News racks outside the current journalism building. Photo by Jason Ruiz
When Chris Burnett came to California State University Long Beach in 2001, he didn’t find a journalism program in shambles, but it also wasn’t an institution regarded as one of the country’s best. So, when he assumed the role of journalism and mass communication department chair in 2011, Burnett found himself in a position to initiate change.
He immediately got to work.
Having earned his doctorate at Colorado State University, a school accredited by the American Council on Education in Journalism and Mass Communications, he knew full well the benefits of accreditation and he wanted to bring that to Long Beach.
The road back to being an ACEJMC-accredited school was an exhausting one. The three-year process took cooperation from Burnett, students, faculty, Provosts and Presidents to host an ACEJMC site team, write a 100-page report and Burnett also personally attended several meetings on accreditation. The vote on May 2 was swift. In a 26-0 vote, the council decided that after a 17-year hiatus, CSULB’s journalism program is once again among the nation’s best.
“This accreditation with ACEJMC is something that’s very, very coveted,” Burnett said. “So when you think of all the schools that have journalism programs, there aren’t a great deal. We’re a very small fraternity.”
The status of accreditation puts the school in a minority as there are only 116 accredited programs domestic and abroad despite nearly 500 programs offered nationally. CSULB is now the ninth school in the state with that honor. It’s also placed among elite journalistic institutions like Northwestern University (the most writing awards) and Columbia University (home of the Pulitzer Prize)–blue bloods of journalism education. Glamour aside, Burnett said the accreditation can make a university a destination for bright young students and faculty members seeking out a top notch journalism program.
“Long Beach State University is a very desirable place to go to college,” Burnett said. “It’s a fun place to go to school and you have a lot of opportunities to explore what you want to do. I think it’s [the accreditation] going to make students, who otherwise might not apply, take a closer look at CSULB.”
The roughly 440 current journalism students won’t have to wait to reap the benefits of accreditation.
Hearst Journalism Awards, only open to students from ACEJMC member schools, can bring both notoriety and funds that go directly back into the program. Paige Pelonis, the newly selected Editor-in-Chief of the campus newspaper, The Daily 49er, said that the prospect of competing for Hearst awards is exciting but the stamp of legitimacy from the ACEJMC is something that has everyone excited.
“One thing that a lot of students think is that coming from a state school doesn’t mean a lot,” Pelonis said. “This is one thing we can kind of be proud of and I think it’s just motivating and encouraging and students can kind of get the feeling like they are a part of something big. And that the hard work that they’re putting in isn’t just going to be attached to a degree that doesn’t matter.”
The future home of CSULB Journalism, still under construction. Photo by Jason Ruiz.
The journalism department at CSULB had been previously accredited by the ACEJMC in the early and mid ‘90s but lost that status in part because of staff shortages. While the school was already accredited by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC), the new endorsement comes with a little more swagger. That distinction, though previously held by the department, didn’t come easy as the department was treated as a new applicant because of the large lapse of time.
The site team that visited the campus in February was charged with evaluating the program on the nine standards set by the ACEJMC board. Facilities, curriculum and learning outcomes are three of those standards that the program has worked to improve, adding a mandatory internship as a requirement to graduate and moving the department to a renovated building on upper-campus, complete with smart classrooms and upgraded computer labs.
The move, which will take the journalism department off the periphery of campus from its current location in the basement of the Social Sciences-Public Administration building, is expected to happen in Spring of 2015.
“It’s cool to be in our own little dungeon,” Pelonis said. “It’s like the hip place to be but it’s hard to claim some kind of presence on campus when you’re not right in the middle of it. I think it’ll be good for appearance and exposure.”
The main concerns the team had were with the student and staff demographics. Diversity is one of the standards that the association judges programs by and CSULB’s journalism department’s diversity both student-wise ( 38% Hispanic, 12% Asian-American, 6% African-American, 3% international) and faculty-wise (four full-time international professors) came into question.
However, students’ praise for the school’s emphasis on a diverse curriculum eventually won over the committee as they weighed their experiences heavily during the review process. The students were so involved that site team president Christopher Callahan, founding dean of the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University, told Burnett he’d never seen a student body want the accreditation as badly as the ones at Long Beach.
Although he is cited in the report as being one of the main people behind the effort, Burnett is quick to deflect praise for spearheading the march to accreditation. Singling out College of Liberal Arts Dean David Wallace, Interim University Provost David Dowell and Interim President Donald Para, Burnett said the amount of support was incredible and this was a complete team effort.
“I did not have to beg, at all, to get support,” Burnett said. “Every request that I made for money or resources was granted. We’re not a rich department but we were able to go to the dean, to the provost and also get support from the president for this project.”
Burnett admits that the distinction “isn’t a free lunch,” and it only means that the bar needs to be set higher in the future. The ACEJMC reviews schools every six years to determine if they should retain their status. So, CSULB will have to continue to ramp up requirements, pushing students and strengthening the program’s relationship’s with the community.
The lingering questions remain. What does this mean for future graduates and job hunting? Does accreditation matter?
There has been recent debate over whether a degree in journalism is needed to enter the field, with a Poynter Institute Poll released last year showing disagreement between educators and professionals. In February, the Knight Foundation, a group committed journalistic evidence and innovation, questioned the opaque nature of journalism school rankings and the difficulty in assessing student learning.
To Burnett, there isn’t a black and white answer. Accreditation is a great start but it isn’t the end of the road by any means. The one thing that is definitive is that everyone needs to remain hungry in order to build the program.
“Does graduating from an accredited school translate directly to dollars and cents or a job offer?” Burnett said. “Of course not. But, being from an accredited school better ensures that the students who graduate will come out with the tools that are needed to get that entry-level job.”