Lorraine Branham never saw herself as an educator, let alone as a dean.
‘I always wanted to be a journalist,’ said Branham, the new dean of the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications. ‘I had taught a couple times. I had taught part-time, and I had done a lot of speaking on college campuses. So I thought it might be neat one day, when I retire, I’d thought, to maybe teach a course at some college, somewhere.’
Branham inherited the position in June from David Rubin, dean of Newhouse for the last 18 years. She previously worked as the director of the School of Journalism at the University of Texas at Austin.
Coming from a school that offered programs only in journalism, Branham possesses limited insight into areas like public relations and television, radio and film. But Branham said she’s not afraid to admit she doesn’t have direct experience with a number of the departments in Newhouse.
Michael Schoonmaker, professor and chair of the TRF department, said though Branham has no professional experience in his particular field, she alleviated concerns he had for his department.
‘By her background and by her experience she’s a journalist, and she’s been put at the helm of a school that’s about a whole lot more than just journalism,’ Schoonmaker said.
David Garlock, a professor in the magazine department at UT, had the same reservations when Branham first came into the position in Austin. But Garlock said Branham brought another perspective to the magazine side of journalism and applied it to the curriculum changes she executed at UT.
Garlock said Branham helped the journalism school with what it was missing. She focused on multimedia and enhanced multimedia courses that would be of use to students when they graduated.
Now Branham is looking to find what’s missing at Newhouse. In Rubin’s time as dean, he created a separate division in political reporting, helped start the Tully Center for Free Speech and fundraised for Newhouse III, which cost more than $15 million and opened in September 2007.
Brenda Wrigley, chair of the public relations department, said Rubin left Branham big shoes to fill.
‘I think Rubin was the right person for the job for the period of time in which he served,’ Wrigley said. ‘He left the school in very good shape for her. But I think at this time it’s good that we have a different kind of person coming in. She’s seen where the industry is going, and I think we really need a person with that kind of vision at this point in time.’
As dean, Branham leads almost 2,000 Newhouse students, a thousand more than UT.
‘The University of Texas is almost like a smaller Newhouse school; it’s just not equivalent in size, but it has a similar reputation,’ said James Tsao, chair of the advertising department at Newhouse. ‘But here Newhouse is part of Syracuse University, which, as a private institution, runs things differently than a public university.’
Now, students, along with the entire Newhouse faculty, are looking to Branham for the next step.
The challenges ahead
The immediate challenge Branham faces is overseeing the implementation of a new curriculum and renovation of the school’s television studios, said Lawrence Mason, a professor in new media and visual and interactive communications. He said these changes need to happen in order for Newhouse to mirror the vast changes taking place in the industry.
Mason said other challenges Newhouse faces include fundraising and maintaining alumni relations.
‘With just completing fundraising to build Newhouse III, that doesn’t mean the school has no need to raise funds anymore,’ he said. ‘That just means one project is done. But we have a donor base that might be a little burned out from being asked for money for the new building.’
The fundraising concerns also apply to the school’s ability to attract students to the university, including those who can’t afford SU’s more than $40,000 tuition. This makes scholarship fundraising one of Branham’s top priorities, she said.
Newhouse faculty said Branham also must help the school compete with other communications programs across the country. Tsao said he sees expansion into international platforms as an important step the school needs to take.
‘Our competing schools are expanding their programs to other places, other countries,’ he said. ‘In order to keep our edge, we might need to do more work to retain our reputation.’
In an effort to adapt to the new environment and meet her colleagues on a more personal level, Branham organized a retreat toward the beginning of the year that brought together all of the school’s deans and department chairs at an off-campus site.
The event was a brainstorming session led by an outside facilitator – not by Branham, who chose to attend as a listener. The faculty voiced their thoughts on where the school stood, their concerns and their goals with Branham as the new dean.
‘She comes in with a school that’s running extremely well on itself,’ Mason said. ‘And the challenge before her is, how do you obtain and keep the best students that want to study the media. So it’s not a new challenge, it’s a continuing challenge for everybody.’
At the retreat, Schoonmaker said he sat down with Branham one-on-one and discussed the school’s history and where she plans to take it in the future.
Having been at SU when Rubin was selected for the position, Schoonmaker said Branham enters Newhouse at a strikingly different time than when Rubin did in 1990, when the school had different needs.
‘It was a very different challenge and a very different future that each one of them faced,’ Schoonmaker said. ‘Dean Rubin came in at a troubling time in Newhouse’s history. The dean (before him) was voted out in a vote of no confidence, and the faculty in the school were struggling for unity, for vision, for purpose and for results. So (Rubin) at that point in time faced a pretty clear challenge ahead as far as what he had to change. He had to change it from the core; he had to bring the school up from its knees.’
Schoonmaker said he feels in some ways Rubin had a more enviable position than the one Branham comes in with. She’s expected to take what Newhouse has and expand its well-established programs, he said.
Entering Newhouse first as a listener and a student, Branham said she’s looking to gain insight from her colleagues about all areas of study the school offers.
Taking the reigns
The main changes taking place affect Newhouse’s ‘spine,’ or core curriculum, Schoonmaker said. One of those changes will be the addition of another introductory course all Newhouse freshmen will take.
Starting fall 2009, every member of the incoming class will have to take a storytelling course, Branham said. The class is aimed at integrating multimedia, including the Internet, photography, audio and video into all media outlets and programs.
‘It’s a production and creation class, not just a lecture class,’ Schoonmaker said. ‘Most of the beginning-level courses we’ve had in Newhouse before at the core level were kind of manageable classes with blackboards and erasers and lots of chairs.’
He said it’s different when you start to introduce tools like cameras, audio recorders and Web pages – things that rely on creativity and therefore complicate the course.
‘To the school’s credit, that’s a risky or exciting direction to go, depending on your personality,’ Schoonmaker said.
Newhouse faculty members are learning how to use the multimedia programs so they can educate their students in areas in which the industry is changing, Branham said. Through three-day ‘crash courses,’ Newhouse professors are learning how to use software including Soundslides and Adobe Flash, inDesign and Photoshop.
‘These are folks who are really good at what they do, and now we’re asking them to learn some new skills, so it’s exciting but also a little scary,’ Branham said.
Branham said she thinks the idea of having a separate new media major for undergraduates makes no sense.
‘All of our undergraduates need to be conversant with new media,’ she said. ‘And none of our students, no matter what their major, should be leaving Newhouse without having a basic understanding of the fundamentals of new media and how to tell stories on multiple platforms.’
Branham worked in the newspaper industry for 25 years as both a reporter and an editor at publications including the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Baltimore Sun and the Philadelphia Tribune.
Pamela Noel, a Newhouse alumnus and close friend of Branham, was one of Branham’s assistant editors at the Philadelphia Inquirer. Noel said during that time, she learned not only about the journalism industry and how to be a reporter, but also about who Branham was as a person.
‘I always loved her humanity,’ Noel said. ‘I know it may sound like a strange thing to say, but by the time I met her, she had already achieved a pretty high level in the business. In spite of her success, she was still like real, regular people in that she could be the most serious journalist in the world and could still show up for work in a really interesting hat.’
As a current educator at New York University’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute, Noel expressed her vision for Branham as Newhouse’s dean.
‘What I hope about having a Lorraine Branham at the helm of a Newhouse school is that she’ll be able to continue to serve as a role model and as someone that can continue to inspire young people of every stripe, to help them continue to achieve and acquire the kind of flexibility and skills that journalists will need to succeed in the next decade,’ she said. ‘We don’t know what’s coming next, but we need to be able to respond to what does.’
Branham said she knows a number of people are watching her, seeing what she does and how she acts as dean, some waiting for her to make a mistake, to do something wrong.
Branham said she wants to prove them wrong.
‘There are only two African Americans who are deans of major communications schools in this country right now: the dean of the University of Southern California, Ernest Wilson, and now me,’ Branham said. ‘But at the end of the day what really matters is can you do the job? And if you can’t do the job, then people will judge you. And when you’re a woman and you’re a person of color, people will be watching very carefully to see if you can do the job.
‘It’s one thing to be the first. What I really care most about is not being the last.’
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