Jennifer Nedeau: A delicate academic balance

Adding a sub-heading to GW’s name, such as “Vocational School for the West Wing Wannabes, 2040 Presidential Candidates or Future Replacements Once Judy Woodruff Gets Too Old for TV” might help communicate a more honest description of what GW is: a trade school for political and media junkies.

The obvious perk of going to GW is its location. The University, however, is not just an overpriced hotel. Believe it or not, it is an academic institution.

From day one, GW students are offered a lot of bang for their buck, but with little substance behind it. Now in my third year, GW continues to impress me with its lackluster academic atmosphere due to the negligible salaries it offers to professors, the cyclical loss of superb faculty who fail to receive tenure and the disorganization of certain academic departments. I have heard students remark that at GW, “studying is an afterthought,” and they should start a club called “Students for an Education” because GW students either make a conscious choice to ignore academic life or are already dissatisfied with it.

The root of this feeling is due to consistent indecision by faculty and administration over the mission statement of certain programs. The debate over whether GW is a launching pad into the Washington rat race or an academic institution for a student to fulfill a few scholarly credentials consumes the minds of students, faculty and administration. There needs to be a compromise between these two extremes represented in deans and directors who are not only scholars, but have also applied their education to the real world.

Last spring, Michael Brown, a lifelong academic and former director of the Center for Peace and Security Studies at Georgetown University, secured the position of dean of the Elliott School of International Affairs. Brown has published award-winning books on international security and for all technical purposes is a professional scholar. Contrast Brown with another candidate for the position, Ambassador Edward “Skip” Gnehm. Gnehm is a current GW Shapiro professor, served in the foreign service for 25 years and worked for the Department of State as a U.S. Ambassador in Kuwait, Jordan and Australia. While there are positive reports of Brown’s capabilities, by just looking at the credentials it seems that the University decided on academic experience over that of the practitioner, a skewed reflection of GW students’ needs.

In trying to find a director of the School of Media and Public Affairs, the faculty and administrators are once again at the same stumbling block over what type of person would be best to lead the school. Marvin Kalb, a previous candidate, withdrew himself from consideration due to the issue of “two conflicting sets of values at the school” and because “those people who were the scholars clearly dominated in their point of view.” Kalb has had a distinguished 30-year journalism career of award-winning reporting for CBS and NBC News, serving as a host of “Meet the Press” and the “Kalb Report.” He would have undoubtedly brought a nationally recognized name as director of the SMPA, something the students may have preferred. However, the fear among the faculty that a career-based director would shanghai the focus on theory in media education made Kalb feel that taking the position under those auspices would have been “unbecoming and demeaning.” Kalb said that he has “the highest regard for scholarship,” and wanted to “help a school that has enormous potential.” He said that SMPA uses “words, slogans, that on examination have very little content” and under the proper leadership, it has the opportunity to “be one of the best media and public affairs schools in the country.”

The Elliott School and the SMPA deserve different styles of leadership since the material taught in ESIA is theory-based, whereas SMPA students are given cameras to hold and news stories to complete. Running a university that needs to be a successful business, an academic institution and an open door to the opportunities of Washington, D.C., is a difficult trio to manage. However, the future SMPA director should have comprehensive academic experience while still reflecting the needs of internship-driven students. The marriage of these two necessary components should be reevaluated for every academic department at GW, not just the SMPA. If potential leaders are consistently dissuaded from joining the SMPA due to the philosophical beliefs of the faculty and administration, students will be left in limbo and the school will remain stagnant, unable to achieve the level of competence and recognition of which it is capable.

-The writer, a junior majoring in journalism, is a Hatchet columnist.

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