School name change sparks controversy among alumni

An exploratory committee has submitted a report regarding a potential merger between WKU’s School of Media and Department of Communications that would, if approved, see both programs housed under one roof in Jody Richards Hall.

Lily Burris

A name change in the School of Journalism and Broadcasting has created controversy with alumni around the country.

The SJB is currently under fire by some alumni for a vote that is making its way up through the university to change the school’s name to the School of Media. Alumni are expressing concern about the lack of emphasis on journalism that School of Media would create.

Robert Adams, former director of student publications, former Herald editor-in-chief in 1964 and a retired journalism professor, has concerns about renaming the school. He feels that the School of Media lacks meaning and is not what people are looking for when searching for a college.


“To me, it’s burying the part of the program that has brought the most national reputation to the university,” said Adams. “It’s a program that presidents over the years have cited for its success. To me, it buries the part of the program that has been so important to Western.”

Adams has been around the program since the beginning and remembers when journalism was just two classes in the English department. He even remembers when the late David B. Whitaker, a former journalism professor, created the department in the 1970s. Adams has watched the program evolve over the last 50 years.

“It has been a program that has received a lot of national attention,” Adams said. “It has been a program that has gone out and recruited good students and attracted good students and as a result of having good students, you have a good program.”

Al Cross, who graduated from WKU in the mid 1970’s, expressed his concerns about the name change in a letter to the Board of Regents chair Phillip Bale that focused on the ambiguity of the word media. In his letter, Cross, who is now a professor at the University of Kentucky and the director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, defines three different types of media: news, social and strategic.

“When a university maintains a School of Journalism, it is saying that journalism is a public good” Cross wrote in his letter. “When it removes that word from the name of a J-school, it is saying something else, something that can easily be inferred as a lack of confidence in journalism as an essential servant of democracy.”

The decision to bring the vote to the full Board of Regents was made by the Academic Affairs committee at the end of the last meeting on June 21.

SJB alumni were first notified via a Facebook group post after the meeting took place. The change was hinted in an alumni newsletter from the SJB that was sent to alumni on June 27. The end of the newsletter mentioned to watch for a few changes in “the look and promotion” of the School.

There was swift reaction to the Facebook post. Many alumni commented that they disagreed with the decision. Alan Judd, a WKU journalism alum and former Herald editor-in-chief in 1980 who is now a senior investigative reporter at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, does not support the name change either. He wrote a letter to the Board of Regents encouraging them to vote against the name change at their upcoming meeting.

Judd believes that the proposal is unnecessary and downplays the importance of journalism, especially in a time when it seems journalism is under “unprecedented attack.”

“Editors and other newsroom managers far and wide recognize Western journalism graduates as among the most prepared, intellectually dynamic and talented job candidates they encounter,” Judd wrote in his letter.

According to SJB faculty, that’s not what it’s trying to do at all.

Jeanie Adams-Smith, interim assistant department head and photojournalism professor, said that the name change isn’t meant to view journalism in a negative way, but to reflect where students are going after graduation.

“They’re going into such a diverse set of professions that we needed a name that kind of reflected a skillset,” Adams-Smith said.

Adams-Smith continued on by saying that students will still be taught basic journalism skills like ethics, storytelling and technology skills.

Currently, there are four majors in the SJB program: broadcasting, with about 190 majors; film, with about 110 majors; journalism, with about 90 majors; and photojournalism, with about 60 majors. Film is the fastest growing program in the school, Adams-Smith said.

“The current name, the School of Journalism and Broadcasting, basically left out or passed over other programs that are in the unit,” said Robert Dietle, who is entering this third year as interim director of the SJB.

The new name was presented last year and voted on by the faculty as being a more accurate reflection of what goes on in the program, Dietle said.

“Film feels that this would make them less invisibile, and their colleagues seem to agree with that” Dietle said.

Adams-Smith said that the name change will still market individual programs and allow them to reach out to students specifically interested in whatever aspect of the field they want to be in.

“We have to go out and proactively recruit in these individual programs,” Adams-Smith said. She continued on by saying that the programs will be marketed as an individual section of the School of Media. 

Larry Snyder, dean of the Potter College of Arts and Letters, agreed with Dietle and Adams-Smith.

“Changing the name signals that we have entered a new era and that we are intending to educate our students in different kinds of ways,” Snyder said.

The decision to rename the program has come at a time when the school has been without a director for over two years. Snyder says the change “allows us to look at folks who have a very wide view of the field that includes journalism and broadcasting and film.” According to Adams-Smith, they have relaunched the search for a new director.

“We want to get the best person possible who can lead all of those units going forward,” Snyder said.

While alumni are concerned about changing the name, some current students don’t see the cause for concern but instead view it as matching the reality of the job atmosphere.

Addison LeBoutillier, a sophomore photojournalism major from Owensboro, said the name changes feels more inclusive and shows more of the elements of the program.

“I think it gives a better overall idea of what’s going on within the school,” LeBoutillier said.

As of Wednesday afternoon, more than 190 people had signed a petition on to keep journalism in the name. Several others beside Judd plan to send letters to the Board of Regents disagreeing with the name change. The Board of Regents will vote on the name change at their next meeting on August 2.

News reporter Lily Burris can be reached at 270-745-6011 and [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter at @lily_burris.