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"When I became dean," says Lavine in an email to Medillians, "journalism and marketing communications were being roiled by a digital tsunami, and soon thereafter, by one of the worst economic downturns in a century. In the midst of these difficult circumstances, we adopted unprecedented curricular change. Northwestern supported our plan with the addition of more faculty and staff with new skills, knowledge, and experience than at any time in Medill’s history.
"It has been quite an odyssey."
Lavine became dean of what was then the Medill School of Journalism in 2005. He'd been the founding director of Medill's Media Management Center, which he created to explore ways "to advance media strategy, marketing, culture and sales force productivity." He'd played an important role in developing RedEye for the Tribune and he'd made clear his desire to meld Medill's "Journalism" and "Integrated Marketing Communications" components.
Said Lavine at the time, "We need to develop a more profound understanding of audiences and consumers, of what they value and of how to present journalism and the new digital media to them." He went on, "We also need to have a far deeper understanding of media brands and marketing communications and how to use them to engage media audiences." The divide would exist no more: "Building on the strategic goals developed by the combined faculties, we will urgently work together to remake the school's entire undergraduate and graduate curricula."
His five years so far have been interesting. There was the resolution passed in 2007 by the Northwestern faculty senate that asserted "suspension of faculty governance" at Medill was "in violation of the University's Statutes." It predicted, hyperdramatically and with no great accuracy, “curricular changes that are ill considered . . . the demoralization and enmity of the faculty . . . damage to the national reputation of the School . . . the loss of and the inability to hire faculty who believe that the faculty’s role in governance is important for students, faculty and the public.”
There was the alarmingly rewritten Medill home page that now asserted the goal of the journalism program was "ENGAGING the AUDIENCE with relevant, differentiated storytelling & messages," the portion I've italicized being language notoriously close to Lavine's heart though to anyone old-school it rang of gibberish.
There was the accusation made by a Medill student, and never persuasively refuted by Lavine, that he'd made up a quote praising a Medill class in "Advertising: Building Brand Image." Lavine touted the class in a piece he wrote for the school's alumni magazine. This led several present and former faculty members to sign a letter calling on Lavine to offer a "more complete accounting than the dean has thus far provided." Lavine apologized — but only for not asking permission to quote the unnamed student who supposedly praised the class.
And last year and this there's been the wrenching Medill Innocence Project affair, in which Lavine originally stood behind the project's founder, David Protess, in resisting a subpoena from state's attorney Anita Alvarez but wound up so distrustful of him that Protess was removed from his Medill classroom and then resigned from the faculty.
Lavine was no caretaker. But journalism had sailed into such stormy seas no caretaker would do. As ominous as Lavine's words might have sounded at the time — "We need to develop a more profound understanding of audiences and consumers, of what they value and of how to present journalism and the new digital media to them" — today they have the ring of common sense. And today reporters are sent out with notepads, microphones, and cameras, and when their stories are submitted — for every imaginable platform — they're expected to tweet them. The modern multidisciplinarian is also a marketer.
"When I step down," says Lavine in his email, "I will focus on an initiative that is also close to my heart — examining how the media can determine if people are truly informed by the content they provide, and seeking out new ways for the news media to remain viable." Work worth doing.