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MARGIN NOTES

Universities, the media and a War on Knowledge?

Lively panel debates what lies ahead in this delicate dance.

By LÉO CHARBONNEAU | APR 18 2013

This is a guest post by University Affairs’ regular contributor, Rosanna Tamburri.

I graduated from journalism school more than 25 years ago in what in hindsight can only be considered as the glory days for the industry. The economy was picking up. Newspapers were expanding. New ones were being launched. And no one had heard of the internet. Many of us, if not immediately, soon found jobs with dependable incomes and nice benefits. Over the years I have watched friends and colleagues lose those jobs or walk away from them as technological forces have reshaped the industry, wiping out advertising dollars and gutting newsrooms.

Turns out those who toil away in academia have it almost as rough. Earlier this week a panel discussion billed as “The War on Knowledge?” and held in advance of June’s Worldviews 2013 conference on global trends in media and higher education resulted in a lively debate. The gist of it was whether higher education is under attack and what role, if any, the media plays in that.  “Internationalization, politics, and worldwide economic trends are forcing universities and colleges to ask themselves tough questions,” a news release promoting the event read. “Criticisms are commonplace in the media, while new communication technologies threaten traditional institutions. So what lies ahead?”

Tony Burman, former editor-in-chief of CBC News and head of Al Jazeera English and now the Velma Rogers Graham Research Chair in news media and technology and journalism instructor at Ryerson University, set the stage with the keynote address. Mr. Burman, who started his career as an education reporter in the 1970s at the now-defunct Montreal Star, argued that higher ed and the media are both “under siege” today. Public distrust of the media is at an all time high while cutbacks have forced the closure of foreign bureaus and hollowed out newsrooms, leaving consumers of news all the worse off. Those that are left, mind you. As Mr. Burman noted, more than 30 percent of Americans have abandoned traditional media outlets. The upshot: this has limited the amount of media coverage of higher education. But the media, however flawed, should be seen by academia as part of the solution, he suggested.

The subsequent panel discussion resulted in an interesting reversal of roles. Janice Gross Stein, director of the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto, where the event was held, dismissed the notion that simplistic reporting is hurting academia. “Let’s lay off reporters,” she said. The media are valuable contributors to the public debate, she added, and responsibility for getting academics’ stories disseminated lies with taxpayer-funded professors.

Scott Jaschik, editor of Inside Higher Ed and former editor of The Chronicle of Higher Education, took a less favourable view of his colleagues. He noted that in the U.S., mainstream press coverage of higher ed issues has been “abysmal.” He pointed to media coverage of Florida Governor Rick Scott’s questioning the value of anthropology degrees and the 2012 ouster of University of Virginia president Teresa Sullivan for not climbing on the MOOCs bandwagon quickly enough as examples of the media’s failure to ask critical questions when reporting on such events. “Is the press scrutinizing these claims,” he asked. “I don’t think they are.”

University Affairs blogger and York University PhD candidate Melonie Fullick, who also participated in the debate, noted that here at home the closure of federal libraries and archives, the continuing cutbacks at Statistics Canada, and the government’s unabashed attempts to muzzle its scientists have contributed to the attacks on academia.

The event was all cheerfully moderated by novelist, playwright and Toronto Star columnist, Rick Salutin, who in a lighthearted moment came to the defence of Twitter for its democratizing values. He said he likes the way that 140 characters can quickly rob someone of authority, like the observer at a recent event who tweeted: “Check out Salutin’s shoe-sock combo.” An apocryphal story perhaps, but Mr. Salutin delighted the crowd with it.

The event set the stage well for the full blown conference taking place in Toronto June 19 to 21 which will feature some of the same cast  and others including: Sir John Daniel, former assistant director-general of Unesco, Phil Altbach, director of the Center for International Education at Boston College and former U of T President David Naylor. A complete list of speakers and sessions can be seen here.

Oh, yes, there was one more thing. During the debate, Dr. Stein let drop this interesting tidbit: she’s heard that a major Ontario university, which she emphasized is not U of T, is considering going private. Hmm. Any guesses?

ABOUT LÉO CHARBONNEAU
Léo Charbonneau

Léo Charbonneau has been the deputy editor of University Affairs since 2003. He started the Margin Notes blog in 2009 and it has gone on to win several awards, including Best Blog at the Canadian Online Publishing Awards.

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