Cross-Pollination: An Alumni Gift Merges Leadership and Journalism Education

 photo:  Katherine Welles/shutterstock

photo:  Katherine Welles/shutterstock

Lost in all the hoopla surrounding the uncertain fate of traditional new outlets is the fact that the future of journalism education at American universities is far from certain.

While there are certainly interesting things happening in higher ed institutions around journalism—like Nieman Lab at Harvard, grants earmarked for "solutions journalism" at Temple University, and the News Integrity Initiative at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism—most of the action around media and innovation is happening elsewhere, like at nonprofit news outfits and tech media startups. Meanwhile, ongoing layoffs at newspapers and magazines raise questions about just how many new journalism degrees, especially from pricey masters programs, universities should be handing out these days. 

It all begs the question: Is the conventional model of journalism education outdated?

Maybe so, which is why it's interesting to see a campus donor helping a journalism school explore new terrain. I'm referring to news out of Columbia, Missouri, where David and Wendy Novak committed $21.6 million to the University of Missouri School of Journalism to establish the Novak Leadership Institute. The gift will support the institute named for David Novak, an advertising and marketing executive who is the co-founder, retired chairman and CEO of Yum! Brands, which operates Taco Bell, KFC and Pizza Hut.

According to UM, the Novak Leadership Institute will be the world’s "first center for communication and marketing-based leadership education," combining the reputation and resources of UM's journalism school with Novak’s "industry-tested principles of leadership." Courses and programs will integrate the School of Journalism’s "famous Missouri Method of learning by doing," offering students hands-on experience in leadership development, organizational communication, entrepreneurship and service.

This development may not shake the foundations of the U.S. journalism world, but it nonetheless seems important. At a time when so many efforts to rescue journalism—or unemployed journalists—look to the tech world for inspiration, here's an effort that is linking up the fields of journalism and leadership development.  

It's not surprising that David Novak, a UM graduate, would gear a campus gift toward leadership. As Yum! CEO, he personally trained his managers around his "industry-tested principles of leadership," documented in his book Taking People With You. "There is a tremendous void in leadership education in our country, and we must teach our students the skills needed to make them great leaders and equip them to work with others to get the very best results," Novak said in making his gift. 

What does seem surprising is that Novak wasn't steered to the business school, a usual suspect on campus when it comes to teaching leadership. Instead, the Novak Leadership Institute will reside within UM's School of Journalism. And the inaugural executive director of the leadership institute won't be a professor of entrepreneurship or business, but Margaret Duffy, a professor of strategic communication in the School of Journalism.

On the other hand, Novak is the author of two books, and his history of working with language goes way back. He began his career in advertising and became PepsiCo’s chief marketing officer. He went on to become executive vice president of marketing and sales there before becoming its chief operating officer. He knows from experience that strong communications skills are central to effective leadership. And guess who specializes in communications? Journalists. 

Looking at the larger picture, this gift is yet another example of a trend we're seeing a lot of these days in larger higher ed: donors backing unexpected kinds of initiatives for collaborative learning that bring together different kinds of people and perspectives on campuses. 

The gift fits within a set of recent higher ed gives predicated on a cross-disciplinary approach, particularly in fields like the liberal arts and STEM education. And by merging journalism and leadership education, the Novak Leadership Institute is an intriguing alternative to Knight's futuristic and technologically driven model pairing newsrooms with developers, civic hackers, and data analysts.

This isn't the first foray in philanthropy by Novak and his wife Wendy. They established the Lift a Life Foundation in 1999, and also founded the Wendy L. Novak Juvenile Diabetes Center in Louisville, where they reside.  

In related news, check out my take on a unique grant from Fieldstead and Company, Inc. to UM's Religion Newswriters Foundation exploring the interplay between religion and art.