Columbia chose an eminent outsider over a popular internal choice to lead its journalism school

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Steve Coll; Bill Grueskin. ()
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When Columbia University President Lee Bollinger appointed Steve Coll dean of Columbia's Graduate School of Journalism earlier this week, he brought in one of the world's most eminent journalists to run the world's most eminent journalism institution. 

But he also passed over a well-liked and highly respected internal candidate, Bill Grueskin, who'd been responsible for a massive overhaul of the school's curriculum—the likes of which hadn't been seen in decades, and for which he'd been able to gain that rare thing: unanimous support of the faculty and administration. Grueskin was therefore seen by many as the obvious, even inevitable choice for the job.

In the final weeks of the hiring process, which began last October after Nick Lemann announced he would step down from the dean's post after 10 years, the search, led by Bollinger with the help of a staff committee that included about 10 Journalism School faculty members, had been whittled down to the two leading candidates out of an initial pool with no shortage of big names, according to sources familiar with the matter.

Coll is a two-time Pulitzer-winning New Yorker staff writer and Washington Post alumnus whose assiduous reportage on national security and foreign affairs has earned him an international reputation.

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Grueskin is a 38-year journalism veteran who reached the top ranks of The Wall Street Journal before being hired in 2008 as the Columbia Journalism School's dean of academic affairs.

A forward-thinking media scholar with serious editing chops and the digital bona fides to boot (he was The Journal's online managing editor from 2001 to 2007), Grueskin had cheerleaders in his corner internally.

"People were sort of rooting for him," one insider said.

He also had a track record of bringing innovation to a century-old reporters' boot-camp that was grappling with the digital revolution in journalism. He co-wrote the Journalism School's 2011 report, "The Story So Far: What We Know About the Business of Digital Journalism," and was instrumental in developing cutting-edge courses that didn't exist at the time when this reporter enrolled back in 2007—writing for tablet devices, for instance, or "Formats, Protocols and Algorithms: A sampling of journalistic computing."

Grueskin likewise earned points as a result of the curriculum shakeup he spearheaded last year with close input from a handful of colleagues.

Under the new program, which will take effect starting with the upcoming fall 2013 semester, the Journalism School has done away with the platform-specific concentrations (newspaper, magazine, broadcast, new media) that have traditionally defined its core masters of science program, a move meant to reflect the ongoing multiplatform transformation of the news industry. As a result, the program's sacred reporting and writing course, RW1, is getting a top-to-bottom overhaul as well.

It was perhaps the most radical change proposed at the Journalism School in the time most of the current faculty had worked there, but they were nonetheless on board—the new curriculum was unanimously approved last May.

Coll, on the other hand, with no academic roots and limited digital experience (he was considered an early adopter of digital media in his role as managing editor of The Washington Post from 1998 to 2004—eons ago in web time), was seen as more of an unknown quantity for the dean's job. But he brought to the table at least two things Grueskin did not: a household name (by media-world standards) and the fresh perspective of an outsider. At the same time, his journalistic credentials were nothing less than impeccable, betraying the type of long-form magazine pedigree to which so many Columbia j-schoolers aspire. Not to mention his appointment to Columbia's Pulitzer Prize board last October, just weeks after the search for a new dean had commenced.

Coll, however, apparently wasn't sure the job was right for him. Three well-placed sources told Capital that during the process, word trickled out of the search committee that he'd dropped out of the race after interviewing with Bollinger last month. It's possible he felt the demands of running the Journalism School wouldn't comport with his writing and reporting ambitions, such as his New Yorker assignments (a spokeswoman for the magazine told Capital that Coll will keep his staff writer title but that "it's too early to comment on how his new position will impact the number of pieces he writes") and the sequel to his Pulitzer-winning 2004 book, Ghost Wars. He'd already stepped down from his post as president of the New America Foundation in order to free up time for that endeavor.

One way or another, he was persuaded to toss his hat back into the ring. On Monday, Bollinger announced that Coll was his man, proclaiming in a news release: "Steve’s breadth of experience as a reporter, editor, author and executive make him ideally suited to lead the School in the years ahead.”

Sources described a sense of disappointment among faculty members that Grueskin didn't get the job, though they noted Coll's impressive background and its similarity to that of Lemann, a fellow New Yorker writer who was likewise something of a wild card when he came on board a decade ago, but whose leadership of the journalism school is widely regarded as a success.

But another question remains: whether Grueskin will stay at Columbia despite the likelihood that attractive external offers are reaching his doorstep.

A spokesman for Columbia University declined to comment, as did Coll.

"I’ve got a lot to learn," he wrote in an introductory email to journalism school staff earlier this week, "but I know that the faculty, Bill and Nick have done terrific work to raise up Columbia over the last decade and I am excited to be a part of the next chapter."

Reached by phone, Grueskin offered the following: "I'm looking forward to meeting with Steve and hearing about his plans for the school."