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UND aims to reform troubled program with new focus and more instructors

GRAND FORKS, N.D. – After losing accreditation, struggling with changes in leadership and eventually dropping its status as a school, the University of North Dakota’s Communication Program is making a comeback bid.

Under reforms led by the fairly new dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, Debbie Storrs, the program is narrowing its focus to the core concepts of journalism, advertising and public relations with the goal of turning the “program” into a full-scale “department.”

After the School of Communication lost accreditation in 1992 due to a lack of funding and an extremely broad approach to communication curriculum, faculty struggled to get along and students suffered. A restraining order was filed by one professor against another, students staged a small protest and walked out of classes, and the school had eight different directors prior to 2003 alone.

Ultimately, the school was dissolved in 2008. Since then, the program has struggled to find direction according to administrative fellow and psychology professor Jeff Weatherly.

“The program has been in somewhat of a state of flux and the undergrad curriculum ... it had been revamped so many times,” he said. “It was a mess.”

For the last year, Weatherly has been working with students and faculty to create a program that gives students the best education possible.

More focus

While it’s contingent on being accepted through the right committees and ultimately the State Board of Higher Education, the program will have two tracks: journalism and strategic communication. Journalism will embody both print and broadcast reporting while strategic communication will cover advertising and public relations.

“We toyed with the idea of calling it ‘convergent journalism’ because when I hear ‘journalist’ I think ‘newspaper,’ and journalism is far more than that,” Weatherly said.

This approach is far less confusing than the system currently in place, which has eight tracks without enough professors to teach the required classes, he said. “We’re not big enough to do everything, so we’re going to focus on those two.”

The 12 existing full-time faculty members are spread throughout campus into other departments and have been struggling to cover all the necessary communication courses for the last few years, especially with one on leave last year and three going on leave next year.

While nothing is concrete yet, Weatherly said the plan is to expand the number of professors teaching communication courses and hopefully become an official department, bringing them all into one location on campus. Accreditation isn’t an issue as of yet because the program is certified under the College of Arts and Sciences.

Faculty push

“The faculty have really rallied together to say they’re committed to becoming a department,” Storrs said. “I want them to be a department, and I’m willing to invest in this department.”

When Storrs was hired a year ago, she said she was immediately approached by people from within the Communication Program.

“They said, ‘We’re ready and we want to be a department,’” Storrs said.

As a result, she brought in consultants and later put together the committee Weatherly served on. Using advice from the consultants, faculty and students, Weatherly helped put together the new curriculum and plan.

If the plan is approved by the State Board of Higher Education quickly, the transition to the streamlined Communication Program curriculum is slated to happen in fall 2015. Students would still have the option to finish their degrees under the old catalogue of courses and work with advisers to graduate in four years, which Weatherly said is the goal.

“It’s the beginning of a long journey,” he said.

Anna Burleson

Anna Burleson is the higher education reporter for The Grand Forks Herald. She is a 2013 graduate of the University of South Dakota's Mass Communication program and is originally from Watertown, S.D. Contact her with story ideas or tips by phone, email or Twitter, all of which are listed below. Examples of her work can be accessed here.

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