Pending approval by the university’s Board of Trustees, Nicholas Lemann ’76 will fill the post charged with redefining the mission of Columbia’s journalism school—and journalism programs across the country.
Last summer, Bollinger abruptly suspended the search for a new dean to “consider the question of what a model school of journalism for the twenty-first century should look like.”
Bollinger led a task force—which Lemann served on—to look into the future of graduate schools of journalism.
When asked what a journalism school could teach that a college newspaper like The Crimson could not teach, Lemann—who did not go to journalism school—replied with a chuckle. “That’s the $64,000 question,” he said.
“I believe you come out of The Crimson knowing how to write a 10-12 inch news story on deadline. If a journalism school only taught that, it would not be at all attractive,” Lemann said.
“If, on the other hand, we teach and review basic skills...[that] were not the primary focus at a college newspaper, what we’d really be doing is teaching more advanced ‘how-to’ problems you may not encounter until later on in journalism,” he added.
Lemann seemed optimistic about starting at Columbia.
“I am currently, will be, and have always been a working journalist,” said Lemann, who currently covers Washington for The New Yorker. “I’ll bring my past experience with me to the job.”
David A. Klatell, who served as interim dean of the school while Bollinger’s task force investigated the school’s mission, praised Lemann.
“Nick brings surpassing intelligence to the table. He has a very firm commitment to connecting the graduate school to other programs of study at Columbia,” Klatell said.
Lemann fills a vacancy left by fellow journalist and media scholar Tom Goldstein, who stepped down last June after five years as dean.
In addition to serving as a reporter and editor for The New Yorker, The Washington Post, The Texas Monthly and The Atlantic Monthly, he has written a number of critically acclaimed books, including The Promised Land: The Great Black Migration and How it Changed America, and most recently, The Big Test: The Secret History of the American Meritocracy. Klatell, who served with Lemann on the task force, said they were thinking about the future of journalism.
“We were not trying to design the graduate school of the future, or even the curriculum for the school,” Klatell said. “We were trying to find out what journalists ought to be doing, and how to teach that over a long period of time.”
Klatell expressed optimism that a university could provide essential skills to journalists.
“What a great university can bring to the table are ways of taking the rigor of the mind, coupled with the honing of professional techniques, that will turn people into much better journalists than they would have been,” said Klatell.
Lemann’s presentation at the task force meetings revealed that he was an ideal fit for the job, Klatell said.
“As a member, I spent a lot of time thinking about what the curriculum of a school one to two years in length might look like. I think that served as a qualification for the job. If president Bollinger didn’t like it, he wouldn’t have hired me,” Lemann said.
Klatell said Lemann was an ideal candidate to lead Columbia in this period of transition.
“He is deeply committed to interdisciplinary learning, especially subject matters that may be of increased importance to journalism in the future,” Klatell said.