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USC Media School Faces a Challenge in Replacing Dean

Geoffrey Cowan led the Annenberg program to prominence. His retirement leaves big shoes to fill.

September 29, 2006|Larry Gordon | 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.

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