Letter to the Editor: Make Whitaker Medill’s permanent dean

As a Medill alum, I’m delighted that Prof. Charles Whitaker will serve as interim dean after Brad Hamm steps down. But why not make Whitaker permanent dean to avoid a time-consuming and expensive national search for a successor? As Northwestern Provost Jonathan Holloway noted in an email to Medill students, Whitaker has a “thorough understanding of the school, an outstanding record as a teacher and mentor to students and a great deal of relevant administrative experience.”

As a Medill faculty member since 1993, Whitaker taught undergraduate and graduate courses, ran the magazine program on a rotating basis and taught at NU’s School of Professional Studies. In 2013, he received the Medill Undergraduate Student Advisory Council’s “Student Choice” Award. Being part of the Medill faculty, he can hit the ground running without the steep learning curve that Hamm faced when he came aboard in 2012.

My only question is this: Does Whitaker want the job permanently, since fundraising and administration will occupy most of his time and leave little left for teaching? If not, NU should pass the torch to another qualified Medill faculty member instead of hiring externally. Well-run organizations usually promote from within, as NU’s Pritzker School of Law recently affirmed by naming Prof. Kimberly Yuracko as permanent dean. Before that appointment, Prof. Yuracko had served as interim dean since 2011 and as a faculty member for the past 16 years.

Dean Hamm did a terrific job during his 6-year tenure. He launched a sports journalism program, opened a San Francisco campus and relocated Medill’s Chicago campus to a new site with up-to-date technology. He obtained $9 million in financial aid so students at all income levels could benefit from Medill’s full range of opportunities. While widening the school’s impact, he upheld its core values and basic disciplines. I admire his acceptance of new ideas from students, faculty and alumni.

But I disagreed with two of Dean Hamm’s actions. Firstly, letting Medill’s accreditation from the Council on Education in Journalism and Mass Communications lapse was a mistake. Chicago Tribune reporter Dawn Rhodes called this decision a “strong rebuke that’s in contrast to what traditionally is viewed as a necessary process to give students assurance that they will be attending quality programs that have undergone review.” She noted that Medill students can no longer participate in the prestigious Hearst Journalism Awards program due to the dropped accreditation. Medill entrants placed first in the writing contest 12 times and won “about $600,000 in scholarships and grants since 1989.”

Additionally, I regard Dean Hamm’s emphasis on overseas student activity as a false priority. South Chicago seems a more important news beat for students than South Africa. What Hamm calls a “global experience” I call a misuse of resources. Money spent to cover events like South Korea’s Winter Olympics might otherwise fund more financial aid to students and higher pay for untenured professors. Frequent flier miles are a poor metric for journalism education, and a well-stamped passport should not be a student priority.

I urge interim Dean Whitaker to consider a project linked to NU students’ protests of gun violence and gun lobby power. Medill and McCormick could collaborate to create a database, website and app disclosing all candidates running for federal, state and local office in 2018 who received donations from the National Rifle Association. Via this Medill/McCormick collaboration, voters could learn who wears that badge of shame and who doesn’t.

My congratulations to Brad Hamm for a job well done. I look forward to his return as a tenured professor after his year-long sabbatical. I wish Charles Whitaker the very best of luck during his tenure as interim — hopefully permanent — Medill dean.

—Dick Reif, MSJ ’64