Convocation remarks: October 30, 2013
Thank you, Dr. Berliner.
The Lawrence Herbert School of Communication is only now taking his distinguished name, but it was founded as a school in 1995, and many of its programs have far earlier roots here on campus. So when I was asked to speak today about its mission, the first thing that came to mind was how, over the years, its mission has both remained constant and changed radically.
The constancy comes from the purpose we all share—to examine and explore a wide variety of issues concerning human communication. Some aspects of this are highly practical or technical—what is the best way to light this scene for my movie? How can I get the Police Department to give me the statistics I want for my news story. Others are challenging in different ways—what story do I want to tell, and why? How will my movie (or article, memo, decision) make the world a better place?
The radical change comes from the constant disruption that has beset the world of communication since the school’s founding in 1995. That year the Internet was still a novelty (if that) in the lives of most Americans.
Just to set the scene a bit, in 1995, Apple was still just a computer company, and was near bankruptcy. In the summer of that year, a new Web site appeared selling books online, with the name of Amazon.com. It would be three years until Google was founded, and nine years would pass before Facebook appeared. There was no Fox News network, or MSNBC. Tweeting was still something confined to birds.
Today, one could argue that Apple, Amazon, Google, and Facebook are the most influential corporations on the planet. And they are now all communications companies.
For a School of Communication, that has been both good news and bad news. The good news was, and is, that the subject of communication has become one of the central subjects of modern life. The bad news, at least for a time, has been that some of the industries into which our graduates enter after they leave Hofstra have been undergoing rapid, and disruptive, change.
The upshot has been that the school has become much larger than it was at the time of its founding, as students rightly see the various communications fields we teach as growth areas of the 21st-century economy. But the sorts of jobs that are available, and the skills needed to land those jobs, are constantly evolving.
While the fields we prepare students for are growth areas, the distinctions between communications professions are getting less clear. Public relations professionals now need basically the same skills as “content providers” that journalists have, and journalists are now expected to be much more aware of the economic consequences of their work. Reporters are expected to drive traffic to their news organizations’ web sites, and thus boost ad revenue. As celluloid film continues to decline as a physical medium, the digital technologies that are replacing it are bringing film and TV practices—such as non-linear digital editing—into closer alignment. Yet in spite of this ongoing convergence, for those inside those professions there remain clear distinctions between PR and journalism, and between TV and film.
Many of us at the Herbert School, of course, worked in these industries before coming to academia, and harbor strong emotional and intellectual affinities to certain ways of doing things. My first job was at the New Yorker magazine, where editorial independence from the business side was so pronounced that it when the Surgeon General’s report on smoking’s link to lung cancer was released in1964, the magazine’s editor proclaimed that the magazine would no longer accept cigarette ads—and the magazine’s owners agreed. Those were different days.
My point is that adapting to change is not just a matter of buying new technologies and integrating them into your curriculum. There is the even more daunting task of re-examining the very assumptions behind your work as the ground beneath your feet shifts. In decades past technologies changed, but at a slower pace, and along a more predictable pathways. Now changes happen so swiftly, and alter so much, that everything is up for grabs.
That is one reason why the liberal-arts education remains central to our mission, and why each of our departments has a significant commitment to teaching critical thinking about communication, whether it be through the ancient study of rhetoric, critical and theoretical perspectives on film and television, or scholarly examination of the role of mass media in our society.
Earlier I said that Apple, back in 1995, was still a computer company. Today, even though they still make “computers,” they have become intimately involved in the marketing of various kinds of media content—digitally transmitted songs, books, TV shows, and films. Along the way, they have transformed those businesses, and undercut many traditional power bases (remember when record companies mattered?).
It used to be commonplace to say that the “industrial age” had passed on, and that we were living in the “information age.” This was a commonplace idea in the 1970s and 1980s, and beyond. But today we live in the Age of Communication, one that has been made possible by the digital innovations of the information age, but that has now passed beyond to a new paradigm.
This Age of Communication is what we now have to educate our students to master, to excel in, and to provide leadership for. Fortunately, we have always had a good formula for this in a curriculum that provides strong technical and practical skills while remaining steadfastly committed to a liberal-arts foundation. Together, this combination means that our graduates are ready for the jobs out there today, but also able to adapt to new conditions in the years and decades ahead.
All of which leads me, in the end, to Lawrence Herbert. Today we live in the age of visual communication, and Larry Herbert’s Pantone Color Matching System is part of the fundamental vocabulary of our age. As our graduates seek to convey messages to their various audiences, color is one of the most important tools they work with, whether it is on the set of a film, in the pages of a magazine, or as part of the design of a manufactured product. Decades ago, Mr. Herbert combined a detailed knowledge of the printing business with a vision of what was needed for the future. President Rabinowitz will tell you more about Larry Herbert’s remarkable achievements, but suffice to say that he is one of the founding fathers of the Age of Communication.
The business he built upon his standardization and rationalization of the spectrum has been a great success, and we are grateful that he has shared his success with Hofstra, to the lasting benefit of the students of the School of Communication—the Lawrence Herbert School of Communication. Thank you.