WHEN I WAS APPROACHED IN the Windsor Star newsroom last May to sign a petition to save the University of Western Ontario’s Graduate School of Journalism, my reaction was immediate: No Way. I thought closing the school wasn’t a bad idea. I knew times there were tough, since the university had to cut between $10 million and $16 million from its budget for the 1994-95 fiscal year. From what I knew about the journalism school, I didn’t think it was worth saving. When I was an undergraduate at Western, much of my time was spent in the cramped quarters of the student newspaper, The Gazette. Its staff didn’t think much of the journalism school or its students, few of whom bothered to pop their heads into the Gazette office to write a story. Hard to figure. What better way to learn the business and collect valuable clippings than to write for a respected student newspaper? When I was in the market for a journalism school, Western never made my list. In the fall of 1992, I enrolled elsewhere, namely Ryerson.

About four months later, I met for lunch with Chris Doty, a former Gazette staffer who graduated from Western’s journalism school in 1991. He now works part-time in The London Free Press’ distribution department and freelances as a television documentary maker. He’s probably considered part of the roughly 65 per cent of recent graduates who have media-related jobs. (These placement rates-68 per cent for the 1993 graduates and 88 per cent for the class of 1992-are calculated based on questionnaires the school mails to alumni.) We exchanged stories about our respective programs. When it was Doty’s turn, he became sardonic. He complained of theory courses that contributed little towards his reporting skills, and said he wished the program had been more “hands-on.” “There was too much pseudo-academic stuff that just didn’t help at all.” As it happened, Western’s journalism school escaped its brush with death. On October 29, 1993, by a margin of one vote, the university’s board of governors voted to keep Canada’s oldest journalism school alive. But was it worth it? When more than 400 students-including about 40 from Western-graduate each year from Canada’s six English-language journalism schools, they find a job market that has dried up faster than a lemonade stand in the Sahara. Fewer and fewer media outlets are hiring, and this doesn’t seem to be a short-term trend. “I’m glad they didn’t close it,” says Doty. He believes the university’s motives for wanting to shut down the school were questionable, the process flawed. “But,” he adds, “I don’t think the Canadian media would have been worse off without the school.”

Meanwhile, Peter Desbarats, Western’s dean of journalism, can bask in the spotlight for saving the school from extinction. But his battle tactics have soured some. Indeed, while he won the battle, he may have lost the war by alienating colleagues within the university and at journalism schools across Canada. Certainly, he was in the fight of his life, battling a sinister Goliath that wanted his school closed for all the wrong reasons. But every victory has a price. If and when Western wants to reexamine the J -school, which many university insiders believe is inevitable, will the same people whom Desbarats hurt lend their support for a return match?

WESTERN’S JOURNALISM SCHOOL OPENED in 1946 as an undergraduate program, modelled after New York’s Columbia University. In 1974, Western changed it to a 12-month graduate course, leading to a Master of Arts in journalism. The 44 students, nine faculty, and eight staff-which include secretaries, radio and television technicians, and resource staff-who make up Western’s smallest faculty work in Middlesex College, a Gothic-style building on the edge of Western’s country-club campus. While other faculties, like social science, science, business, and music have large, modem buildings to call their own, journalism is parked on the third floor of a four-storey building, sharing space with the computer science department. You wouldn’t know a journalism school was there unless you read the small print on a nondescript sign in front of the building.

The 44 graduate students must take 14 mandatory courses and three electives over three terms. Required courses include radio and television production, writing and editing for newspapers, and media law, along with courses with an academic twist-journalism history (two hours a week for one term) examines “the growth and evolution of the print and broadcasting industries”; communication theory (two hours a week for one term) explores “scholarly thought relating to the nature and effects of the mass communication process,” with special emphasis on Emile Durkheim and Marshall McLuhan-and a noncredit course in typing and keyboarding, to enable students to learn the keyboard and computer basics. Students must also write a 30- to 50-page research paper and serve a one-month internship at a Canadian print or broadcast outlet of their choice. Students who specialize in print publish a monthly newspaper, the East London Reporter, while broadcast students produce 10-minute radio and television documentaries that are later aired on local stations. Some of the school’s alumni include Canadian Press president Keith Kincaid {1958), Globe and Mail sports columnist Stephen Brunt (1982), Toronto Star reporter and organized crime author Peter Edwards (1982), and former Global and Canada AM anchor Thalia Assuras (1981).

Desbarats was appointed dean in 1981, shortly after his term with the controversial Kent Commission on newspaper ownership, where he researched and wrote the commission’s chapters on new information technology. Before that, the Montreal native worked in journalism for 30 years, as a reporter at several newspapers, including The Montreal Gazette and the defunct Montreal Star, The Winnipeg Tribune, and The Toronto Star, where he wrote the national affairs column in the early 1970s. When the Global Television Network began broadcasting in 1974, he signed on as Ottawa bureau chief, a position he held until Global decided not to renew his contract in 1980.

His appointment as journalism dean stirred feathers. He was, after all, a college dropout. But Western’s administrators and fellow deans concede the school has improved under him. “He’s been very good for the journalism school,” says John Miller, chairman of the School of Journalism at Ryerson. “He’s high-profile. He gets quoted a lot on a variety of journalism-related issues.” But while academics applaud Desbarats’ accomplishments, the current crop of journalism students give him and the school a mixed review. While they respect his administrative abilities, his cold, distant style does not endear him to them. “He’s not the type to say hello and chat with you in the hallway,” says one student. Another remarks: “He talks about the low student-faculty ratio here, but he doesn’t even know any of the students’ names.”

As for the program itself, most students say it could improve. Dave Briggs, who worked for five years at the University of Windsor’s student paper, The Lance, before F’ attending Western, says feedback from the so-called practical courses isn’t always forthcoming. “There’s no in-depth instruction on how to do something. The instructors have never really sat down with us and told us how to interview, what’s wrong with our stories, what we should do to improve. I was lucky, because I had done some writing prior to this.”

Richard Colvin, who worked for one year at a Moscow-based English-language business newsletter, says while he finds some of the courses strong, particularly in broadcast, he too wants more feedback from print exercises. As for the school’s newspaper? “It’s a monthly-there’s none of the deadline pressure that exists in the real world,” Colvin says. “It’s not an inspiring read. Students end up writing not for an audience, but to fill column space.” He’s also weary of the school’s academic courses, like communication theory.. “You have to wonder, ‘What relevance does it have to writing a story?'”

This hasn’t gone unnoticed by media managers who do the hiring. “The school has produced a lot of good students, some who are working in our newsroom,” says Toronto Star foreign editor Paul Warnick, who interviews candidates for the Star’s summer internships. “But I have to say, in recent years the best recruits from Western haven’t come from the journalism school, but from the campus newspaper. Those are the reporters we’ve hired or offered jobs to. We pay much more attention to what students have done in the business than in the classroom.” And while Philip McLeod, editor of The London Free Press, argued the school should survive, his opinion of its graduates is guarded: “I don’t find that the practical education the Western students receive for a newspaper is as good as Ryerson’s,” McLeod says. “The graduates are still attractive prospects, but not necessarily in a big-city newsroom.”

THE WESTERN J-SCHOOL SAGA BEGAN IN April 1993 when Desbarats was invited to an Aprils meeting with Western president George Pedersen and academic vicepresident Thomas J. Collins. Money topped the list on Desbarats’ agenda. His faculty had expressed dismay that journalism was ignored when the administration allocated $3.4 million from an academic redistribution fund to faculties and professional schools on campus. (The business and law schools received $160,000 each, dentistry got $100,000, and library sciences pocketed $25,000.) “We thought we should be more aggressive,” recalls Desbarats. “If the journalism school was valued by the university, then we thought it should support it properly.”

Desbarats arrived for the meeting, held in a boardroom adjacent to Collins’ office-the same room in which Desbarats was interviewed in 1981 for his job. He never made his case for more money. Rather, Collins told him the administration planned to seek senate and board of governors’ approval to close the journalism school at the end of the 1993-94 academic year. About three months after that encounter, Desbarats admitted his political savvy as a dean was at a low ebb. “I’m ashamed to say that the meeting took me by surprise,” he said. “That doesn’t say much for my political intuition or information-gathering ability.” Collins went on to tell him that Western’s senior administration concluded that the university had to make cuts to compensate for reduced funding from the province. Closing the journalism school, it figured, would save it $385,000 in fiscal year 19941995-less than one-tenth of one per cent of Western’s $250-million operating budget-and close to $1.2 million over a 10year period. “We looked at about 20 factors,” Collins explained later, “and after weighing them and all things considered, we concluded that journalism was of the lowest priority.”

But what really irked Desbarats, and no wonder, was a tentative deal Collins had cut back in February with Ottawa’s Carleton University, home of Canada’s largest journalism school. The “Carleton option” would allow Western journalism professors to teach at Carleton’s journalism school, while Western paid their salaries and benefits. Carleton would also receive Western’s Chair of Mass Media Studies, a prestigious research-oriented position, which Carleton officials later admitted would improve its chances of offering a Ph.D. journalism degree-which, in turn, would bring more funding for the journalism school. But that wasn’t all. Collins told Desbarats that Stuart Adam, Carleton’s dean of arts and former director of the Chair of Mass Media Studies (198789), was sitting on a couch in Collins’ office, waiting to speak to him. How are Western’s administration consult Carleton’s journalism administrators before they talked to him? And how dare Carleton’s journalism faculty conspire with Collins, a long-time arch-rival, to luring Western’s program to an end? “I have nothing to discuss with you,” Desbarats angrily told Adam. “I want to talk to my faculty and staff first.”

Desbarats once wrote that “journalism is nothing if not personal.” That’s how he took the news: as an affront to his skills as a dean and a journalism educator. For the next six months, saving the school became a personal obsession. On many nights during that period, Desbarats would wake up at three in the morning and mentally play out different scenarios. What should he say to the university senate? How should he act? What happens if…? “The idea of being the last dean at this school didn’t attract me at all,” he later explained. “It was a matter of pride.” This attitude rubbed off on a small group of allies in whom Desbarats confided his administrative officer Lynn Larmour, journalism alumnus and Western board of governors’ member Jim Etherington, faculty member Mary Doyle, and London public-relations consultant Helen MacKenzie. From early September until late October, they met for lunch almost every Wednesday or Thursday at Say Cheese, a downtown London bistro. It was one of Etherington’s favourite restaurants and only a few blocks south from his office at London Life Insurance, where he’s vice-president of corporate affairs. During those weeks, Etherington and company sat around a wooden table, munched on hot mushroom salad, sipped soda water or drank coffee, and reviewed the events of the past week-what went right, what went wrong, and what to do next. They divided up the key task of lobbying members of Western’s senate, responsible for academic rule-making, and Western’s board of governors, responsible for university finances, hoping they would convince them that journalism should stay. Their selling points: the bestowal of the Chair of Mass Media Studies in 1985 by the federal Secretary of State, which came with a $500,000 endowment; a recent evaluation from the Ontario Council of Graduate Studies, which ranked the school in the top category of graduate programs in the province; the growth of the school’s endowment since Desbarats’ arrival, from $10,000 to $1 million; and an August 27, 1993, letter from the U.S.-based Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication, a group that represents more than 3,000 American university-level educators, which wrote that Western’s school “is recognized as the best journalism program in all of Canada.”

Early on, the group sensed momentum building. Their polling of Western professors found that nine out of 10 disagreed with the administration’s proposal. Comments included, “not sure how they picked journalism,” “lack of consultation,” “other faculties could absorb the cuts,” and “not justified in an academic sense.” More than 600 signatures were collected on a petition from Canadian and international journalists, while Desbarats’ SOS call produced about 220 letters from alumni, London residents, journalism-school directors, and politicians, all addressed to Pedersen, asking him to reconsider his decision. Later, Western’s student council and London City Council both passed resolutions condemning the university’s plan. And as the debate raged on, some campus figures, like Edward Ebanks, chairman of Western’s sociology department and former faculty association president, were outspoken in their defence of journalism. “Any decision to close an academic unit that’s known to be of great quality has to be suspect,” says Ebanks. “Finances were a flimsy defence at best. They wanted to close a good, reputable academic program to save less than one-tenth of one per cent from their total operating budget.” If the university was serious about cost-cutting, Ebanks asks, why did it spend more than $100,000 on two parking-attendant shelters, add more staff to the president’s office, at an annual cost of $400,000, and write off an $800,000 debt that had been incurred by the engineering department’s wind tunnel project?

But while the group’s work paid dividends close to home, some of Desbarats’ moves infuriated others, especially at Carleton’s and Ryerson’s schools of journalism. Desbarats’ initial anger at Carleton for working with Collins was unmistakable. In a speech to a senate committee in July, he launched salvo after salvo towards Carleton’s journalism school. “From my point of view, the Carleton school has always seemed to be.. .relatively unambitious,” he said. “Although it sits in Ottawa, it has not established itself, as one might have expected, as a renowned centre for the teaching of political journalism.” His tirade continued: “In terms of technical resources, Western has always been considerably ahead of Carleton…”; “[Carleton] has nothing to match our program of professional development courses for Canadian journalists,” and, possibly the unkindest jab of all, “It is my impression, somewhat biased of course, but based on concrete evidence, that we are more highly regarded by the industry.” Joseph Scanlon, a Carleton journalism professor since 1965, had heard enough. Even though Carleton took a neutral position during the Western debate, iliis didn’t stop Scanlon from taking a personal stand. He wrote to Pedersen to defend Carleton. “I felt I had to correct the impression left by [Desbarats’] comments,” he wrote. But while his letter was business-like, he’s forthright in an interview. “His speech wasn’t a defence of Western, but an attack on Carleton. That’s a very unprofessional thing do. It’s not what an academic should be doing, spreading a distorted view about reality,” says Scanlon, an Ottawa and Washington correspondent for The Toronto Star in the early 1960s. “This all seems very sad to me. He attacks another program instead of defending his own. He fired from the hip without any facts.”

Lynne Van Luven, a former books editor at The Edmonton Journal who joined Carleton’s faculty in July 1992, wrote a memo to Scanlon thanking him for his response. “It was really tacky on Desbarats’ part,” she says. She described his tactics as “sophomoric,” and warns that Desbarats and Western’s journalism school may pay a ptice. “It was an aggressive way of doing things, but he’ll have to realize there will be fallout for what he said.”

Nor did Stuart Adam escape Desbarats’ wrath. Desbarats said in his July remarks and in later interviews that the Carleton option was developed partly because Adam and Collins became good friends during Adam’s tenure as director of the Chair of Mass Media Studies. Adam says Desbarats’ reasoning is nonsense: “My relationship with Collins was sttictly business. I’ve never been with him socially.” He says he regrets attending the meeting when Desbarats was first told his school may be closed. “I was in an awkward position. It was a judgment call.” He says the Carleton option was developed-with trepidation, on his part-because it was best for journalism education. “It was not so much closing the better school. When the time comes, there’s a need for Carleton to be iliere for Western’s journalism department. That’s what took place.”

At Ryerson, Desbarats managed to annoy faculty wiili a press release he issued on September 7. The release said that Ryerson, Western, and the University of Windsor’s communications department had agreed over the summer to explore the idea of a southern Ontario institute of journalism and mass communications. Meetings to discuss the institute were to begin later that month. Ryerson chairman John Miller heard this on CBC Radio on his way to work. He couldn’t recall discussing such a project. To clear the air, he issued a memo to Ryerson staff that morning, saying Desbarats’ claim was “untrue.” “[Western’s journalism school].. .has been targetted for closing, and he is trying to fight it off. But that does not excuse the way he has stretched the truth of what we discussed this summer,” Miller wrote. Miller and Desbarats say they have since settled their differences.

Desbarats relied on strong support from school alumni, and for the most part, they didn’t disappoint. However, some did question the need for journalism schools during this period of insecurity at media organizations across Canada. “When 1 first heard about the journalism school closure, I thought to myself, ‘So what?'” says Linda Whitmore, a 1989 graduate who works as a communications officer with The Blackburn Group, which owns the Free Press. “If no one is hiring, then how many journalism schools do we need?” She uses Chris Doty as an example. He’s a friend who’s a talented writer and television producer, “who has been beating his head against the wall to find any type of work.” Doty has the rejection letters as proof of the current climate, but Elaine Carey, a 1970 graduate who’s the beats editor at The Toronto Star, has watched the crunch firsthand. More than 100 Star editorial employees have been laid off since 1989. There are few reporters younger than 30 in the newsroom, and word is there will be no new blood for a while. “I don’t see the point of turning out any journalists right now,” says Carey. “In this recession, I don’t see the point of subsidizing courses for students to take when there are no jobs out there in the near future.”

That argument never surfaced at Western. It was restricted to a simple dollars-and-cents issue. But if cost savings were meagre, why, observers asked, was the administration firm in its stance? All fingers point in the direction of Tom Collins. The former dean of arts and chair of the English department is a hard-nosed administrator, known for his tough talk and less-than-subtle diplomacy. He’s considered by some Western’s de facto president, the man who does George Pedersen’s dirty work. He wields real power on campus, observers add, because he controls the purse strings-he’s influential in determining how much money each faculty receives at budget time. According to critics, Collins’ fingerprints were all over the proposal, since it meshed with his “elitist” vision of a university: strong undergraduate faculties like arts, sciences, and social sciences, with professional schools and specialized faculties, like journalism, kept on the fringe. “It started out as a money matter. That was always believed to be the reason. But it was really Tom Collins,” says Mack Laing, a 20year veteran of Western’s journalism school. “He didn’t like the journalism school. It wasn’t academic enough for him.” Andrew MacFarlane, the former dean of Western’s journalism school, is more blunt. He says the journalism school was treated well before Collins became academic vice-president in 1985. “He was influential in the journalism school not getting any [internal] funding, then he says because the school didn’t get any funding, it’s no longer a priority. That’s asinine. He’s an academic snob.” His own son, Mark Collins, a graduate of Western’s journalism school and now a CBC Radio producer in Edmonton, told Western’s student newspaper that his father just didn’t like the journalism school. “I would say quite simply there would be some truth to that,” he said in a front-page story in the Gazette’s October 6, 1993, edition. “His attitude towards the journalism school is it is a nonacademic place. It was perhaps not held in the highest esteem.”

But Collins denies the proposal was anything but financial in nature. “There’s no hit list here,” he said in early October. “The people against the plan like to personalize it. It distracts from the real issue. The personal attacks on me, well, that’s part of the territory.” He declined my requests for follow-up interviews. Pedersen refused all requests. “I don’t want to waste your time or mine,” he said.

Collins and the administration scored a key victory in the journalism school battle at the senate meeting in late September. The senate voted 45-34 in favour of the administration’s plan, with a large chunk of those 45 votes from the deans of Western’s 16 other faculties. Not one of Desbarats’ fellow deans spoke in favour of keeping journalism afloat. They all stood, one by one, and argued the school should be closed. “We weren’t enthusiastic about making cuts. It was no pleasure,” says Jim Good, Western’s dean of arts. “I can tell you the deans wanted to keep everything the same, but reality is something else.” Bob Kymlicka, dean of education, was originally opposed to closing journalism. But his faculty’s finances dictated otherwise. “The university had to set a precedent. Every dean has to cut almost 11 per cent from their budgets over the next three years.”

The day after the senate vote, Desbarats and friends met again at Say Cheese. The mood was grim. “Everybody was pretty down. Since we failed at senate, we thought we had lost it,” says Ethetington. Now the group was forced to lobby the board of governors, known around the campus’ political circles as the administration’s rubber stamp. “People told me that Collins never lost a major battle, or that the board never voted against the senate. That was simply the gospel,” Desbarats says.
But at the lunch meeting, Larmour made an impassioned plea to her colleagues to give it one last shot. The rest of the group, with nothing to lose, obliged. Each was assigned board members to lobby. To their surprise, a couple threw their support behind the journalism school. And when they learned some board members in favour of cutting journalism would be absent from the late October meeting, there was suddenly a glimpse of hope. That hope turned to jubilation when they heard that Collins, the proposal’s architect, could miss the meeting because he might be in Hawaii, competing in the Ironman Triathlon. “We didn’t believe it at first,” says Etherington, “we thought somebody was kidding.” On October 27, two days before the board vote, the group convened once more. Etherington did a rough count of how the board would vote. If Collins were missing, it would be 13-12 against closing the school. On the morning of October 29, minutes after the board meeting commenced, Etherington gave Desbarats the thumbs-up signal-Collins was indeed Hawaii-bound. Had Collins attended the meeting, the vote would have ended in a deadlock. In the case of a tie, the board chair casts the deciding ballot, and then chairman Claude Pensa had previously gone on record in favour of cutting the journalism school. “Collins decided to go to Hawaii rather than the board meeting,” says Kymlicka. “Now, the deans have to live with the consequences.”

While Western’s deans agonize about the future, the directors of journalism programs at King’s College, Concordia, Ryerson, Carleton, and Regina were relieved Western’s program was saved. But Ryerson’s Miller has reservations about whether the school can thrive after the bad publicity. “If you’re a student applying to a journalism school, but the university doesn’t think journalism is a priority, you may think twice about studying there.” (This year’s applications to Western’s journalism program totalled 186, down from 207 in 1993.) Peter Johansen, director of Carleton’s School of Journalism, is convinced this is an internal Western matter that won’t quickly dissipate. “Each campus is unique. It depends on the political strength of the journalism school vis-a.-vis the whole school,” Johansen says. And because of Western’s size, he’s as concerned as Miller about the future. “The journalism school’s ability to grow and prosper is in the hands of an administration that was intent on shutting it down. What will happen? Time will tell.”

“I have no doubt the journalism school issue will be before the board again, this time as part of a larger package,” says Pensa, whose term expired in January. (His successor, London citizenship judge Libby Fowler, also supported the administration’s attempt to close the school.) Pensa’s optimism sprouts from the upcoming arrival of Western’s new president, Paul Davenport. Davenport, who assumes office in July, was dubbed the “Alberta maverick” during his five-year term as University of Alberta president because of his penchant for cutting entire university departments, or merging them, as cost saving measures. While at Alberta he managed to close the department of agricultural engineering, merged home economics with agriculture and forestry, and library and information studies with education. He declined a request for an interview about Western’s journalism school.

Even Etherington, who helped Desbarats in his efforts to preserve journalism at Western, says if the university’s finances don’t improve, and the administration can make a stronger case for axing journalism, he might be inclined to back such an effort. “If the administration comes back with a detailed strategic plan that says journalism doesn’t fit and why, I might support it. I’m not emotionally attached to this issue.” Desbarats, now 60, will end his term as journalism dean in June, and at press time a university committee was expected to name his successor by early April; insiders were saying Michael Nolan, a journalism-history professor at Western, would likely be named. (Coincidentally, Collins withdrew from the selection committee in late November.) Desbarats scoffs at suggestions that the school’s future remains in peril. “It wouldn’t be tolerated by the community, to put us through that whole ordeal again,” he says. “No department is secure on this campus, but we’re more secure than others because of what happened.” Whoever follows in Desbarats’ footsteps will have a tough act to follow. There’s no doubt among Western’s deans and insiders that closing the journalism school will return as a cost-cutting option. If that’s the case, how can the new dean succeed as Desbarats did? Or did Desbarats exhaust all the resources, allies, and luck available during this recent campaign?

The questions are far from academic.

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About the author

Arielle Piat-Sauvé was the Spring 2015 Senior Editor of the RRJ

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