Nicholas Lemann, an author and longtime contributor to the New Yorker magazine, will step down as dean of Columbia University’s Journalism School after a decade in the post, saying that deans shouldn’t serve as “lifetime rulers” of their schools.
Lemann (pronounced Lemon) said he’ll leave in June 2013, at the end of the academic year, after completing his second five- year appointment. Columbia University President Lee Bollinger will lead the search for a successor, the school said in a statement.
Under Lemann’s stewardship, the New York-based school hired 20 full-time faculty members; built a student center; completed its first capital fundraising campaign; and created new initiatives in investigative reporting, digital journalism, business and science reporting, and executive leadership for news organizations.
“I would give myself a pretty good grade,” Lemann said in an interview. He came to the school in 2003 with ambitious plans to remake the teaching of journalism into a more intellectual pursuit, proposing the school’s one-year Master of Science degree become a two-year Master of Arts with journalism skills crammed into the first summer’s studies.
The MA program is now a stand-alone one-year program, allowing mid-career journalists to specialize in studying politics, business and economics, health and science, or arts and culture. Fifty-six students are enrolled in the MA program this year, while the MS has 256 full-time and 70 part-time students.
Cost was a major factor limiting changes, Lemann said, with tuition and living expenses for the one-year MS degree totaling $81,222 for the 2013-2014 school year. In comparison, the University of Missouri’s one-year graduate program costs total $30,326.
“At no time has this school been a heads-up, rational economic decision for people who go there,” Lemann said.
As the only journalism school in the Ivy League, and one of the few one-year graduate programs at Columbia, “We offer the cheapest degree in any graduate school in the Ivy league,” he said.
“I would do a mea culpa on not seeing that more clearly in 2003,” he said.
Students are now taught technical skills across the spectrum, from basic reporting and writing to classes in website design and TV camera work, as well as journalism ethics, the history of the craft and the basics of business and economic reporting.
Preparing students for careers in the new journalism has left Lemann optimistic about the future of newsgathering, and he warns against “extrapolating” from the declining fortunes of the largest U.S. newspapers.
“I don’t accept the idea that all changes are for the worst and that these changes are properly understood as simply decline,” he said, noting that a whole new sector of news websites, stewarded by Columbia graduates, are drawing readers and becoming viable businesses.
“Nick has been a truly great dean,” Bollinger said in an interview. “I’m very very proud of what he’s accomplished.”
Bollinger said Lehman has accomplished the goal of beefing up scholarship at the journalism school through the hiring of faculty and interdisciplinary programs. The new dean will have to build on that success, while negotiating the challenge of the Internet to traditional newspapers and magazines, he said.
Next year, the journalism school will reorganize its offerings along three main themes, a change Lemann hopes will be part of his legacy to the school: the written word, pictures and sound and audience and engagement. The last is meant to cover social media, a category that barely existed as news when Lemann began at Columbia 10 years ago.
Lemann’s greatest single fundraising success was the gift from the estate of Helen Gurley Brown, former editor of Cosmopolitan magazine, of $18 million in January to fund fellowships, endow a professorship and create a modern newsroom on campus. Brown died in August at the age of 90.
Under Lemann, the Columbia Journalism Review, which the school publishes, began a daily online edition, as well as publishing six times a year in print. The journalism school was founded by Joseph Pulitzer in 1912. Columbia University administers the Pulitzer Prizes.
Lemann has published books including “Redemption: The Last Battle of the Civil War”; “The Big Test: The Secret History of the American Meritocracy”; and “The Promised Land: The Great Black Migration and How It Changed America.”
He said he plans to take a year’s sabbatical, and will write a book, though he hasn’t yet picked a subject. He’ll also continue to write for the New Yorker -- paid by the article -- and will teach a course at Columbia on the art and science of interviewing.
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