Media Studies Department Openly Discusses Its Future in the Pryz

By Duane Paul Murphy and Katie Ward

More than 20 students, faculty, and staff from the Department of Media and Communication Studies met on-campus in Great Room C of the Pryzbyla Center to openly discuss the department’s future on Wednesday, February 27. Also in attendance was Aaron Dominguez, the university’s dean of School of Arts and Sciences, and Andrew Abela, the university’s Provost and Senior Vice President. Media Studies Department faculty in attendance included department chairwoman Niki Akhavan, department Director of Undergraduate Studies Alexander Russo, and Media Lab Director and Lecturer Abby Moser.

The meeting opened with various proposals including the formation of a film production program within the university’s Rome School of Music, Drama, and Art and a possible B.F.A. which would collaborate with the media department’s courses.

The meeting then went into a discussion section in which students asked the department faculty, Abela, and Dominguez about the current state of the department, especially the filling of noticeably vacant positions since the dismissal of Stephen McKenna and the loss of two full-time faculty members after the recent Academic Renewal plan.

Students asked Dominguez and Abela about the need for a full-time production professor, a position which has not been filled since the departure of Maura Ugarte in the spring of 2018. Abela and Dominguez answered that they wanted to do a good job hiring for that particular position and that they would start the hiring process in the fall of 2019 for a professor that would start the following academic year. Students requested that the process of hiring other full-time professors to teach production and other academic curriculum regarding film studies and critical media should be more efficient. Waiting on funding approval from the administration, the Media Studies Department has not been able to start the hiring process for any more professors. Currently, only three full time faculty are employed in the department and one of them, Joshua Sheppard, has been on temporary leave for this academic year.

Senior media and communication studies major Emily Messina expressed her less-than-ideal experience with the adjunct professor who led her senior seminar, who was unable to hold office hours, or help her figure out problems with her videos.

I just felt like, while I did the project to the best of my ability, I wasn’t being mentored,” Messina said. “It was just me throwing myself into the project and trying my best, but I definitely don’t think that I got the most out of that class. And the video I created is basically my portfolio to get a job.”

Students also expressed discontent with the sense of urgency with which the Academic Renewal plan had been treated and the following lack of transparency about how the department would rebuild its staff.

“Why did that plan have to happen so fast with such a strict time frame, yet almost a year later there are still so many unknowns?” asked junior media and communication studies major Cari Firriolo.

After one student asked Abela if he believed the lack of full time professors would affect her admission to graduate school, and Abela expressed confusion about why it would, Russo explained that without the mentor-mentee relationship students and full-time professors build overtime, many undergraduate students will be unable to get adequate letters of recommendation into graduate programs.

The students were also apprehensive about the way McKenna was dismissed by the university, especially the public manner and “misleading language” of the announcement. Abela and Dominguez assured that the university’s administration was following procedures.

Several students also asked about the possibility of forming a committee of students which would help consult the department faculty and administration during the hiring process for additional faculty. Abela, Dominguez, and several full time faculty were open to this particular idea.

Akhavan thought the meeting itself went positively.

“I was happy to see a range of students— seniors, juniors, minors,” she said. “There was a lot of anxiety about the future of the department— students were looking for concrete answers for a lot of things— and I think by the end of the meeting, we worked towards a solid timeline that will set us on a good path.”

Regarding the highest priority for the department’s immediate future, Akhavan noted that the hiring of a full-time production professor was “as high a priority as another professor on the critical side”.

“Because we did lose two important faculty,” Akhavan said, “and to be able to minimally function and deliver what we promised to our students, we need to fill at least those two positions.”

“I thought that coming into this meeting, I would get information about this, this, and this about what you guys have been planning,” said senior media and communication studies major Jake Walsh. “I just feel like we’re all freaking out because our department is in shambles, and you’re saying ‘well, we’re just waiting for the right time’— well, now’s the time.”

Media Studies Department faculty and staff hope that this meeting between Dominguez, Abela, and the students can create a better outcome for the department in the future.

“The priority of the Media and Communication Studies Department has always been a top notch education for our students,” said Russo. “As Academic Advisor, I felt it was acute when our reduced numbers of full time faculty make us fall short of that commitment. I hope that this meeting has demonstrated to Provost Abela and Dean Dominguez that the educational environment the department has created is a special and productive one.”

In an interview with The Tower, Mckenna said that he has concerns regarding his former department.

“I’m worried about the future of the department,” McKenna said. “During the so-called “Academic Renewal” process, Andrew Abela intentionally understated what the size of the department should be according to the formula used by the university’s own consultants. This has not been corrected and the Provost has not acted on his promise to students to hire a new production professor. These are not auspicious signs.”

McKenna further encouraged Media Studies students to fight for what they believe is right for the department.

“The only thing that has kept the department alive has been the passionate and articulate defense put up by students,” McKenna said. “Keep fighting for it. But pay attention to what the administration does, not what it says.”

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