Update on the J-School's Work on Diversity and Inclusion | Columbia Journalism School

Update on the J-School's Work on Diversity and Inclusion

Dear Members of the J-School Community,

As the Class of 2021 arrives, we want to update you on actions we are taking to strengthen diversity and inclusion at our school. Many of these initiatives were suggested by letters and town hall comments over the summer from recent alumni who challenged us to make measurable, lasting changes to address racial bias, improve access and representation for Black and other underrepresented colleagues, expand our teaching about journalism and race, and earn a leadership position in our field on matters of race and inclusion. J-School faculty of color, in support of these alumni, have also written and spoken out to add to a change agenda that we find constructive, achievable and inspiring.

We don’t pretend to have all the answers, but we have worked actively this summer to adopt a number of specific projects that have been suggested and to set in motion additional plans for the fall semester. We believe the Black Lives Matter movement and the accountability moment it has created in American journalism offer an urgent, vital opportunity to take a hard look at our school, talk honestly about race, and pursue anti-racism action that will be durable and provide a basis for accountability over time.

Teaching is at the core of our mission and we have heard excellent suggestions for strengthening our instruction about journalism, race and ethnicity, a subject so fundamental to public and private life in America and many other nations that it is a competency needed for effective coverage of everything from health care to politics to sport and Hollywood. 

Last week, with an event centered on the documentary “Let it Fall,” about the police beating of Rodney King and its context, we launched a pop-up required course on journalism and race for the Class of 2021, which will run through the fall semester. In parallel, we will bring to our faculty-led Committee on Instruction a proposal from recent alumni to have an ongoing, mandatory class on journalism, race, and diversity. We will ask the committee to consult and take ideas from recent alumni about the proposed course’s content and design. 

We have previously revised core curricula to reflect greater diversity in source materials and case studies and we have evaluated every course in part on the strength of its use of diverse sources and speakers. Yet there is much more to do and this fall we will ask the C.O.I. to also evaluate where and how we can strengthen the incorporation of race, ethnicity and diversity across all of our courses and curricula. 

In addition to what is taught, we need to accelerate our work on who has access to our school. This year, we are launching a fundraising campaign to raise an additional $1 million in scholarship funds dedicated to students who have historically been underrepresented in journalism, and those from countries outside of the U.S. where need has been the greatest. This is part of a broader school campaign for scholarships, Access Matters. Among other things, our fundraising will seek to strengthen the Black Alumni Network Scholarships, which recognize Phyllis Garland and Luther P. Jackson, Jr., two early African American professors at the school. 

In addition to scholarships, we need to work more purposefully on our recruiting pipeline by building new and deeper partnerships with institutions such as the H.B.C.U.s and state university systems in states that provide opportunities for Latinx and first-generation Asian students, such as California and Texas, places where we have strong foundational relationships to build on. And we need to advance the work we have done in Latin America, Africa and Asia in recent years in search of partnerships and scholarship resources that do more to bridge the gap between the resources of talented applicants and our cost of attendance.

We also want to think more broadly about our career placement partnerships. Last year we invested several hundred thousand dollars of school funds in paid externships in nonprofit newsrooms for the Class of 2020. We hope to renew this program for the Class of 2021 but want to widen our search for partner newsrooms to include more that are led by journalists of color and serve underrepresented communities.

We have much work to do within our four walls, too. This summer’s letters and convenings surfaced testimonies of painful experiences of marginalization and perceived bias endured by Black students and other students of color from recent graduating classes. We are taking actions suggested by alumni and faculty to address bias and to document the realities of inclusion and representation at the School, so that we can identify problems to rectify right away while establishing a baseline of data against which our progress can be measured over time.

We are acquiring anti-bias training programs used by some other schools at Columbia and will make such training mandatory for staff this fall. We will work with our faculty and the university as it considers how to provide all faculty with the support they need to recognize and address bias and to hold honest, inclusive conversations about race in the classroom.

We are moving forward with an idea brought forward by recent alumni to study the school’s climate and record on representation and advancement, both qualitatively and quantitatively. The school has been the subject of two extensive studies in recent years, by the Provost and our field’s accrediting body, but we agree with those who argue that we would benefit from a deep evaluative study focused exclusively on diversity and inclusion. After a number of discussions internally and with alumni leaders to consider how to carry out such a study, we have decided to appoint Lonnie Isabel, our former faculty colleague, to lead an initial consultative and planning process, in the hope that this will identify the strongest possible pathway for such a study. We have committed to Lonnie that he and any teams he assembles to carry out a study will have full independence and that the school will provide any information he and his teams request, within the limits of law, privacy policy and university regulations. The study will be written, edited and published independent of the Seventh Floor, presumably in the first part of 2021, depending on what course is adopted.

This summer has revived discourse about the appropriateness of the Thomas Jefferson statue that stands so prominently before the doors of Pulitzer Hall. Some alumni and faculty have demanded that the statue be removed and replaced by a different representation of journalistic values. Sheila and I agree that the time has come to change the symbolic art that fronts our school, and we will use what influence we have this fall to advance that position. The decision belongs to the university, however. The Provost has already convened a consultative group of university faculty and leaders and he has assured us again this week that he will lead a review of problematic symbols at Columbia this fall that will include the Jefferson statue.

Journalism is why we are here. We are fortunate in our faculty leadership and in resources such as the Lipman Center for Journalism and Civil and Human Rights, whose work we are investing in and seeking to expand. This year, we have raised and invested substantial school funding in an upcoming Frontline documentary on voter suppression produced by Professor June Cross, with Professor Jelani Cobb as correspondent, a project supported by investigative reporting by school graduates, led by Kristen Lombardi, which is also being published in major newspapers such as the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel and USA Today. Fundraising is not easy, but we see this as a model for investment in projects by other faculty and graduates pursuing deep work on migration, racism, inequality and justice, as Columbia Journalism Investigations does today.

The most powerful investment in our values we can make is to continue to expand the talent and diversity of our faculty and school leadership. We are in the midst of a public health emergency and attendant economic crisis that is knocking a big hole in the financial plans of universities and schools like ours. We need to use the resources we have — adjunct faculty, endowed visiting faculty positions — to advance the goals we share, even if it means changing the way we operate. Our record of recruiting underrepresented full-time faculty is a good one, but the pace of overall change is structurally gradual. That means we need to be strategic and thoughtful about every investment we make. We will work in the weeks and months ahead to strengthen our leadership in this way, despite the constraints; more on that soon.

We are grateful for the activism and commitment to the values and best interests of the J-School that has characterized the petitioning and discussions of this summer. We hope that energy and ambition will be sustained through what will no doubt be a very busy and unusual academic year. We pledge to do our part to keep this work at the forefront of our priorities. And we are counting on your ongoing participation in a process of open feedback and continual suggestions.


Steve Coll

Sheila Coronel