Leading the Pack

By Ami Berger

The discipline of mass communication is evolving at light-speed, and graduates of the SJMC's doctoral program are leading that evolution.

Two such leaders are Ellen Wartella (Ph.D. '77) and Charles Salmon (Ph.D. '85), both professors and senior administrators at their institutions. As scholars and administrators, they're both creating and defining the future of the discipline.

Dr. Ellen Wartella laughs when she remembers some of the early reactions to her research, which focuses on the effects of advertising and media on children. "People in the field were saying to me, 'you seem smart, why are you wasting your time on kids?'" she recalls.

These days, no one accuses Wartella of wasting her time. She's a leading scholar of the role of media in children's development and the author of one of the field's canonical texts, Historical Trends in Research on Children and the Media: 1900-1960. She's continued her research in the field since then, even as she's moved from Illinois to the University of Texas-Autsin, where she was the dean of the College of Communication for more than a decade, and now to her current position as the executive vice chancellor and provost at the University of Californias Riverside.

It's a role she enjoys, although not one she planned for. "Most young girls don't grow up saying they want to be a provost," she says, "but I've found that being an administrator is a very creative and fulfilling act." At UC-Riverside, Wartella works closely with the chancellor in the formulation of the campus vision and implementation of academic and administrative policies.

As a senior administrator, she also has the opportunity to view her discipline from above. "I've been watching what's happening in the discipline, and what I see are real challenges for schools of journalism," she says. "Staying true to the values of the discipline is a challenge--values like fairness, and truth, and finding ways to connect all of the national and global questions about communication's impact on individuals and society. We need to teach our students to be able to think critically," she says, "to weigh different positions, and to have a modicum of restraint in an age of everyone screaming."

Wartella adds that it's not just the discipline of journalism and mass communication that faces these challenges: it's higher education in general. "We really haven't come to terms yet with the vast changes that new funding models for higher ed have wrought," she says, "and the result of that is a tension between faculty and administration that needs to be resolved." Another source of tension: rising public dissatisfaction with institutions of higher education. "My sense is that journalists and the public percieve universities as having lost their moral compasses," she muses. "And when you start questioning the very values behind an organization, that gives rise to lots of other, disturbing questions."

Wartella's own values are very closely tied to her research, which is why she's spending an increasing amount of time lobbying for federal legislation that will increase funding for research around questions about children and their exposure to the media. She recently testified in Washington D.C. as an advocate for the passage of the Children and Media Research Advancement Act (CAMERA) introduced by Senators Joe Lieberman and Hilary Rodham Clinton.

Those values, she says, were in large part instilled in her during her early days in the SJMC. One of her first courses in the program was Dan Wackman's research methods class. "It was from Dan that
I first learned about cognitive development, advertising, and children," Wartella says.
"I launched into that research and I've stayed there ever since. My career has its roots very deep at Minnesota and I've always been thankful for that."

The road to academic leadership is often linear and proscribed: scholars move from graduate school up through the professoriate, often becoming the chair of a department and moving into the more senior positions: dean, provost, or vice president.

Dr. Charles Salmon is an exception to that rule. The road he's taken to the position of dean of the College of Communication Arts and Sciences (CCAS) at Michigan State University has been full of twists and turns. In addition to faculty appointments (at the University of Georgia and the University of Wisconsin-Madison prior to MSU), he's also been a UNICEF consultant in Kazakhstan, a Fulbright Fellow in Israel, a visiting lecturer at the Norwegian School of Management, and a visiting scientist with the National AIDS Information and Education Program at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.

Now, as CCAS dean and the Ellis N. Brandt Professor in Public Relations at MSU, he's putting his energies into his position as a leader on campus and in the discipline. "What I particularly like about academic administration is the creativity required to develop new programs and identify new resources," he says, noting that CCAS has grown substantially in the past 3 years, to more than 100 full-time faculty teaching various aspects of communications theory and practice.

Leading that faculty in a time of constant change in the discipline is a challenge, Salmon says, but also a great opportunity. "A significant portion of our faculty finds the term 'mass communication' unsatisfying in an era of podcasts, Facebook.com, wearable technologies, mobile commerce and telehospice," he says. "Clearly the digital revolution has changed our field forever, and it is our responsibility to provide the intellectual leadership to influence the direction and study of this massive social transformation."

Salmon's intellectual leadership extends past his administrative post. He continues to pursue his research program in the field of health communication, particularly around HIV/AIDS prevention. It's an interest he traces back to his days in the SJMC, where he worked with Phil Tichenor, Dan Wackman, Don Gillmor, Jim Ettema, and Hazel Dicken-Garcia, who he refers to as "luminaries." For his dissertation, he worked with former SJMC director F. Gerald Kline, who was then the co-principal investigator of a research project called the Minnesota Heart Health Program. Salmon, who was a research assistant for Kline on the project, calls it "a major milestone" in the evolution of the fields of public health and health communication. "That experience launched my career in health communication," he says.

It's a field he's fascinated by and passionate about. "The first generation of AIDS communication consisted of fairly uncreative approaches to public service ads designed to warn--scare?--the public about an emerging health threat," he says. Over time, Salmon says, AIDS communication has become much more sophisticated through its integration into the fabric of social institutions. "This is a pattern that has been replicated with virtually all public health issues," he says. These patterns of "institutional diffusion" are the focus of his most current research.

It's quite a juggling act to maintain that research program while serving as dean. But the juggling is well worth it to Salmon, who is committed to providing his college with the best leadership he can possibly provide. "In my opinion, the best academic leaders are motivated by a service mindset and a sincere desire to build an environment in which faculty and students can maximize their self-fulfillment," Salmon says. "Those leaders have a vision of an exciting and dynamic future, the ability to communicate and share that vision, and the means to find resources and support to convert that vision into reality."

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This page contains a single entry by cla published on July 25, 2008 1:15 PM.

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