FIU's Journalism Program Is a Mess
Trouble's brewing at Florida International University's School of Journalism and Mass Communication. Faculty members charge Dean Lillian Lodge Kopenhaver rarely shows up for work, retaliates against dissenters, allows classes of as many as 200 students to be crammed into a single auditorium, and has failed to raise much-needed funds.
"I have never heard such criticisms [of a dean] from almost all faculty members," wrote Dr. Richard Cole, a former University of North Carolina journalism dean who recently visited. "There is no question that most faculty members want her to be removed immediately."
The comments came in a March 1, 2010, report on FIU's program, one of the Southeastern United States' largest and most cosmopolitan. Cole, who has chaired national accreditation visits and conducted evaluations for 50 other universities, lists 17 quotes from faculty members. All are anonymous, likely because only three of the school's 24 full-time teachers are protected by tenure and can't be fired. Some examples:
"We have no leadership."
"I never see her."
"You piss her off, and you're out of here."
"She's in denial."
The discord has drawn little attention off campus. But at a time of crisis in the trade, when a new future is being mapped, it could have significant implications for the entire region.
"I left the program in decent shape," says the school's founding dean, J. Arthur Heise. "My only regret is not growing someone better either from the inside or the outside" to take over.
Kopenhaver, who makes $162,000 a year, declined comment despite two calls to her office, one to a university spokeswoman, and an emailed list of questions. She has won numerous honors including the 2009 Outstanding Woman in Journalism and Mass Communication Education award from the Commission on the Status of Women and is a member of the Community College Journalism Association Hall of Fame.
Perhaps more importantly, she has the backing of Douglas Wartzok, the interim provost and executive vice president of FIU. In a note to New Times, he cited the school's recent certification by an outside committee of experts as proof of her acumen. "Under the leadership of Dean Lillian Lodge Kopenhaver the School is providing a quality education to more than 1,600 students," Wartzok wrote. "The faculty and leadership... are to be commended for the recent unqualified reaffirmation of accreditation of all undergraduate and graduate programs."
Kopenhaver has a long history with the J school. She served as chairwoman nearly three decades ago when it was still part of the College of Arts and Sciences. In 1983, Heise took over. He says the program was in chaos, but over the next 20 years, he added a master degree program – which included the only one taught entirely in Spanish in the U.S. at the time – and oriented courses more toward Latin America, – giving the school international stature.
After Heise stepped down in 2003, Kopenhaver helped head the search committee to find a dean while serving as interim dean, Heise says. The committee failed to attract a qualified candidate, so it tapped her for the permanent post.
"I'm not convinced that search was as wide and deep as it could have been," the former dean says.
Since Kopenhaver's appointment, the program has suffered deep budget cuts and low faculty morale. A model writing program has been dismantled, Heise says, and faculty discontent burgeoned with mushrooming class sizes.
According to Cole's report, the student to faculty ratio at the undergraduate level in 2008-09 was 131 to 1, and master's classes often have 35 to 40 students. Some teachers told Cole they "were overwhelmed with the load."
"I've had semesters where I've taught more than 350 students," says associate professor Jane Daugherty. "In one class there were more than 300 students."
Daugherty, who was a Pulitzer finalist at the Detroit Free Press in 1994 and a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University, claims she was recently let go because she spoke out. "This is the only journalism school in the country that doesn't believe in the First Amendment," she says. "They've gone through great lengths to repress what's going on."
In 2009, a report by the Accrediting Council on Education in Journalism and Mass Communications (ACEJMC) gave the school a good grade. But authors found an "urgent need to build permanent, stable, effective leadership." They noted Kopenhaver had announced "she would return to the full-time faculty."
"Everybody felt we were moving forward," says Fred Blevens, who earned a PhD after working as a reporter and editor at major metropolitan newspapers in five cities. "The spirit was raised. There was a bright future."
Blevens says Kopenhaver neither spends time in the classroom nor garners much-needed cash from donors, "If you don't raise money and you really don't administer, you should be in the classroom," Blevens said.
He complains money is so scarce that, "my four-year-old laptop broke in the fall [and] there was no money to replace [or] fix it. I paid $165 out of my own pocket."
Another sign of problems under Kopenhaver's watch: A June 2009 university audit shows Associate Dean Allan Richards recently took three research and study trips to South Africa, where his ex-wife and child had moved. Richards used $3,500 of $18,917 from FIU and grants to hire his former wife, who "had expertise in tours and journalism," as a consultant, the audit found.
Richards "did not disclose the potential conflict of interest," auditors added. Kopenhaver "confirmed she was aware of the relationship." Richards also took 10 unearned days of vacation (worth $5,000) and "engaged in a questionable practice of mixing personal and university business."
Richards did not return a call seeking comment, but told auditors he had done nothing wrong or illegal.
It's unclear how Kopenhaver reacted to the audit. Nor is it apparent how the co-author of the 1993 textbook College Media Advising: Ethics and Responsibilities responded to Cole's contention that the journalism school's leaders were "downright dishonest" when they omitted mention of complaints about her leadership in materials he was sent.
"If a beginning student in news-writing and reporting class had done it, he would have received an automatic F for a factual error or for being unfair," Cole wrote.
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.