Steve Coll surprises Columbia J-school faculty with talk of a two-year program

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Faculty members of the Columbia Journalism School were surprised by some comments from their incoming dean in a report published by the Columbia Spectator today.

The new dean, Steve Coll, who begins in July, told the daily student newspaper that he's interested in expanding the graduate journalism school's program from one year to two.

“My going-in thinking is that the school would benefit from a uniform two-year approach if it were affordable for students,” Coll told the paper.

A spokeswoman for the journalism school said Coll's comments were not an official announcement of any sort.

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Nevertheless, "People were none too thrilled to learn of this in the Spectator," one source said.

"This was a surprise to all of us," said another.

Reached for comment, Coll told Capital his remarks to the Spectator about a two-year program were meant to sound more exploratory than they came across in print.

"It's one of three or four things I'd like to explore in my first year as I learn about the model of the school and how it operates," he said.

Columbia University President Lee Bollinger, who recently installed Coll as dean while passing over internal favorite Bill Grueskin, the journalism school's dean of academic affairs, has been interested in a two-year program for some time, according to people familiar with his thinking.

He also appeared determined to appoint Coll as the journalism school's new dean: As we reported several weeks ago, Coll had removed himself from the search process at one point, but Bollinger persuaded him to come back, said sources with knowledge with the situation.

Coll's predecessor and fellow New Yorker writer, Nicholas Lemann, who announced his intention to step down last fall, explored the possibility of a two-year program thoroughly, and was on-record as favoring a two-year program when he became dean in 2003.

But he opted instead for a voluntary second-year program, a master of arts in journalism, focusing on particular categories of reportage.

Tuition for the master of arts degree was subsidized starting with the inaugural 2006 class, but the subsidies have declined each year. The core master of science program now has a nearly $85,000-a-year price tag, so finding some way to subsidize the cost would be one major consideration in stretching out the time-frame.

Lemann has continued to assess the merits of a two-year master of science program. He told Capital that a feasibility study was conducted as recently as last summer.

"What stayed our hand from doing it is that we don't know if the market's there," he said.

The single-year program, which offers a rigorous boot camp approach, is extremely attractive to applicants, many of whom can't afford to shell out two-years' worth of Ivy League tuition knowing they'll hardly be making lawyer's or doctor's salaries after graduating.

"If you take the money off the table, two years would be better," said Lemann.

Coll said he recognized that making the switch to a two-year program would require a lot of work.

"I assume that if it were easy, the faculty and Nick would have moved further in this direction than they already have," said Coll. "I don't take any of that lightly."