Proposals to merge several departments and programs were recently announced for the School of Media Arts in response to student input regarding obstacles to interdisciplinary study, according to a Feb. 7 email from Dean Eric Freedman.
According to the emailed announcement to students, the departmental mergers currently would be scheduled to begin in the Fall 2017 Semester and include consolidation of the Communication & Media Innovation and Radio departments; Television and Cinema Art and Science departments; and the Animation Program to become housed in the Interactive Arts & Media Department.
Freedman said in the email that he had been listening to students’ thoughts about diversity among departments, which led him to initiate conversations in July 2016 with department chairs. Additionally, the merger would not affect current students’ paths to graduation, the email said.
Freedman was not available for comment as of press time.
“From August to November, those talks expanded into faculty-led working groups to assess how we can best structure our school in order to better serve our students, fuel experimentation, encourage collaboration, engage with emerging media, and develop interdisciplinary practices that match the evolving nature of our industries—and to reflect the real connection points between media forms,” the email said.
Ron Fleischer, an associate professor in the Cinema Art and Science Department and co-director of the animation program, said a merger between the Animation Program and the IAM Department would be beneficial for prospective students.
“Right now, if [students] want to find animation, they have to find us within Cinema Art and Science, and they may be limited to what they see there,” Fleischer said. “Imagine just one department that has everything under one roof. A prospective student would see everything we have to offer.”
CMI Department Chair Suzanne McBride said a merger with radio will allow students to learn from a variety of experiences.
“I don’t think there are many jobs today where you can go and do one thing,” McBride said. “Hopefully, students might be more likely—for instance, as a collegewide elective—[to] say ‘I might take a radio class because now I know a little bit more about it because the students are physically near me.’”
Jailynn Gultney, a sophomore radio major, said the merger could open up more possibilities for students.
“Personally, I’m a radio major, but I want to do other things,” Gultney said. “It all fits together, so I think it’s a good idea.”
Bruce Sheridan, chair of the Cinema Art and Science Department, said the merge of television and film disciplines makes sense because the two often cross over into each other.
“What we want to do is make it possible for students to be exposed to both of those practices to the degree they are interested in,” Sheridan said. “They can do that through cross-listed courses, but that is hard for some students in [the departments’] current structure.”
Siqi Wu, junior cinema art and science major, said she was surprised to hear about the merges and is unsure if they were necessary.
“Film is a very different system, a very different media, and it works in a different way [from television],” Wu said. “I know they tie off mass media and it’s all about the screen, but the way that people make film and television shows [is] quite different.”
Wu added that although she questions the merges, she thinks more collaboration is needed between departments.
“There’s definitely a clear and strong division,” Wu said. “Collaboration is something Columbia is really supposed to focus on. There are so many things we need from each other’s majors.”
Sharon Ross, interim chair of the Television Department, said she was aware of student about interdepartmental study, but only to a certain degree. While she does not hear about it that much in her department, she did hear about student frustrations while on the search committee for the new dean.
“There were two student representatives from SMA, and they talked a lot about [how] students were frustrated,” Ross said. “[They noted that] if they were in TV, it would be hard to take a cinema class because they didn’t have the right prerequisites even if they might have the skill set, or even being able to borrow equipment back and forth across departments.”
According to a Feb. 14 announcement from Freedman, two open forums have been scheduled for Feb. 21 and March 15 to give students the opportunity to be involved in discussions and ask questions about the proposed mergers.
It is great that students would have the opportunity for their voices to be heard, Wu said.
“I’m very glad the dean listens to us,” Wu said. “Our students need that because there are many problems that Columbia has right now.”
Faculty inclusion in Freedman’s decision-making process was also beneficial, Fleischer added.
The chairs were not involved in the Cinema Art and Science and Television merger discussions to ensure faculty’s voices were being heard, Ross said.
“We wanted it to be faculty and staff that wouldn’t feel influenced by what Bruce and I might think,” she said.
She added that open communication from the dean is important because of Columbia’s history with department and program combinations.
“We all know that there have been very rocky mergers and transitions in the past where students did get shut out or felt shut out, and I think our dean is doing a really good job of doing everything he can to make sure that does not happen,” Ross said.