ANALYSIS - PR Students - PR loses its patience with foster J-schools. J-schools have long been the reluctant foster homes for PR programs across the US. But PR students and academics, fed up with getting the thin end of the wedge, are ready to move out.
Mocked by fellow students. Mocked by professors. Denied proper resources.
Being a student of PR in a journalism college is not as appealing as it should be - by a long way.
The struggle for PR students and academics is epitomized by the tale of the last year at University of Maryland.
By accident, rather than design, the PR program at Maryland was managed by its College of Journalism - a tale familiar to many universities. Not long after the Second World War, when theory was in its evolutionary stages, some J-Schools offered one or two PR-based courses. As the profession grew, and the body of theory massed, whole PR programs evolved, but they remained under the auspices of the J-schools.
Even now, around 40% of PR undergraduates study within journalism departments.
And most universities earn their fees per number of students admitted - so J-schools are loathe to give up the income gained from running a popular PR program.
Like two teams forced to share the same dressing room before a game, PR and journalism have been somewhat uncomfortable room mates - and the PR professors and students are inevitably treated as the visiting team.
Lack of resources
Maryland had the top-rated PR program in the country last year, according to New York Times rankings, and James Grunig is said to be one of the top PR professors in the country. But Reese Cleghorn, Dean of the College of Journalism, is a journalist, and PR simply didn't get the resources it deserved.
Although 38% of undergraduates and 50% of graduates at the school are students of PR, only two full-time faculty members are PR professors, while 22 teach journalism. This is common to many J-schools. Don Wright, professor of communications at South Alabama, says PR students comprise 40-50% of the intake in his J-school, but they get only 10-15% of the resources.
At Maryland, there was also a day-to-day culture clash. 'PR people taking journalistic courses often told me they were picked on by lecturers and made the butt of their jokes,' said Grunig. And Frank Kalupa, professor of communications at University of Texas's J-school told PRWeek he frequently had to comfort PR students who had been criticized or mocked by students.
The situation reached a head at Maryland last year when Dean Cleghorn decided to axe the undergraduate PR program. He explained: 'I did not want to get rid of the graduate area of study, but I felt the undergraduate program was putting a lot of pressure on the journalism course. They don't fit well together. This was not a case of a lack of respect for PR - I have close family in PR - but the best use of resources.'
That is not quite how Grunig saw it. 'There had always been an issue there,' he said, 'and then suddenly the Dean decided he wanted to close the program. He hand-picked a faculty committee to vote on the motion, and PR lost by five to one - I was the one.' But Grunig and his wife Laurie, the other PR professor, were not prepared to admit defeat and started a strategic PR campaign to save the program.
They put a 'save PR' campaign on the university's web site, and contacted some of the impressive Maryland alumni. By the beginning of the current academic year, the university provost had received more than 100 messages from big-name alumni, associations and societies. Inevitably, there were protests from the students too.
The provost was sufficiently impressed to offer Grunig a reprieve. He suggested the professor should approach the other departments to find a new home for PR. After being turned down by the Business School ('PR is not in our frame of reference') and the school of Public Affairs ('we only offer graduate programs') Grunig finally struck a deal with the Communications School, part of the arts and humanities department. The provost promised to take money away from the J-school to fund the program. 'We're getting even more resources than I asked for,' said Grunig. The program will have two extra faculty members, and graduates to aid teaching.
Ironically, Cleghorn's attempts to do away with the undergraduate PR program actually benefited PR students.
'In an ideal world, PR would be a department of its own,' said Grunig.
'But there is a good fit with communications departments. Let's hope this is the start of a trend.'
He will not be alone in that sentiment. Departmentalized schools, such as the University of Georgia and Syracuse, suffer less from the problems experienced at Maryland, but they are still the minority. 'J-Schools have done a very poor job,' said Kalupa. 'The reality is that PR students are not well served by J-Schools and that is a major nationwide problem for the profession. They want the bodies and the money that goes with the bodies, but they don't serve the minds of the students. There is a crisis here, and we need to address it.'
Although neither Grunig, Kalupa nor Wright were prepared to name names, all three said there were talks going on at a handful of J-Schools, and the situation at Maryland may provide a useful rallying call for those concerned with the future of PR schools.
Jack Bergen, president of the newly formed APRF, is one big-hitter prepared to throw his weight behind the new homes for PR programs campaign. 'PR teaching belongs more in arts and humanities. To do a good job in our business you need a broad-based education. We need people who are sensitive to subjects such as languages and history, not just PR. I think business schools are too technically focused for undergraduate PR students. Moving to a communications department inside an arts and humanities school may be the best option for those PR programs currently housed in J-schools.
Battles and wars
But, even assuming the PR programs win their individual battles to get out of the restrictive J-schools, the war to get the best possible education for future PR pros will continue.
Apart from the well-documented problem of attracting the right caliber of people to the industry, there is the daunting task of establishing PR as a valid subject for research funding. Many of the big research-based universities will not run a PR program because it does not attract the big bucks.
Perhaps the PR academics should be setting their students a tough new project next semester: to draw up and execute a campaign to promote the study of PR.
Top 10 programs rated by The New York Times
5 North Carolina
6 San Diego
9 Michigan state
10 South Carolina.