had planned to work in his current role longer.

"They appointed me to a three-year term, and I accepted a three-year term," he said.

Jim Andrews, director of the School of Information, will take over as interim director of the mass communications school. That appointment signals a closer connection between the two schools, which already are housed in the same building on USF's Tampa campus. A formal merging is a long process, Eisenberg said, and they're not there yet.

The School of Information teaches library and information science, plus subjects such as information analysis, Web design and social media. The School of Mass Communications has more than 1,300 undergraduate majors studying newspaper and magazine journalism, public relations and television news and production.

The latter school has held accreditation from the Accrediting Council on Journalism and Mass Communications since 1978, and had been pushing for renewal. But in the last review, Eisenberg said, the school fell short in two out of nine council standards. One was assessing how well students were learning.

"The truth of the matter is, we weren't doing a great job of it at the school," he said. "We were going to fix that anyway."

The second standard was governance, he said.

"They had concerns about the leadership of the program," Eisenberg said. "That's what got me thinking about, it's going to take us a couple of years to reestablish stability around the leadership and direction of the program. Then I thought, 'Wait a second. Is that really the goal? Is that what we want for the school?' "

Eisenberg said he talked to deans and provosts across the country to glean if letting the accreditation lapse was a good idea. After meetings between Eisenberg, provost Ralph Wilcox and president Judy Genshaft, the administration decided to let accreditation go.

Emails announcing the shift went out Wednesday in several versions tailored to students, faculty, alumni and donors. In his letter to students, Eisenberg said in part:

"I don't need to tell you that disruptive technologies and changing information behaviors have threatened traditional forms of production and consumption, and what was once called 'mass' communications no longer exists. Technological and economic barriers to production have fallen along with attention spans. Digital, short-form storytelling dominates the profession."

Curriculum is devised by the faculty, Eisenberg said, but he didn't think the focus on digital short-form storytelling would diminish education in traditional and narrative news. The administration wants to better incorporate the school newspaper, the Oracle, and television station WUSF-TV, into its teachings.

"I personally am a huge consumer of long-form narrative," Eisenberg said. "I would hope that we would continue to teach that and just do it in a way that's media savvy, and put it in places where people actually see it."

Accreditation is based on self and peer assessment, meant to hold the school accountable and keep it improving. USF as an institution is accredited by the Commission on Colleges of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools.

The mass communication accreditation means different things to different people. Only 25 percent of programs have it, Eisenberg said. The University of Florida is one, as well as USF St. Petersburg. Some of the top schools in the nation do not have it, including Ohio State, Michigan, Virginia, Rutgers.

Thelen, who had been working toward the accreditation, said it is valuable.

"It's a factor in reputation," he said. "It's certainly a factor in the faculty recruiting and faculty retention. We are much more attractive to people if we are accredited; (that) has been my experience. … One of the things it does is it forces various disciplines, the leadership for the school, the leadership for the university, accountability, transparency — lots of very good stuff. It's just a great checklist for quality indicators."

Merging schools away from niche teaching into more interdisciplinary umbrellas has been a trend in Florida and nationally. Proponents say it can help with attracting grants, faculty and students. Eisenberg said smaller programs that did well in the past don't fare as well now in the eyes of the Legislature and the Board of Governors, which oversees the State University System.

Thelen said the school can't afford to give up either traditional journalism values or digital media.

"We have to do it all," he said. "There is basically no option here. So it's not an either/or, it's a both/and situation. It's a matter of how we train."

Stephanie Hayes can be reached at shayes@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3394.

Change in direction planned at USF communications school 03/14/13 [Last modified: Thursday, March 14, 2013 11:40pm]
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