Right at the doorstep of the University of Montana School of Journalism, workers have torn open the earth. They're building a new underground hall, and a solid block of the campus has disappeared behind chainlink fence and under hulking piles of dirt.
Inside the venerable school for muckrakers, things are scarcely more settled.
The ground floor is a dusty mess, with rooms cleared out by the recent departure of the school's printing department languishing in flickering fluorescent light and an abrasive chemical smell. The disorder, brought on by shake-ups and fresh starts, stands in nicely as a metaphor for the state of one of UM's flagship schools.
In July, Joe Durso, a longtime professor, died of a heart attack. That tragedy made for the fourth change at the J-School's helm since 1993. Durso led the school following a protracted battle between faculty members and former dean Frank Allen, the last candidate who was actually hired to do the job. After Allen's controversial ouster in 1997, UM tried and failed to come to financial terms with a potential permanent replacement. Charlie Hood was the dean before Allen.
Last Monday, a month to the day after Durso's death, Carol Van Valkenburg got the nod to fill in. By the end of the week, the former Missoulian reporter had begun to settle into the dean's office and grapple with the task of carrying on.
Even as she and the faculty organize for fall semester and the beginning of a crucial accreditation process, Van Valkenburg makes it clear that the feelings stirred by a hard summer still weigh heavily on the school.
"This is one of those totally unexpected things that you accept intellectually but not emotionally," she says of Durso's death. "You keep thinking that there must be something you can do."
In the absence of the ability to perform miracles, Van Valkenburg says the faculty has agreed to simply try to keep the school on what she describes as the right course. "I think people are really recommitted to pursuing Joe's agenda," she says.
In Van Valkenburg view, Durso had the school's fundraising, alumni relations and future planning in good shape. There were concerns that with Allen's departure such areas might suffer. In particular, she notes, grants landed last spring will further one of Durso's favorite projects, expanding the school's reach in Montana's Indian communities.
"Joe's plan was to position the school as the leading journalism institution in the country on Native American issues. We're going to continue that effort," Van Valkenburg says.
A $90,000 grant from Gannett's Freedom Forum, a charitable foundation run by the newspaper giant Gannett, will pay a Native American professor to be hired by next spring. Along with Van Valkenburg, that prof will be charged with recruiting students from Montana's tribal colleges and launching minority affairs reporting classes.
Meanwhile, the school's accreditation is up for renewal, a process that starts with an internal review this fall. That study will examine, in part, the success of the school's new instructional system, in which "pre-journalism" students must complete a prescribed series of courses before starting their major. Van Valkenburg says that new program is becoming more firmly entrenched after a couple of nebulous transitional years.
Successfully renewing national accreditation is, of course, crucial to the school's future, but Van Valkenburg also stresses the need to stoke fundraising fires, maintain friendly relations with alums and firm up ties with Montana newspapers, radio and TV stations.
"You can't ask alumni to support you if they don't know what you're doing, and you're a less effective journalism school if you don't have ties to media in the state," she says. "Unless you seek out private contributions, you'll continue to slip further behind in an era when the state's contribution to higher education is decreasing all the time."
She says Durso excelled in all those areas. Most importantly, she says, after years in which most of the faculty, herself included, found itself at cross-purposes with Allen, Durso got professors involved in blueprinting the school's future.
"Joe made faculty feel like they were part of the plan," she says. "He really respected us and what we saw as our vision for the school."
Thursday, September 3, a memorial service will give students and professors alike a final chance to bid Durso farewell. After that, it will be up to Van Valkenburg to lead the school until an acceptable (and affordable) candidate to fill the job permanently can be found. She says that search should wrap up by next June.
The scramble to get up and running leaves Van Valkenburg precious little time to savor her place in history-namely, the fact that she's the first woman to lead the J-School in its nine decades of history. "I hadn't even considered that at all," she says.
Carol Van Valkenburg, a former Missoulian reporter, has taken over as dean of the journalism program while administrators search for a permanent replacement for the late Joe Durso. Photo by Lise Thompson