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Joan Konner Steps Down as Columbia Journalism Dean,
Stresses School's Mission To Set Highest Standards

"Journalism is the traffic circle of knowledge," says Joan Konner, dean of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. "If the disciplines want to speak to each other, or if they want to reach a wider audience, they have to speak the popular language. That means they either speak through journalists or become journalists themselves."

Dean Konner has been carrying that message to the University, to journalism educators, to the professional community and to the public since her appointment eight and a half years ago. She will step down as dean Jan. 1 and continue as a professor and as publisher of the Columbia Journalism Review.

"We live in a 'mediamorphic' world," she said in a recent interview. "Mass communication defines the culture, and journalism is more important than ever. Other popular languages, like advertising and public relations, are used for political or commercial persuasion. Journalism is the popular language used in pursuit of truth."

In her tenure, the dean has focused her efforts on faculty, funding and the future. "That's the headline," she said. Indeed, she has built an almost entirely new faculty of top journalists and educators, raised $40 million for innovative new academic initiatives, and sent the school on an advanced technological mission toward the next century.

Underlying her efforts has been a commitment to the core values of the school - reporting, writing and continuing education as the basis of all good journalism in all media. She has also reinforced the school's commitment to First Amendment rights and responsibilities, exemplified dramatically when she brought Salman Rushdie to campus in 1992 for his first public appearance in this country since the threat on his life. At the school's celebration of the 200th anniversary of the First Amendment, Rushdie, under heavy guard, delivered a daring and electrifying address, in which he declared "free speech is life itself."

Journalist-critics, once concerned about the future of the school, now say: "You saved a school that stands for something."

Revitalized and reinvigorated.

Eight years ago, the Columbia Journalism School was merely holding its own as the premier school in the field, uncertain of its future and direction after two years of interim leadership. Its quarters were cramped and worn. The faculty and the University were debating whether the school's acclaimed professional program could be maintained while the School increased its attention to scholarly research in communications.

When Dean Konner arrived, she averted drift and instilled new spirit, optimism and commitment. She lifted the school to new levels intellectually and professionally, brought it into the digital age, and transformed it physically.

She set the course for the future by both enlivening the traditional reporting program and augmenting the scholarly life of the school. And she rescued the financially threatened Columbia Journalism Review, bringing in contributions and preserving it as the nation's most important journal addressing press issues. She is seen by faculty and students as strong and effective. The University invested $6 million in the school's programs and facilities, which together with support from news organizations, foundations and individuals has brought renewed vigor to the already strong institution.

High-energy faculty and students

"Almost all full-time faculty members hold remarkable journalistic credentials," said a report by the Accrediting Council on Education in Journalism and Mass Communications last year. "Any newsroom in the country would fight for this level of professional experience. . . .they are intense, hard-working, accessible to their bright, demanding students."

Among those Dean Konner has recruited to the faculty in the past eight years are James W. Carey, former dean of the journalism school at the University of Illinois, Urbana; Samuel G. Freedman, author and former reporter for The New York Times; Sig Gissler, former editor of the Milwaukee Journal; Ari Goldman, former religion reporter for The New York Times and author; LynNell Hancock, former education editor of Newsweek; Derwin Johnson and Rhoda Lipton, former producers for ABC News; Josh Mills, former financial news editor of The New York Times; Sandy Padwe, associate dean for academic affairs and former senior editor of Sports Illustrated; John Pavlik, executive director of the newly created Center for New Media at the school and former director of the School of Communications at San Diego State University; E.R. Shipp, Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for the Daily News; Seymour Topping, former managing editor of The New York Times; and Carey Winfrey, former editor-in-chief of American Health and now director of the Delacorte magazine center.

Terry Anderson, the Associated Press Middle East bureau chief who was held hostage in Lebanon for nearly seven years, joined the adjunct faculty this year, and Floyd Abrams, the prominent First Amendment lawyer, was appointed the William J. Brennan Visiting Professor of First Amendment Studies. Michael Janeway will soon leave the deanship of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University to direct the National Arts Fellowship Program at the school. Five professors published books in the last two academic years. The dean calls the faculty "extraordinary."

Serving the students

"Joan has built a terrific faculty," said Professor Gissler, "but in her work with committees on instruction, she keeps the focus on the students and what's good for them. 'Are we serving the students'? she always asks. She emphasizes the need to produce graduates who are 'multi-lingual' in journalism. Every student in the school now gets instruction and training in all of the new electronic tools of reporting and ways of publishing."

Both the size and quality of the student body have increased during the Konner years. Enrollment climbed from 180 full-time students to 220. The percentage of minority and female students rose. The current class is the most selective in the school's history. In addition, a popular new two-year, part-time master's degree program for working journalists that started in 1993 with 10 students now enrolls 64.

For mid-career journalists, the school introduced special new fellowship programs in reporting on medicine and health, children's issues and cultural affairs and arts criticism. Joint degree offerings were established with other Columbia schools in business, public health and environmental science. A new mid-career master's degree program was adopted. And a Ph.D. program in communications and journalism is being developed.

As confidence in the school grew, so did support of its programs. In eight years, Dean Konner brought in more than $40 million in gifts and pledges from foundations, corporations, individual philanthropists and alumni. She raised $16 million of that in just the last year and a half. Notable gifts include two totaling $4.5 million by the Pew Charitable Trusts, $2.5 million each by the Sulzberger and Delacorte families, two totaling $3 million by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, $1 million by the Pulitzer family and others by the Reuter, Prudential and Ford foundations.

Alumni giving doubled

Dean Konner reestablished strong connections to the alumni/ae of the school through a series of informal letters updating graduates on changes in the curriculum, faculty and facilities. She encouraged a dialogue with them on what was happening to the public service values nurtured in the school. With one letter she enclosed a lecture she had delivered at the University of Texas on "Traditional Values as a Guideline for Journalists, which spawned such an outpouring of response that the school published a special report "Journalists on Journalism" to disseminate the ideas, experience and opinions of the alumni/ae to each other and other journalists.

Annual giving by alumni nearly doubled during the Konner deanship, from $98,000 in 1989-90 to more than $190,000 during the past academic year. The number of donors rose 55 percent, from 1,200 to almost 1,900.

And the alumni continued to rise to the top of the profession. The school has long been known for educating many of the leaders of the industry, including the current president of the Associated Press, executive editor of The New York Times, executive vice president of ABC News, editor-in-chief of Newsweek, chairman and chief executive officer of Gannett Co., editor of Newsday and a host of well-known authors, columnists and executives and producers of television news. Twenty-six alumni have won the Pulitzer Prize, three just this year and four last year. The school in 1993 held a book fair to celebrate the alumni authors of more than 130 books published in just the previous three years.

Maintaining the quality and funding of the Columbia Journalism Review as its publisher is one of her proudest accomplishments. A recent $900,000 pledge by the Ford Foundation will ensure its publication for the next three years. Under its new and legendary editor Marshall Loeb, appointed this month, the magazine will continue to thrive as the country's foremost journal of press analysis. A recent survey of opinion leaders by the media consulting firm of Erdos & Morgan ranked CJR among the 10 most influential media in America. Dean Konner has upheld the integrity and reputation of the many standard-bearing professional activities of the school, both the one-year intensive master's degree program to educate and train practicing journalists and what she describes as "the conglomerate of programs whose purpose is to uphold standards and ideals of the industry": the publication of CJR; the administration of the Pulitzer Prizes, duPont-Columbia Awards in broadcast journalism, National Magazine Awards and the Cabot Prizes in inter-American journalism; the Knight-Bagehot Fellowships in business and economics reporting, the National Arts Fellowship program, the Prudential Fellowships on children's issues, the Reuter Forum on international issues, the Delacorte Lectures in magazine journalism, the First Amendment Leadership breakfasts for high executives in the industry, and the Media and Society Seminars begun by Fred Friendly.

A fully restored building

By next summer, the Journalism School will be operating in completely rebuilt quarters on the Morningside campus after a $13 million, top-to-bottom renovation that regained nearly three full floors and increased usable space by about one-third.

The 80-year-old Journalism Building now houses high-level technical facilities and electronic newsrooms. The Center for New Media is exploring new ways of reporting, writing and publishing using new multi-media technology. A bright, open attic floor opened this year for the state-of-the art Delacorte Magazine Center. The former World Room is being transformed into an electronically equipped Pulitzer New World Room for television production and broadcast. The former library and clippings storage area has become a video lecture hall seating 260. The entire administrative floor, housing the prize programs and professional outreach activities, will be named The Arthur Hays Sulzberger Center for Excellence in Journalism.

Although it will take another $7 million to fully equip the new spaces, particularly the broadcast and electronic media areas, the dean is confident that the school is ready for all future challenges:

"I sometimes refer to the school as a cathedral of journalism, or a bridge between journalism as it is and journalism as it ought to be," said the dean. "In fact, these days, with the growing commercialism of the press, I sometimes think of the school as Lindesfarne, a community of lonely monks and scribes laboring to preserve the highest ideals and achievements of the culture."

A background in print and broadcast

Ms. Konner is the fifth dean and first women to head the school. Herself a 1961 graduate, she worked first in newspaper journalism at The (Bergen) Record, Hackensack, N.J., as a feature writer, then columnist and editorial writer. She moved into television in 1963 as a producer, reporter and host for WNET (then WNDT) educational television in New York. Two years later, she joined NBC News as a reporter, writer and producer. In her 12 years there, she produced more than 50 documentaries and won almost every award for her work, including 12 Emmys from the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. She returned to public television in 1977, where she was, successively, executive producer of national public affairs, executive producer of Bill Moyers' Journal, and vice president of metropolitan programming. She was president and executive producer for Public Affairs Television, an independent production company in partnership with Bill Moyers, at the time she took over as dean of the journalism school. She had also been a Trustee of Columbia University for 10 years. Since then she has received several awards and honors, among them: Broadcast Educator of the Year from the Association of Educators in Journalism and Mass Communications and the Outstanding Achievement Award in Journalism and Journalism Education from the Federation of Women's Press Associations.