U of I wrestling over future course for a famed ad school

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One of the chief conflicts at university advertising schools is whether the curriculum should study advertising's impact on consumers and society in general or instead concentrate on the practical side of creating ads and evaluating media plans.

At most schools, the calls for evaluating the social impact of advertising come from outside the departments where ad studies are taught, brought to bear by professors with a decidedly humanitarian and liberal bent.

Not so at the University of Illinois' College of Communications. There, sweeping changes to the ad program, emphasizing theory over practice, seem to have been initiated by the college itself. As a provost committee on the College of Communications reported, the ad curriculum now being taught is "less about advertising and more about persuasion, the culture of consumption and a critical analysis of materialism in society."

The committee said the ad department had "imploded, is far from critical mass and has jeopardized the careers of its junior faculty. Senior leadership is nonexistent." It recommended the department be "disbanded," and said one alternative might be the development of an advertising track in journalism studies.

I talked with U of I Provost Richard Herman and came away thinking that what he wants for the ad program is "balance" between the practical and theoretical. The pendulum at the ad school had definitely swung to theory, Mr. Herman believes, but the university "is not going to stop offering an advertising degree." Mr. Herman said the College of Communications "has always been a leader. It's been the first to change its curriculum, and other deans are looking at us closely." But the new approach "is very different from your grandfather's advertising program," he said, "and that's one of the things that needs to be addressed."

Ron Yates, the interim dean at the College of Communications, who came to the school in 1997 after almost 20 years with the Chicago Tribune, believes the provost's committee's recommendations on disbanding the ad department are "pretty radical." The college's own task force is benchmarking the best practices from around the country. Mr. Yates believes the ad department has to remain in the College of Communications. "I don't think you destroy one department and put it in another," he told me. But "there needs to be leadership focused on a common goal."

Mr. Yates, who also continues his day job as head of the journalism department, contends that the college's advertising and journalism programs have a "symbiotic relationship. Journalism can't exist without advertising."

I have more than a passing interest in the trials and tribulations of the U of I College of Communications. My dad, the founder of Advertising Age, was an original trustee of the James Webb Young Fund, which supported graduate education and faculty research at the U of I. My old friend Bart Cummings, for many years chairman of Compton Advertising, donated $500,000 to the U of I in 1992 to establish a center for advertising studies in his name.

So however else they mess with the advertising program, I hope the powers that be recognize the great legacy that ad studies at Illinois holds with practitioners throughout the country.

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