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New faculty position reflects University’s commitment to diversity

By Natalie Johnson

The conversation about diversity takes on new intensity with the addition of the John and Elizabet h Bate s Cowles Professor of Journalism, Diversity and Equality to the SJMC faculty. This position will directly enhance the strategic plan of the SJMC and the University overall to build the nation’s pre-eminent program in communication education, research and practice.

Elizabeth Bates CowlesTo ensure the discussion about diversity is not lost in the dizzying array of dialogues taking place on the University campus, five scholars will be welcomed to campus this fall to help keep the discussion about diversity meaningful and relevant.

For one of these scholars, Murphy Hall will be home.

The appointment of Catherine Squires as the inaugural John and Elizabeth Bates Cowles Professor of Journalism, Diversity and Equality will provide a new voice to enhance the discussion about diversity. This professorship is made possible through a College of Liberal Arts (CLA) Planning Compact and the generous, longstanding endowment made to the SJMC by the Cowles family.

CLA received more than 20 proposals in a competitive process to determine where the diversity scholars would be placed. The new positions, which are scattered across the social sciences, the humanities and the arts, are designed to attract scholars with research and teaching interests in diversity and/or equality. The intent in establishing these new positions is to enhance the University’s teaching and research capacities and the College’s ability to mentor and recruit undergraduate and graduate students. The overarching goal is to develop excellence and competency in building and sustaining diversity as recommended by the University’s Task Force on Diversity.

Squires says it is the first job description she had seen in a long time that was “exactly" what she wanted to do.

“When I learned about the resources of the endowment, about how the professorship was created through a competitive process and that the entire SJMC was behind the position, it was very exciting for me," she said during a brief June visit to the SJMC amid house-hunting appointments. “To see the entire University making this push for diversity was very heartening for me. I felt strongly that it was something I could throw my energy behind."

Al Tims, director of the SJMC, agrees that the opportunity is unique and will enhance the work of the School.

“For Murphy Hall to be the home of one of these diversity positions is exciting," Tims says. “The addition of this professorship will directly enhance the strategic plan of the SJMC and the University overall to build the nation’s pre-eminent program in communication education, research and practice. This enhances our ability to provide students the best possible academic and professional education for their entry into diverse careers in the rapidly changing communications industry."

Squires comes to the SJMC from the University of Michigan, where she has held a joint appointment as an assistant professor in the Department of Communication Studies and The Center for Afroamerican and African Studies. She has published numerous articles in such journals as Communication Theory, Critical Studies in Media Communication and the Harvard International Journal of Press and Politics exploring black women’s studies, African-American youth culture, and issues of race/ethnicity, class and gender-inclusive research.

Squires has contributed to several books and authored two of her own. Her most recent, “Dispatches from the Color Line: The Press and Multiracial America," compares African-American, Asian- American, and white-dominant news reports on people of multiracial descent. It also explores controversies surrounding the new race and ethnicity categories included on the 2000 Census. The book will be available in selected stores and online this summer.

A second book, “Agents of Change: African American Experiences with Mass Media," chronicles the strained and tenuous relationships African-Americans have had with mass media, and is currently in production.

Her passion for her research is clear, bringing a spark to her eyes, yet the path that led to it took a bit of a meander first.

Squires originally started down the road toward international politics. She attended a small college in Los Angeles that offered a strong international relations program with thoughts of working in the Foreign Service. World events intervened, however, and began to influence her direction.

“My undergraduate experience was bookended by the Rodney King beatings, trial and uprisings, and by O. J. Simpson driving down the freeway," she says. “I was there to see how the media handled the whole Rodney King incident, in the press and on television, and it was very different from what we were hearing on the streets. The disjuncture was so great in my mind that it got me to thinking there was something very wrong with this picture."

Those thoughts led to a year in England, immersed in media studies. An internship with the U.S. Mission to the United Nations offered her a taste of what it’s like to work in the diplomatic world, and gave her a close look at how the press responded to the downing of two Blackhawk helicopters in Somalia as well as Nelson Mandela’s address to the U.N. Assembly in 1993. The subsequent media coverage of these events cemented Squires’ decision to pursue graduate study in mass communication.

“I found myself really inspired to study how the media portray things," she says. “I decided the Foreign Service was not the place for me."

She landed at Northwestern University’s School of Speech, where she earned both her master’s and doctoral degrees in communication studies.

In her research, Squires explores when and how racial identities are made salient in mass media; what cultural and historical resources media producers and audiences draw upon as they create and debate racial discourse; and whether other identities are viewed as intersecting, or irrelevant, to racial identity in the midst of these debates.

“I have been fortunate to be able to incorporate my research interests into many of my courses," she says. “Students tell me they appreciate their newfound knowledge of the ways in which African- Americans have used the press to advance various cultural and political causes."

Among the many classes and seminars Squires has created, she is most proud of African Americans and Broadcasting, a special course she introduced at the University of Michigan. The course takes students through the politics of media and culture in the 1950s and 1960s. With their new knowledge in hand, students created Web sites for elementary school children and radio documentaries on blacks, civil rights and broadcasting. Students and Squires were thrilled when one of their documentaries was aired on Michigan Public Radio.

“I hope I can convince students to go beyond their own technobubbles to appreciate the history of our media system and the things that make it unique," she says, adding that many students today grew up with more technical gadgets than any other generation in history, making them media savvy, but not necessarily wellgrounded in theory or history. “Once they have that historical perspective, they see that our media system is both wonderful and troubling."

Squires concludes, “I think there has been a shift in thinking about media as personal conduits of entertainment and information rather than public resources, and we need to shift back toward a more public orientation to the power of mass media."