Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

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In Focus: Change, controversy defined Lavine’s time at Medill

Medill School of Journalism Dean John Lavine announced his retirement, effective at the end of the 2011-12 academic school year, in a statement Wednesday.

The architect behind the Medill 2020 plan, Lavine has changed the direction of Medill during his tenure, expanding both the school’s name and academic scope.

“It has been quite an odyssey,” he said in his statement. “Together we’ve accomplished far more than was envisioned in our Medill 2020 plan. Along the way, we’ve faced and overcome major challenges, as well as some controversies; when you undertake seismic change, both are inevitable.”

Lavine told The Daily on Wednesday his decision has been planned “for a while now,” and he consulted University Provost Dan Linzer to formalize his retirement this summer.

“A year ago I said to the provost, ‘We’re at the end,'” Lavine said. “I’ve done a lot of the things I set out to do, and now I have other things I would like to go and do.”

Several Medill professors and close friends of Lavine said his decision to step down has nothing to do with controversy surrounding his highly publicized strained relationship with former head of the Medill Innocence Project David Protess.

“His timing is probably based on what he’s told us – he really wanted to get the new curriculum in place and working and making sure that everything was running smoothly,” Medill Prof. Jon Marshall said. “His vision for the school was in place before he stepped down, and I think that’s probably the basis for the timing … In my mind, he would be leaving on a note where he feels like what he set out to accomplish has been accomplished.”

In an interview with The Daily, Lavine said he is moving on to new projects. One is called the “Informedness Center.” Lavine said he hopes to go beyond traditional audience analysis and explore not only the number of consumers, but how much the audience actually learns from consuming the news content.

It’s a project that mirrors the approach he brought to overhauling Medill’s curriculum.

“When I became a journalist in 1964, the question was, ‘How do you help people know more so they can be smarter as citizens and consumers?'” he said. “That’s what journalism is all about. That’s the exciting thing that draws me to it.”

Lavine’s legacy

Lavine has propelled Medill forward into the world of multimedia journalism, a move that was not always popular. Since coming to Medill in 2006, Lavine has transformed the Medill curriculum, incorporating multimedia and marketing components into many classes.

Former University President Henry Bienen and former Provost Lawrence Dumas suspended formal faculty oversight when Lavine came to NU in January of 2006, giving him authority to remaster the school’s curriculum and create the Medill 2020 plan. Lavine’s multimedia priorities were initially met with resistance from students and faculty, Medill Prof. Michele Weldon said. Weldon collaborated with Lavine on the curriculum redesign starting in 2005.

“We fundamentally changed how the early courses were taught,” Weldon said. The new curriculum introduced multimedia and audience analysis components to the introductory courses. “There was so much resistance. He got so much criticism by discussing audience at all. So many people said journalists need to be pure, and this is pandering. But it’s not pandering. It’s survival.”

Frank Mulhern, associate dean for research at Medill, said debate like this is to be expected.

“He’s been controversial because there are different constituents within the school that want to do different things, and no dean’s going to be favored by all of them,” he said. “But he’s no more controversial than other deans.”

Because of the changes in the curriculum, Medill students are “more marketable,” Weldon said. “Our students can do much more than the veteran in the newsroom, and our students are employable.”

Lavine officially incorporated the Integrated Marketing and Communications program into Medill, transforming it from a remote program for only graduate students into a pillar of the school’s brand.

“We went from the IMC program being disenfranchised, to the school changing its name to include the words ‘Integrated Marketing Communication’ and now launching a very successful undergraduate IMC certificate program,” said Tom Collinger, the executive director of the Medill IMC Spiegel Digital & Database Research Initiative.

Collinger was the associate dean of student services when Lavine first arrived. Collinger said there were a number of issues that needed to be fixed when Lavine arrived at Medill, which he “swiftly and expertly” resolved.

“He not only dealt with the issues, but excelled at them,” he said. “It’s quite a series of changes in the five, six years he’s been here.”

Medill Prof. David Nelson, who has been teaching since 1972 and has served as a professor under seven deans, said former Dean Ira Cole and Lavine are “the best” out of the seven with whom he has worked.

“Lavine leaves the school in a really solid position, particularly in personnel,” he said.

The staff and faculty under Lavine has grown both in size and specialty.

“There has been a wonderfully vibrant injection of new faculty,” Collinger said. “To have the dynamic of fresh thinking, from fresh faculty, along with our existing senior faculty, has really invigorated the school tremendously.”

New hires include former New York Times award-winning multimedia producer Zach Wise, among other multimedia professionals.

Multimedia “is where we need to be,” Nelson said. “The hires have been phenomenal. That took a lot of effort on the part of the dean to be able to get the money from Northwestern to get the hires.”

Medill has also expanded its global presence under Lavine, specifically opening options for students in Qatar and Latin America. Lavine said he is excited about the global direction of Medill.

“The Qatar campus was a collaboration with many people, but that was a big deal,” Mulhern said. “Lavine spent an awful lot of time on that, because there were an awful lot of negotiations and figuring out budgets and figuring out curriculum. That was a really big time consumer in his first couple of years.”

In addition to Qatar, students now have the option of going to Latin America for journalism residency.

Medill professors praised Lavine for Medill’s current standing as one of the top journalism schools in the country.

“Medill would not be here if he had not been available to be dean at the time he became dean,” Medill Professor Craig LaMay said. “He gave a level of organization, a purpose, a financial leadership to the school that had been lacking in Medill.”

Among other financial gains Lavine secured for Medill, he also partnered with the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation to secure a four-year, $4.2 million grant to create the Knight News Innovation Laboratory.

Lavine’s considerable investments in marketing and mulitmedia storytelling were innovative, if not always widely supported in a school whose namesake, former Chicago Tribune co-owner Joseph Medill, is synonymous with print journalism.

“He was willing to be unpopular,” Collinger said. “And that’s a very tough role to play in any job.”


Though the Medill 2020 plan may constitute Lavine’s legacy, his legend – deserved or not – will likely be a 2008 incident immortalized as “Quotegate.”

In 2008, Lavine came under fire for allegedly fabricating quotes in a piece about an advertising class in Northwestern alumni magazine.

Prompted by a column in The Daily, Protess contacted the students in the class and determined none of the students had said the quotes Lavine attributed to them.

Mulhern said the incident was blown out of proportion.

“The whole thing was silly,” Mulhern said. “It was a PR puff piece (The Daily column). It wasn’t a piece of journalistic work.”

Lavine’s name was eventually formally cleared by a provost-appointed committee, but Quotegate resurfaced again this summer when several news outlets published pieces about the strained relationship between Lavine and Protess, the high-profile former professor. A piece published last week in Chicago magazine suggested Protess tipped off The Daily columnist who wrote about Quotegate, deepening at least the public divide between the two.

“He and I will forever disagree about certain issues,” Protess said. “We’ve always handled it professionally.”

Protess retired from NU in June after the University’s nearly five-month review of his compliance with prosecutors who accused the 29-year professor and some of his students of ethical misconduct in investigating a murder conviction. Lavine removed Protess from teaching his signature Investigative Journalism class last spring after a University-led review found “Protess knowingly misrepresented the facts and his actions to the University, its attorneys and the dean of Medill on many documented occasions.”

Protess responded by calling for an independent review of the University’s findings, and Medill professors and the journalism community at large was divided over the decision.

Some supporters, including Nelson and LaMay, added their name to a petition asking for an independent review of the decision.

Still, LaMay said he respects the Lavine’s overall vision for the school.

“He (Lavine) will be remembered as Medill’s best dean and most far-sighted leader,” LaMay said. “At the same time, as he noted in his letter, his tenure has been full of controversy, some of his own making.”

Mulhern and several Medill professors said the timing of Lavine’s retirement was unrelated to recent press and instead consistent with his plan to leave after implementing the new curriculum.

“The question is who the next dean is and what that dean’s priorities are,” Mulhern said. “That’s more from the point of view of the central administration and what their vision is for Medill and what kind of dean they want.”

Lavine said the school will begin looking for its next dean this month, a process that could take up to a year to complete.

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In Focus: Change, controversy defined Lavine’s time at Medill