A close up of a TommieMedia video camera's LCD.

Outside Forces, Internal Checks and Change in Higher Ed

Change is hard.

Change can be especially hard with something steeped in tradition, like, say, academia, which has been around since the ancient Greeks. Since 1885, St. Thomas has developed a healthy history of its own in establishing the way things are done.

As St. Thomas Communication and Journalism chair Wendy Wyatt put it, “The wheels of academia can move really, really slowly.”

From small (the selection of a different textbook or the hiring of a new professor) to large (the joining of departments or a massive curriculum overhaul), changes help keep a university like St. Thomas dynamic.

“It’s always a balance,” Wyatt said, “Between being responsive and trying to get students ready for the latest things out there, while also realizing the things that are enduring over time.”

Two substantial changes at St. Thomas illustrate that balance and the steps educators take in making sure they find it.

Changes come for big or little fish

When geography chair David Kelley was hired in 2000, no one at St. Thomas had much experience with the geographic information system (GIS). A now-global system of management for all kinds of geographical data, it quickly became more widespread and useful to the geographical community. As St. Thomas secured software and started working with students to apply the tool across multiple disciplines, it was increasingly clear that GIS could be not just a periphery offering but should be the core aspect of the department’s curriculum.

Change was needed.

“It just made sense to move forward,” Kelley said. “It was keeping up with the times.”

“The times,” in many fields, is often a complicated combination of how things have been done, what is happening now, what is coming next and how students should be prepared at school for all of the above. For Geography, GIS represented the foundational shift in that final aspect: It is what their students should be trained for and prepared to do when they entered the marketplace, so the department focused its efforts toward that preparation.

“You can’t stay static. We could just be a service to the university and keep teaching world geography that has been taught for 50 years … but that’s not where the jobs are,” Kelley said. “That’s not where the answers are going to come from for managing this planet.

“Without GIS we would have very little to say in the great conversation of academia that makes us unique,” he added.

Thanks to the department’s willingness to adapt what it emphasized as the most important aspects of its education, St. Thomas students have established a recent tradition of their own: being known as a go-to pool for jobs, internships and research opportunities well above that of typical undergraduates.

“People know the product (of our students) is a good one,” Kelley said. “That comes from us preparing them.”

Bigger fish

With just two full-time faculty, Geography’s shift was aided by a small amount of people needing to change. Two fellow College of Arts and Sciences departments had a much larger task as they prepared to merge into Communication and Journalism in the late 2000s. With such a large curriculum overhaul, a lengthy process had to take place.

“There has to be buy-in from the department, then it has to go through the CAS curriculum committee, then the undergraduate curriculum committee, and then comes up for faculty consent,” Wyatt said. “The idea is that the whole faculty owns the curriculum. That’s great in the sense that we have people from outside of our own lens looking in and asking questions.”

The new department began offering classes fall 2008, signaling the culmination of years of planning.

“Our newly established Department of Communication and Journalism focuses on many communication types, whether interpersonal, intercultural, organizational, rhetorical or mass-mediated through journalism, advertising and public relations,” then-department chair Dr. Kris Bunton wrote to alumni at the time. “Our combination signals that we see what many of our double-majoring students have long understood: Communication forms can intertwine so closely that it’s difficult to separate them.”

Much like Geography, the outside world informed the change in Communication and Journalism at St. Thomas. A seismic shift in communications during the digital age meant students had to be prepared to do different things than those who graduated even just years before them.

“In many ways we feel great about what we think our students need to know and what we need to teach them, but it has been tricky because journalism has gone through so many changes,” Wyatt said. “While many people have said this is the golden age of journalism, and certainly from an audience perspective I think it is, we’re not sending our students out to do the same jobs as before. These jobs are changing all the time.”

Shortly after the COJO move that started in fall 2008, the student-produced newspaper, The Aquin, was eliminated in favor of a completely online offering, TommieMedia.com. There students hone writing, video, photo and audio skills, as well as public relations and advertising, a range previously scattered throughout several programs. The affordability of technology has been key to providing students with the skills they need, and to TommieMedia's and COJO's evolution, Wyatt said.

“It’s making it easier overall to be responsive,” she said. “When you go back in time and see what a quality TV camera used to cost, you’re really committing when you buy this giant thing that’s so expensive. You better be sure.”

Valuing the same things

The element of wanting to be sure builds into any change within higher education. Part of that is simply the importance of doing the best possible job educating students.

“Is it abandoning our fundamentals or staying nimble on a changing landscape?” Kelley said. “It’s the latter that we strive for.”

“It’s that push and pull of wanting to be nimble and adapting to change while you’ve got the importance of students’ education in your hands,” Wyatt said. “We’ve done a good job at St. Thomas throughout the years of sending students out who have meaningful knowledge and great moral compasses. In some ways you don’t want to mess too much with what we’re doing.”

In other ways, elements of change have a greater chance of success because they still are centered on what doesn’t change: St. Thomas’ mission.

“That’s what grounds us and makes us who we are. When we’re thinking about doing something, we want to go back and ask if it aligns with who we are,” Wyatt said. “If it doesn’t, that’s when we really start asking questions. Any kind of innovation or change has to be consistent with who we are as a university.”

The global landscape demands St. Thomas – and higher education as a whole – keep up with the times and offer the best possible product for today’s students. That is not a small task, and puts the emphasis on not just changing for the sake of change, but for the better.

“It’s really important for all of us that work at universities to pay attention to what’s going on. There’s a tendency to want to just do your work and teach your students well, but those days are over,” Wyatt said. “People are not taking the value proposition of higher education as a given; we have to be able to justify who we are, what we’re doing and why we’re doing it. And that’s a good thing. That’s accountability.”