Introduction by Wm. Theodore de Bary for the Living Legacies

The story of Carl Ackerman as the key figure in the rise of the School of Journalism during the 20th century — indeed, a living legend as dean of the school in its first century of life — may also be considered problematic as part of the “Living Legacy” series. After all, Ackerman did not see his vision of the J-school, based on a two-year program, become more fully realized in his own time.

The school owes its founding in 1903 to the enterprising publisher Joseph Pulitzer, after whom the prizes were named that became almost synonymous with the school, as well as to his collaboration with the no less enterprising Columbia president, Nicholas Murray Butler. But after a rather desultory start in its early years, the school began to take definite shape with the appointment of Ackerman, a graduate of its first class, as the first actual dean (not just a “director”) in 1931. Ackerman then proceeded to sharpen and focus its mission on training in the skills that most counted in the newsrooms of metropolitan newspapers.

Ackerman’s original concept of a two-year graduate program drew more heavily on Columbia’s rich academic resources than Butler thought the University could afford; hence the persistence, instead, of the existing one-year program. It was thus left to a later president, Lee Bollinger, and a new dean, Nicholas Lemann, to implement a 21st-century version of Ackerman’s original two-year professional program. In James Boylan’s account of Ackerman’s long tenure as dean, his reputation, if not notoriety, came not from any close, hands-on administration of the program itself, but from his more public role, as he became involved in extracurricular activities of a controversial nature and global scope.

Wm. Theodore de Bary
’41CC ’53GSAS ’94HON is
John Mitchell Mason Professor and
Provost Emeritus of Columbia University.