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Students in the undergraduate journalism program at the City College of New York, one of the few training facilities readily accessible to people of color and working people, fear that they are, as we say on the block, getting “did dirty.”
Those studying in the program, which is in the media communications arts department, say that for years it has been an underfunded departmental stepchild with chronic problems from borderline-obsolete equipment to computer labs going without paper and other supplies for lengthy periods. But the resignation of a well-liked teacher and the consequent cancellation of a required introduction to journalism course have caused students who fear the program is being phased out to organize.
In recent weeks student representatives Richelle Blanks, Nicole Alves, and Esther Perez met with dean of humanities James F. Watts. He pointed to low enrollment in journalism courses, and the trio said, expressed skepticism about whether radio, TV, and the Internet are “real journalism.”
“He started hitting us with figures about the low number of journalism students,” says Alves. “He said there are only 25 journalism majors. Because of this, he will make journalism a minor or make it available only as an M.F.A. We’ve been doing research and surveys of our own to convey the bigger picture. For example, how much funding does the program get? How many students are undeclared [as majors] but taking journalism courses? How many students aren’t in the program because they don’t even know a journalism program exists at City?”
Watts’s response is that he’s not trying to do away with journalism. Instead, he says, he’s assembled a team of five consultants to evaluate the program: Baruch professor Joshua Mills; former executive editor of 60 Minutes Philip Sheffler; New York Times columnist Clyde Haberman; Times editor and CCNY communications alumni president Anne Mancuso; and Perez, student editor of the CCNY paper.
“I’m willing to go with whatever conclusion the [team] comes to,” said Watts. “I’ve maintained an evenhanded and dispassionate disposition throughout, contrary to the students making me out to be the Big Bad Dean. . . . My job is to take scarce resources and put them into something that has a healthy student presence.”
Blanks says the “scarce resources” have not been coming to the program for some time. “In fact, professors Linda Prout and Jill Nelson had to get former councilmember Stanley Michels’s office to donate $120,000 for new computers, an overhead projector, and all kinds of things. And the dean referred to it as a ‘renegade action.’ . . . The college does very little to support this program.”
The dean says he found the move to tap a city councilmember “unusual, but I commended it. It was somewhat of a drop in the bucket, but [Nelson] did a good thing. If any faculty can find soft money they should do it. CCNY is remarkably underfunded. . . . I tell you today like I’ve told a hundred faculty members, if you can fundraise, do it.”
Lynn Appelbaum, chairperson of the media communications arts department and a public relations professor, refused to comment, referring the Voice to Mary Lou Edmondson, assistant vice president for communications, who denies that the program is neglected, saying the university is generally strapped for funds. She dismissed as unlikely the idea that Nelson and Prout had raised funds.
“Students in general are concerned with education,” Edmondson says. “They don’t know where the money comes from. You need to check your facts instead of just going on what the students’ impressions are as to where the money’s coming from.” A few days later, Edmondson called to say she had found that Nelson and Prout had indeed gotten a grant.
When Nelson resigned before the fall semester, students say they were angered that CCNY did not try to keep a professor who had raised funds, and invited a number of journalists to the college. They also cited her own expertise as a journalist who has written for several national papers (including the Voice). She is a columnist for USA Today, MSNBC.com, and NiaOnline.com, the author of three books, and editor of an anthology on police brutality. She says she left over a disagreement about her teaching load.
“I was very clear that I really wanted to continue teaching,” says Nelson. “But I couldn’t teach three courses, [advise] the school paper, and still pursue a successful career as a journalist and author. I was shocked that the dean was unwilling to negotiate even a diminished teaching schedule. . . . I was willing to discuss teaching two classes.”
Watts’s voice shakes a smidgen when asked to respond. “I never heard her offer two,” he says. “We don’t have celebrity faculty here. We’re not Yale; we’re not Harvard. When Jill appeared 48 hours before the beginning of the term saying that she would only have time for one course this term, I had to [refuse her]. I don’t care if you’re Einstein. You’re not gonna shortchange students to promote your career.”
“Dean Watts and president Gregory Williams’s decision [not to negotiate] is difficult to see as anything other than a clear lack of support for journalism,” says Nelson. Asked about the new policy that would only allow journalism to be taken as an M.F.A., Nelson claims it presents a further hardship to working students.
“Our commitment was that graduate school should be a choice, not a necessity,” says Nelson. “The real issue, though, is: How do working-class New Yorkers get journalistic training of the highest standard? Journalism should not be a field only for those of wealth and privilege. CCNY allows working-class people to get proper [journalism] training.”
For now, students wanting entry-level courses will have to wait and hope that a replacement is found for Nelson. “Basically, [Watts] said anyone in the program would be put through the pipeline and allowed to graduate,” says Alves. She says she’ll believe it when she sees it.