Medill’s dean stepping down after ‘quite an odyssey’
During the four years I was an undergraduate at Northwestern University in the ’70s, I can recall seeing the dean of the Medill School of Journalism exactly twice — once at freshman orientation and again on the day of our graduation.
His name was Ira William Cole, and he served as dean from 1957 until 1984. Colleagues called him Bill, but to us, he was known as “The Phantom,” because he was so seldom seen or heard around Fisk Hall. Word was he spent much of his time flying around the country on university business in a private plane Medill leased from an airplane rental company that Cole operated out of his office.
I thought of him Wednesday when Medill’s current dean, John Lavine, announced that he would be stepping down next August. No one could ever accuse Lavine of flying under the radar the way Cole did.
From the moment he took over in 2006, Lavine, 70, has been a controversial and, at times, divisive figure on the Evanston campus and in the journalism community at large. Coming from Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management, where he had been director of the Media Management Center, Lavine was nothing like any of the old-school journalists who preceded him in the job.
Lavine quickly made good on his mandate to shake things up when the university’s president and provost suspended formal faculty oversight and gave the new dean authority to overhaul the entire curriculum. “When this sweeping change is done, we will create a guarantee for employers: Medill graduates will know more about how to engage and reach media audiences with 21st-century, quality journalism, media and integrated marketing communications than anyone else they can find,” he declared. One of the key elements in his Medill 2020 plan was to erase the separation between journalism and integrated marketing communications. Faculty members who didn’t buy in to the new vision found themselves on their way out.
But even as he succeeded in pushing through his radical changes, Lavine shot himself in the foot. In a column he wrote for the school’s alumni magazine in 2008, he quoted an unnamed Medill junior waxing rhapsodic about the new curriculum and a particular advertising class: “I sure felt good about this class. It’s one of the best I’ve taken.”
An investigation prompted by the Daily Northwestern could find no student who had made that statement. When pressed, Lavine was unable to back up the self-serving quote. The ensuing scandal, which came to be known as Quotegate, raised suspicion about Lavine’s honesty and ethics. Chicago Tribune columnist Eric Zorn called it “a full-blown disgrace that has tarnished the reputation not only of Medill but of the entire university.”
Lavine steadfastly denied fabricating the quote, though he later apologized for “poor judgment” in not identifying the source. Despite calls from Zorn and others for his resignation, Lavine eventually was exonerated by a three-member committee appointed by the university provost.
Almost as soon as that firestorm died down, Lavine was back in the headlines for proposing to change the school’s legendary and revered name after 90 years to Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications. “The expanded name fairly recognizes who we are and the kinds of professional careers our graduates enter,” he explained. With the backing of the faculty and university board of trustees, the cumbersome new name was approved. It “not only cheapens the school’s heritage,” Zorn wrote at the time, but “threatens to dilute the importance of journalism at Northwestern.”
The latest and perhaps most damaging public relations debacle on Lavine’s watch involved the controversy surrounding David Protess, a 29-year professor at Medill who taught investigative journalism and whose Medill Innocence Project had freed numerous wrongly convicted men from Death Row and brought worldwide acclaim to the school. Sparked by a state’s attorney’s investigation into the methods Protess and his students employed, the battle that ensued between Lavine and Protess is recounted in meticulous and fascinating detail by Bryan Smith in the October issue of Chicago magazine. (Here is the link.)
As Smith reports, Lavine and the university forced Protess out and, in the process, smeared the reputation of a once-respected tenured professor. But Lavine’s handing of the matter may have hurt Medill, too. “It has a long-term effect that will take a long time for the institution to get over,” another professor, Douglas Foster, told Smith. “It’s one of those moments in the 90-year history of Medill, one of those chapters in the [university’s] history, that I think will remain heartbreaking.”
Lavine told the Daily Northwestern that his decision to retire had been planned “for a while now,” and others confirmed that the timing was not related to the controversy over Protess. But in his public announcement, Lavine acknowledged that his six-year stewardship of Medill has been anything but a quiet one.
“When I became dean, journalism and marketing communications were being roiled by a digital tsunami, and soon thereafter, by one of the worst economic downturns in a century,” he said. “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. Together we’ve accomplished far more than was envisioned in our Medill 2020 plan. Along the way, we’ve faced and overcome major challenges, as well as some controversies; when you undertake seismic change, both are inevitable.”