USC Media School Faces a Challenge in Replacing Dean

Times Staff Writer

It is 4 on a Thursday afternoon and Geoffrey Cowan is working the high-tech auditorium at the USC Annenberg School for Communication, where he has been dean for almost a decade. About 180 undergraduates listen as the silver-haired Cowan leads his introductory journalism class through some current issues in the media world.

He starts with the up-and-down Nielsen ratings of Katie Couric’s new anchorship of the “CBS Evening News.” He stresses the importance of daily newspapers and how online classifieds threaten them. He also focuses on the debate over ABC’s recent docudrama “The Path to 9/11.”

“How accurate does a memoir have to be?” Cowan urges the students to consider. “How accurate does a docudrama have to be?”


Such enthusiastic engagement with issues of contemporary media is a hallmark of Cowan’s deanship at the 1,902-student school, which many experts around the country say he has led to greater prominence and academic respect, improved facilities and a big-bucks endowment that helped finance all that.

Cowan’s recent announcement that he would retire as dean in June and, after a year’s sabbatical, return to USC in a newly endowed Annenberg Family Chair in Communication Leadership has triggered a new wave of appreciation for him. But it also has produced unease about finding a successor.

“A very difficult act to follow,” said professor Jeffrey Cole, director of the school’s Center for the Digital Future, one of the research projects started during Cowan’s term.

“I want someone who is going to do as much for the school as he did. I want someone as focused and engaged as he is,” journalism graduate student Brandon Bridges said in the school’s lobby, which has been reconfigured with a central stairway and huge television screens for news.

In an interview in his campus office, Cowan, 64, said he didn’t want another five years as dean: “I thought 11 years was fabulous, and 16 years felt like it would be too long.”

Under Cowan, the school has embraced the Internet era, taking such steps as requiring all graduate journalism students to tackle print, broadcast and online media. His successor, Cowan said, will need to navigate even more communication revolutions.


“It’s a moment when education matters. Every question that you have about how the industry is changing, how technology is changing, how the society is changing, is an opportunity for an educational institution,” he said.

With an international search for a replacement just launched, there is no obvious candidate, said Karen Symms Gallagher, dean of USC’s education school and chairwoman of the search committee. The goal is to publicly identify about four finalists by February and then by April have USC campus leaders select a new dean “who has the demonstrated experience and the kind of vision to build on what Geoff has done for 10 years,” she said.

Alumni at a recent meeting urged recruiting a starry nonacademic, such as former NBC news anchor Tom Brokaw, or someone with strong online credentials, such as Yahoo’s chief executive, Terry Semel. Some faculty say academic strengths and fundraising abilities are most important. Though no one has been approached, Gallagher said, the process will be open to nontraditional candidates because Cowan himself had such an eclectic resume.

Cowan has a bachelor’s degree from Harvard and a Yale law degree, taught communication law and policy at UCLA for two decades, practiced public interest law, wrote a well-regarded biography of Clarence Darrow, produced television movies and headed the commission that rewrote ethics rules for Los Angeles city government. His most prominent position nationally was during the Clinton administration as director of Voice of America, the federally funded agency that broadcasts to the world. His father, former CBS President Louis Cowan, held that job during World War II.

Even his sabbatical sounds hectic. Cowan will be a fellow at Harvard’s Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy, studying future business models for news organizations. Among other tasks, Cowan said, he will work on a book about Theodore Roosevelt’s 1912 presidential campaign.

Diane Winston, a journalism professor whose specialty is religion reporting, said the next Annenberg dean should be an advocate for high-quality, ethical journalism the way Cowan has been.


“As the industry cuts back and bottom line becomes more important,” Winston said, “there is more of a need for a journalism school to take a leadership role in the field, to remember what the profession is about and what is our role in society. But we need to have a dean who gets that.”

The headhunting is complicated by the fact that USC simultaneously is seeking deans for five other divisions, including its law and business schools. And it could face West Coast competition since UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism needs to replace its dean, Orville Schell, who is retiring at the same time.

Many observers, however, point out that USC Annenberg is much bigger and more complicated than Berkeley’s 120-student journalism master’s program. Annenberg offers undergraduate and graduate studies in such areas as journalism, public relations and global communication, plus research programs in diplomacy, justice, health, religion and entertainment.

Some observers privately contend that Cowan overextended the school into too many trendy and scattered subjects as he chased big-name donors, faculty and speakers. Some professors say it was a mistake to have located several Annenberg think tanks off campus in downtown Los Angeles and in Beverly Hills, too far from students.

School officials say that was primarily a result of space shortages on campus, although it was also intended to promote better links with off-campus industries.

And the school’s identity remains a sensitive topic, even beyond the confusion with a similarly named institution at the University of Pennsylvania.


In a series of titles that even its faculty find odd, the overall USC Annenberg School for Communication includes both its School of Communication, which emphasizes scholarly inquiry, and its School of Journalism, more of a professional training center. That resulted from a 1994 shotgun marriage of previously separate entities. One of Cowan’s most difficult tasks was easing mutual suspicions between the two academic families. Schell said Cowan, a longtime friend, was able to manage the merger because he is “very positive and a good consensus builder.”

Any academic pain was soothed with astonishing amounts of money. Under Cowan, the school’s endowment rose from $6.5 million to $183.5 million. The biggest gift was $100 million in 2002 from the Annenberg Foundation, set up by its namesake, Walter H. Annenberg, the media magnate who had been U.S. ambassador to Britain.

That donation and others helped propel a near doubling of full-time faculty to 61, plus a small army of part-timers, officials said. The school was able to hire academic stars such as Cole from UCLA, Internet sociologist Manuel Castells from UC Berkeley and rhetoric scholar G. Thomas Goodnight from Northwestern University. And it regularly hosts prominent visiting lecturers, with ample free food that student audiences particularly appreciate.

More visibly, the Annenberg building was expanded and redecorated to the tune of more than $15 million, and broadcast and computer labs were equipped at a high level.

“That building used to be a sad and somewhat pathetic structure. Now it’s a much bigger and more vibrant place,” said Associate Dean Martin Kaplan, who also is director of the school’s Norman Lear Center, which studies aspects of entertainment, media and society.

Cowan and Kaplan sought to unify and promote the school, in part by emphasizing its brand name. Big, colorful banners, with a gigantic golden letter A, hang from its exterior walls, and guests to the dean’s office are offered bite-size Hershey chocolate bars whose wrappers bear the school logo.


His successor, Cowan said, will face similar challenges in making “people think of themselves as part of the institution.” But there will be no shortage of interest since, he emphasized, communication will be “as important and maybe more important than any other field as we move into this new century.”