N.Y.U. Departure Sets Off a Race With Columbia

After more than four decades at New York University, Neil Postman is preparing to step down as chairman of that school’s Department of Culture and Communication-leaving a second major vacancy in New York media teaching.

Mr. Postman, a protégé of Marshall McLuhan and the author of such books as Amusing Ourselves to Death , is considered one of the country’s foremost media educators and was a key architect of N.Y.U.’s communications department. He has spent 41 years at N.Y.U., the last 13 years as chairman of the department. He intends to remain as chair until a new department head is found-he’ll be sharing the role with faculty member Deborah Borisoff-and will continue to teach afterward.

“I’ve been chair for 13 years, and I did what I was hoping to do, which was help make the department into what it has become,” Mr. Postman said. “We’ve hired a lot of new people, and the department has grown tremendously. Now the idea is to get a chair with different energies and points of view who can take it in a new direction.”

Mr. Postman’s decision comes on the heels of Tom Goldstein’s spring 2002 departure as the dean of Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism. Columbia recently-and controversially-suspended its search for a new J-school dean after Lee C. Bollinger, the new university president, decided the school should first re-evaluate its focus and priorities.

The twin departures of Mr. Goldstein and Mr. Postman mean that N.Y.U. and Columbia are likely to be in competition for talent. Though Columbia and N.Y.U. have different academic ideologies, both schools are considered among the country’s finest for journalism and media education, respectively.

“I think it’s quite likely that Columbia and N.Y.U. will end up tussling over certain people,” said one N.Y.U. faculty member. “There aren’t that many folks out there who fit the bill.”

And the rivalry between Columbia and N.Y.U. may become more intense if the former school shifts-as has been speculated following Mr. Bollinger’s announcement-to a more academically oriented journalism program. Already there have been defections: Recently Todd Gitlin, a well-known media-ecology, sociology and journalism professor, announced that he was leaving N.Y.U. for Columbia.

N.Y.U. has known about Mr. Postman’s departure as chairman for some time. Two years ago, insiders at the communications department quietly began to discuss life after Mr. Postman, who had just started his 11th year as chair. The idea of a department leader other than Mr. Postman was hard for some of his colleagues to swallow, given his status and unusually long career at the school. Mr. Postman founded the department’s media-ecology program in 1970 at the suggestion of McLuhan, his friend and mentor.

Under Mr. Postman’s guidance, the program grew in size and prestige, catapulting Mr. Postman from obscure academic to prolific “technoprophet” by the time he took over as chair in 1989. The program Mr. Postman created as a tiny, family-like graduate collective had ballooned into a group of over 1,000 undergraduates and graduates by the year 2000.

But some faculty members said that the program had outgrown Mr. Postman’s casual, paternal style of leadership. “It was like a small town that suddenly discovers it’s a city,” said Mr. Gitlin. “You can’t run it out of the mayor’s back room anymore.”

To date, there has been no official announcement from N.Y.U. about Mr. Postman’s decision. But in late July, an ad appeared in The New York Times announcing a search for a chair and senior faculty member for N.Y.U.’s Department of Culture and Communication. Though no front-runners have surfaced to date, faculty sources at N.Y.U. believe that Ann Marcus, the dean of the Steinhardt School of Education and the person who will oversee the search, would like to snare a well-known outsider for the job.

“She is quite sensitive to that fact, and would definitely like to get somebody very visible and assert the school’s interest in keeping the department a high-profile department,” one N.Y.U. professor said.

Ms. Marcus declined to specify potential candidates. But faculty members pointed to the scope of N.Y.U.’s advertised search as evidence that university officials aren’t interested in picking from within. While N.Y.U. regularly places job ads in academic trade papers like The Chronicle of Higher Education as well as The Times , several professors said that chair searches rarely appear in these listings-and then only when a university wants to attract an elite candidate.

But not everyone thinks that a media mogul or star academic is ultimately going to get the N.Y.U. job. In an interview with The Observer , Mr. Postman said the department needed someone who could cope with the program’s administrative burden rather than an intellectual icon.

“If you go back 15 years, when we were trying to establish what we stood for, it helped to have a chair who was well-known,” Mr. Postman said. He added: “If you find someone who publishes a lot, is well-known and respected, and then also is a good manager … that’s something special.”

Mr. Postman acknowledged that a rivalry between the Department of Culture and Communication and the Graduate School of Journalism was not out of the question. Only a year ago, the idea of Columbia’s journalism school and N.Y.U.’s communications department vying for star faculty would have seemed unlikely. Although both programs are well-known and well-respected, the former was largely a boot camp for young writers and editors, while the latter was a breeding ground for future academics.

It is a difference in purpose that some, including Ms. Marcus, maintain still exists.

“We’re preparing thinkers and scholars. We really hope that our doctoral candidates will become faculty members,” Ms. Marcus said. “We’re not aspiring in the direction of preparing practitioners.”

This is why Mr. Bollinger’s July 23 announcement about suspending Columbia’s search raised certain eyebrows at N.Y.U. Citing a “yawning gulf between the various visions of what a modern school of journalism ought to be,” Mr. Bollinger said he would convene a task force to examine the school’s academic mission.

Though Mr. Bollinger didn’t get into specifics, those inside and outside Columbia have speculated that the new dean wants to move the school in a more academic direction. It also led faculty at N.Y.U. to think that their school may soon find itself in competition for talent with Columbia. “Before Bollinger made his position clear, I would have thought that the two places ran no risk of competing with each other,” one N.Y.U. faculty member said.

Columbia officials insist that no conclusions have been made about the journalism school’s direction. But in the wake of Mr. Bollinger’s announcement, acting J-school dean David Klatell made a statement reassuring alumni and students that writing, reporting and editing would remain the foundation of the program.

Until Mr. Bollinger called off the search, Columbia officials were seriously considering two prominent journalists to head the journalism school: Alex S. Jones, from Harvard University’s Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy, and James Fallows, The Atlantic Monthly ‘s national correspondent. Mr. Klatell told The Observer that Mr. Bollinger had dinner with both candidates and explained his decision to them, but that neither one was actually out of the running.

Could either Mr. Jones or Mr. Fallows surface at N.Y.U.? While Ms. Marcus said she hadn’t spoken to Mr. Fallows or Mr. Jones, several N.Y.U. professors said that neither would have any trouble fitting in at the communications department. Mr. Jones has serious ties to academia, namely through Harvard (which N.Y.U. has increasingly competed with), while Mr. Fallows has a high-profile publishing track record. Mark Crispin Miller, a media-ecology professor at N.Y.U., said his students even discussed Mr. Fallows’ recent book, Breaking the News .

Meanwhile, uptown, a group of professors in the Columbia journalism school now wonder if Mr. Bollinger’s committee will propose changes to attract students who might otherwise enroll in communications schools.

“I can’t really think of anyone in the school who would like us to be like N.Y.U., or for that matter any other communications program,” one Columbia journalism professor said. “But some of us are resigned to the fact that any changes will have less to do with pure journalism, and more to do with very scholarly pursuits like those going on in media ecology. My guess is that they basically want us to churn out more academics.”

Mr. Postman said he wouldn’t mind such a change, even if his department has to work harder to snare students and faculty.

“I’m glad to see our friends at Columbia are starting to think that way,” he said.