U’s communication department rebounds from tough times

Watch a multimedia slideshow about the department.

Story and multimedia by SCOTT WISEMAN

The University of Utah’s department of communication is unique in the fact that it is constantly adapting its curriculum to new developments in technology. Along with the conflicts of adjusting to increasing technology, the future of the department was in jeopardy when the recession struck just two years ago.

The department of communication is responsible for teaching approximately 1,500 undergraduate students the ins-and-outs of several different fields including media, public relations, journalism, speech communication, argumentation and conflict studies and organizational communications.

In the present day, the communication department is seeing signs of a healthier economy. The department will not see any budget cutbacks for the upcoming year, as the Utah legislature stepped up state funding.

“Two years ago, we lost many faculty members and their positions,” said Craig Denton, a professor in his 34th year in the university’s communications department. “That’s the way we made our budget cuts.”

Although the department never laid off a single employee, employees who retired or quit their jobs were never replaced. The department spends almost all of its funding on faculty, and the staff was asked to teach extra classes and take more students into their sections without a raise.

“Two years ago, personally I agreed to teach an extra class to help out,” Denton said. “I would’ve preferred not doing it, but I’m a member of a team. Everyone stepped up in a different way, including teaching more classes and taking more students into their classes.”

The recession not only affected faculty, but students as well. The department placed a restriction on the amount of paper each student was allowed to print in the computer labs. The students were asked to bring their own paper to print assignments, said Louise Degn, associate department chair of the communication department.

“This is the first year in two years, projecting into next year, that we will not have any budget cutbacks,” Degn said. “The legislative session just ended and the tax revenues were up enough that they were able to provide funding.”

This is great news for the department, which will look for replacements in the positions lost during the recession. The department can also use extra money to increase the budget for technology and classroom development.

“Our future is looking good, because while we gave up all of those positions to the budget cuts, we’re starting to get them back real quickly,” Denton said. “The university has always seen us as a very important department, so it has always been very supportive in moving new resources to the department.”

One of the distinguishing characteristics of the university’s communication department is the smaller class sizes. Since the department offers a lot of smaller classes, the demand for faculty rises. If the economy is in a stable state, the availability of faculty to teach small classes rises, therefore making it easier to accommodate more students.

The reason that the class sizes are usually 20 is because they’re writing intensive, Degn said. The classes are kept small for the benefit of the students so they can receive individual attention from professors. The computer labs are also physically limited to only 20 slots.

Students in the communication department regularly enjoy smaller class sizes for a variety of reasons.

Chris Leeson, a junior in mass communication, said he enjoys small communication classes because of the individual attention he received from his professors. He said this method of teaching was conducive to learning.

While the communication department focuses on making small classes available to students in media and writing classes, the larger lecture hall style classes are also prominent. Whether one is more effective than the other is up to debate.

“About 5 years ago, I would have said the small classroom setting is by far the better teaching method,” Denton said. “Now, I’m not so sure because of the problems that I am experiencing in the computer labs due to students’ access to the internet. I feel as if I have more attention in a large lecture hall without electronic distractions.”

Along with small and large classrooms, the department offers two to three online classes per year. The department is currently striving to improve in its online department, Degn said.

“Online classes are effective for some people in some classes,” Degn said. “Classes where you have to interact, think critically and give opinions are strained.”

Offering online classes does not save the department money. Instructors are paid the same amount to proctor an online class as they would receive to teach a live classroom.

Another distinguishing characteristic of the communication department is the wide array of technologically advanced equipment available to students. Students involved with photography, video production, convergence journalism and several other classes are given the privilege to borrow equipment for the semester.

“Funding for technology is crucial— we couldn’t do without it,” Denton said. “Although in the past few years there haven’t been any equipment budget cuts, there hasn’t been any new money flowing into it.”

Equipment funding tends to come from a variety of three main sources. These include soft money, money generated by the communication department, or special requests sent to the U tech committee or the research vice president. The main source of funding in recent years has been the generous donations from benefactors.

“We’re really hurting right now for equipment money, and if it wasn’t for the good will of our donors, we would be in very serious straits,” Denton said.

The gracious gifts from donors have provided the communication department with several technology improvements such as two new Mac computer labs, an entire set of portable digital video cameras and a few cameras, all available for students to use.

“The new Mac lab is absolutely gorgeous,” Leeson said. “I had three classes in there, and I loved being able to use them.”

Technology is a crucial tool for all mass communication majors to develop skills applicable in a job, Leeson said. Without the ability to practice concepts learned in class, students would not be able to gain as much experience.

The one underlying issue is that donors do not usually provide financial support to help provide repairs and service to the equipment when needed, Denton said.

“Without the technology, you wouldn’t be able to gain experience by working hands on with the equipment,” Leeson said. “A lot of jobs and internships are looking for prior experience learned in a university setting.”

The department of communication has seen its tough times in recent years due to the recession. The faculty members survived potential layoffs, minimal funding, overtime work and shortages on items as miniscule as paper. Due to the increase in funding from the Utah legislature, things are looking up for the department.

“The guiding circumstance seems to be the economy, although tuition increases every year, the legislature drops the percentage of the cost of education because they have competing interests,” Degn said. “Students still see the value of a college education and continue to come to learn.”