Full disclosure: The author of this story is a student in the School of Journalism.
Former associate dean of the School of Journalism (SoJ) Marcy McGinnis stood up on a chair and read a poem honoring J-School dean Howard Schneider at his Nov. 30 retirement party at The Terrace Club in New York City.
As the crowd of around 80 alumni and faculty laughed and clapped along with the poem, Schneider smiled through pursed lips and shifted his gaze around the room.
“I’m not comfortable being the center of attention,” Schneider later said about the moment. “I think the school has done amazing things, but it’s not just me, and I don’t feel I should be the focus for all the attention. But on the other hand, I was very appreciative at the same time.”
After founding and leading the School of Journalism for 12 years, the 73-year-old announced that this semester would be his last as dean in a Sept. 26 email sent out to the school’s 221 students. Schneider is the longest-tenured dean at any of Stony Brook’s 12 colleges and schools and the third dean to leave their position this year.
The email came at 3:25 p.m. that afternoon, just a couple of hours after a Campus Life Time meeting where Schneider informed the school’s faculty he would be stepping down.
Associate SoJ Professor Barbara Selvin said the announcement shocked the J-School faculty. Schneider’s comments also led her to believe Provost Michael Bernstein was pushing him out in the middle of the academic year.
“He said at that meeting he had wanted to stay on until 2020, so it was clear that the timing was not of his choosing,” Selvin, who worked at Newsday while Schneider was managing editor of the publication, said. “It came from the Provost.”
Schneider declined to comment on the matter but said he and Bernstein had been holding talks about his departure since February. Schneider said he held off on making the announcement to minimize its impact.
The provost has yet to respond to multiple requests for comment, but several SoJ professors confirmed Bernstein met with the faculty on Oct. 10 to discuss the university’s vision of the school’s future.
“[Bernstein] wants us to continue doing what we do, and he really appreciates our focus on students,” Selvin said. “But he wants us to be bigger and have more resources.”
Several faculty members have speculated that the J-School will expand beyond its current scope once a new dean is named.
“I think the supposition is that we’ll morph into a School of Communication, which is not necessarily a bad idea,” Associate SoJ Professor Steven Reiner said. “The question is whether the School of Journalism will survive in its current incarnation.”
Associate SoJ Professor Charles Haddad feels expanding the school beyond journalism will be necessary to keep it afloat.
“I think the Provost is right, we have to become something bigger for the journalism part of it to survive and prosper,” Haddad said. “We have to feed off a larger body, and if it’s ok for Northwestern and it’s ok for Mizzou I don’t see why it’s not ok for us.”
Bernstein said he would name the school’s interim dean within the next few weeks at a Dec. 3 University Senate meeting. While the provost has not been in contact with SoJ faculty since their last meeting in October, he assured the school’s professors their interim dean would be an in-house hire. Several faculty members wrote the provost a letter endorsing Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science Executive Director Laura Lindenfeld for the position at the end of October, but never heard a response.
Associate SoJ Professor Jonathan Sanders said he was glad Schneider is leaving, and hopes the dean’s successor can rectify what he feels were mistakes in how Schneider handled his academic posting.
“We need regular academic order,” Sanders, who joined the school in 2012, said. “We need things to be done not as if we were in a newsroom, and not as if we were in a startup and not relying on people who are just your friends from Newsday. One of my great disappointments in coming here was that I thought a new place with a new program could do a lot of things and I found it stuck and revolving around the personal whims and blind spots of one narcissist who would not listen.”
While Haddad praised Schneider for performing his “thankless job” for 12 years, he agreed that the school needs a different kind of leader than it needed at its inception.
“One of the best stories I ever did was about founders who couldn’t let go,” Haddad said. “To me Howie is like that founder, brilliant at starting it up, but can’t imagine the school without himself so he did nothing to prepare for the next step. Even though he’s been here 12 years, not once did he say ‘Guys, we’ve got to think about what comes next to protect this idea that I had.’ That’s on him.”
Schneider declined to speculate on the school’s future. While his final weeks in the office have been bittersweet, he said he has not had much time to reflect.
“I am not gone until Dec. 31, and there’s still a lot to do,” Schneider said. “I want to continue to do everything I can to leave the school in great shape for next semester. We have some ongoing good news about fundraising and things so I’m going to be pushing right up until the last moment.”
After his current position expires, Schneider said he will spend the next two years focused on drumming up support for the J-School’s Center for News Literacy, which he said needs “an infusion of funding” from outside sources. Schneider hopes to have the center’s curriculum for scrutinizing news stories installed within the New York public school system, preferably as early as middle school.
“I’ve got a feel that I’m going to give this my best shot,” Schneider said. “I have to feel before I really retire someday that I’ve given this every opportunity to succeed. Because if I can do that, I will really feel I can retire and feel like I’ve made a difference.”
Correction, Dec. 14, 5:23 P.M.: An earlier version of this article incorrectly reported Schneider’s age as 72 years old. He is 73 years old.