Adios, Ink-Stained Vets
When J. Arthur Heise took over the journalism program at Florida International University in 1983, there were instructors who wouldn't talk to each other, hopelessly scrambled student files, and a faculty that was often in open revolt. "The FIU provost told me that the department was 'my single biggest academic headache,'" Heise recalled the other day. "The program was in total disarray."
After 20 years under Heise, though, the FIU School of Journalism and Mass Communication was studied and often emulated by other universities. It produced a slew of Pulitzer Prize winners, including six grads who were among the group that took the 2001 breaking-news award for the Miami Herald's coverage of the Elián González story.
Heise brought in a tough cadre of working-press faculty members who helped to establish the first Spanish-language master's program in the country, created widely admired courses to prepare foreign correspondents for overseas assignments, and set up a hard-nosed, test-driven program to promote writing skills.
Now, though, the school threatens to move back into migraine territory, critics say. Heise retired as dean last year, and three key faculty members have recently resigned in anger or frustration.
The latest to leave is Kevin Hall, head of the Journalism Writing Program. Hall is a respected newspaper editor who once ran the Miami Herald's Sunday magazine, Tropic. He quit FIU -- which has campuses in Miami-Dade and Broward counties -- two weeks ago with a blast at the J-school's new administration that reeked of rhetorical gunsmoke. He charged that Heise's replacement, Dean Lillian Lodge Kopenhaver, and other administrators were abandoning the school's commitment to high standards and bowing to political pressure in censoring students.
The school has "compiled a shocking record of weakness that reverses decades of strong accomplishment," Hall wrote in a harsh resignation letter.
He added: "I cannot continue to teach a principled and thoughtful view of journalism to students in this new environment, which has so little respect for the needs of journalism students, or for open and honest discussion of importantly differing points of view."
Hall's resignation follows that of Mike McQueen, a former USA Today and Herald staff writer and editor, who quit last year as chairman of the Journalism and Broadcast Department after being denied tenure because he lacked a Ph.D. Charles Green, director of the school's International Media Center and a long-time Associated Press Latin America correspondent who served as bureau chief in Caracas and Mexico City, also recently announced his intention to resign at the end of the summer. He cited, among other things, "a change in the commitment to writing" at the school.
The FIU administration denies that the resignations are part of a pattern, contending they're the result of normal turnover. Kopenhaver says that McQueen left because "the newspaper business never really got out of his blood" and that Green is leaving because he is tired of the demands of the job. She adds that the school is in the process of hiring "distinguished" new faculty members "with healthy newspaper experience" to fill the vacancies.
Some students openly worry, though, about a loss of prestige at the school. "A lot of people see the school going downward instead of upward now," says Harry Coleman, editor in chief of the Beacon, the school's student newspaper.
Hall's most damning charges involve alleged censorship. He says the dean ordered the removal of three articles last year from a student-run website because of a complaint from a member of the student government that they were in "bad taste." The articles included a profile of a South Beach male hooker, a story about a high school honors student who was addicted to heroin, and an article titled "Help! I'm a Nympho." They were posted on fusedOnline.com, an FIU website for students of online journalism. Kopenhaver had the stories removed last summer, Hall says, and ordered hyperlinks between the website and the university to be severed.
"Having a junior politician influencing what's published by the School of Journalism?" Hall says. "That's a bad thing to teach students. It's a bad message."
University officials respond sharply. "Censorship?" FIU Media Relations Director Mark Riordan says, denying the charge. "Those are fighting words. That's a very serious claim when you're talking about a journalism school."
Allan Richards, who teaches the course in which students produced the website and who is currently chairman of the Journalism and Broadcast Department, says liability issues troubled the university's legal advisers. "The use of the word censorship is really overblown," Richards says, adding that the student journalists had been invited to take over the website independent of the school and that they had not done so. FusedOnline.com, which had been funded with student activities money, is no longer on the Internet.
But Yudi Pineiro, the student who wrote the "nympho" article, about a female sex addict, recently complained to the Poynter Institute's daily press website that her article was pulled "without notice or justifiable reason." Pineiro, now a Miami Herald reporter, added that "the very own school that handed me my undergraduate degree in journalism censored me." Pineiro declined to be interviewed about the school.
Hall also says that students in the broadcast journalism program were censored when a segment they had prepared for football coach Don Strock's television program on WTVJ-TV (Channel 6) was declared by the school's athletic department to be unacceptable because of its tone. Neither Strock nor Teresa Ponte, the faculty adviser to the broadcast journalism students, could be reached.
"I don't know what they were doing, accepting censorship by the athletic department," Hall says. "They're teaching that journalism is really public relations."
The most interesting issue raised by Hall concerns the test he and other faculty members devised 20 years ago to ensure that students learned grammar. The test was paired with a kind of boot camp class in writing and grammar; different versions were administered during the course to measure progress. "A lot of graduates came back saying they didn't like it at the time but they realized it was the best course they'd had," says Heise, who claims that it helped to level the playing field for FIU students competing with Ivy Leaguers for newspaper jobs.
The current full-time faculty (now numbering ten) voted in December to eliminate the test, claiming that it was of little use in teaching their courses. It has been replaced by a test from the University of North Carolina and by instruction in the Associated Press style. Kopenhaver contends that the new system is actually better because it includes punctuation and copyediting instruction.
But Hall complains that the vote was taken by e-mail, without discussion, after a campaign to impugn its value.
Though Richards says it may have been improper for Hall to use the test in the writing program that he ran, similar practices are common in academia, where professors often assign their own books to classes they teach. Moreover, Hall asserts that he "never made a dime" from the test and that for more than ten years, he personally covered the costs.
School officials say that Hall, despite an admirable career at FIU, is a "disgruntled employee" with an ax to grind.
"I don't understand why Kevin Hall feels the need to throw mud at a program he helped build to a level of prominence and is now only going to get better," Riordan says.
Kopenhaver insists that the FIU journalism program is really on the upswing. "This is not a program that is in trouble," she says. "It's a program that's growing and evolving."
McQueen, the former journalism department chairman who is now managing editor of the Macon Telegraph in Macon, Georgia, says the FIU imbroglio mirrors the tensions in other journalism programs around the country, with grizzled former reporters contending for supremacy with degree-minded journalism academicians. "Should people who want to be journalists be taught by masters of the craft, despite their lack of academic credentials, or by people with no real solid, long-term experience?" McQueen asks.
Neither Hall nor Green has graduate degrees, only decades of journalistic experience; two new FIU journalism faculty hires don't have extensive daily newspaper experience. One is Lyn Millner, who will become a visiting professor next fall. She is a regular contributor to USA Today, mostly as a book reviewer, and to National Public Radio, Riordan said. The other new hire, whose name was withheld, has worked for South Florida publications but never achieved the prominence of Green, McQueen, or Hall.
Indeed, McQueen has a master's degree in mass communication from Florida Atlantic University, and he has written regularly for journalistic trade publications like the American Journalism Review and Quill.
"Yet I was told by a committee of my peers, after three years as the department chairman, that I would never stand for a tenure promotion," McQueen says. "I didn't fit the model of someone who would be granted tenure."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss New Times Broward-Palm Beach's biggest stories.
- Like Humans of New York, Blog Profiles Ordinary Broward County Residents
- Artist's "Pop-Up Church of Scientology" Features Naked Tom Cruise Statue
- Gov. Scott: We Are Investigating Planned Parenthood Offices in Florida