The faculty senate at Northwestern University has formally accused NU’s administration of abolishing democracy at the Medill School of Journalism. A resolution passed unanimously June 6 by the General Faculty Committee says it found NU’s “suspension of faculty governance at [Medill] to be unacceptable and in violation of the University’s Statutes.” The resolution predicts “curricular changes that are ill considered . . . the demoralization and enmity of the faculty . . . damage to the national reputation of the School . . . the loss of and the inability to hire faculty who believe that the faculty’s role in governance is important for students, faculty and the public.”

The backdrop to this blunt resolution is a series of internal and external audits in recent years that judged Medill–which enjoys seeing itself as a journalism school without equal–as an academic basket case. President Henry Bienen and provost Lawrence Dumas stepped in. Skipping the usual faculty search committee they named John Lavine (pictured) the next dean in late 2005, and in early 2006 they booted aside the incumbent, who had months to go on his contract. Lavine was already on site: he was the founding director of NU’s Media Management Center, a fee-charging profit center housed in the journalism school.

An article on Lavine in the fall 2006 issue of the university alumni magazine said he’d been given “free rein to transform the school.” It explained that Bienen and Dumas “suspended formal faculty oversight at Medill for the 3 1/2-year transition period in which Lavine will shepherd the integration and revamping of the [Integrated Marketing Communications] and journalism programs and faculty.” IMC and journalism are Medill’s two basic divisions.

The resolution continues, “If the Administration in the future concludes that an unacceptable academic situation warrants the temporary suspension of the normal role of the faculty ‘to prescribe and define the course of study’ [a quote from NU’s statutes], such suspension should be only for a set, limited period and only after formal approval by the Board of Trustees made after the consideration of the views of all concerned faculty.”

Medill professors I’ve spoken with say a three-and-a-half-year suspension is hardly “temporary.” And it’s news to them if the Board of Trustees had any say in the matter, let alone heard from “concerned faculty.” The GFC resolution was signed by the committee chair, law professor John Elson, and submitted to Bienen and Dumas. They apparently haven’t responded. Elson wouldn’t comment, but Lavine did. He said the GFC didn’t talk to him before it acted, and its members obviously don’t know what he knows.

And what’s that? “We’ve had more faculty involvement in the last 18 months than in the decade before that. We have 12 major committees reaching across the entire faculty.” True enough about the dozen committees. But unhappy professors say Lavine just pays lip service to them. A new curriculum is going to be introduced over the next four years, and although professors have been consulted individually, one told me, “We don’t vote on anything. We have no vote. Anybody who dissents is labeled ‘antichange.’” Another outsider heads up the new curriculum project–Mary Nesbitt, who’d been (and remains) managing director of the Media Management Center’s readership institute before director of the women-in-newspaper-management project at the Media Management Center until Lavine brought her over. 

Lavine wasn’t blindsided by the resolution. Clarke Caywood, who teaches PR and marketing for the IMC side of Medill, was on the GFC when the resolution was proposed, though not when it was voted on (he says he’d have voted “aye”). He says, “I told Lavine a few months ago–truth to power–‘You should know it’s coming.’ His reaction was, ‘I think I’m doing the right thing.’ I don’t disagree with him, but I think his way of doing it leaves something to be desired.” That said, Caywood believes that the Medill faculty has long had a “passive-aggressive” relationship with the administration, with unwillingness to get involved running a close race with willingness to take offense.