Knowing when the time is right for a change

I bumped into Paul Parsons last week on one of those rainy and raw fall days that make the last of the autumn foliage beg for mercy before tumbling helplessly to the ground. Each of us lost in thought and underneath our umbrellas, we almost collided on the crisscrossing sidewalks along the Elon University campus.

It was the first time I had seen Paul since it was announced a couple of weeks ago that he would be stepping aside in a few months as dean of the School of Communications at Elon, a post he’s held for 17 years. He will conclude his service as dean at the end of the academic year in May of 2018, take a sabbatical, then return as a teaching professor. The latter was always part of his plan, according to a university statement released by Provost and Executive Vice President Steven House. I wasn’t surprised by the plan or the timing.

GetImageThe departure ends what by any standard is a remarkable term of growth and achievement for Elon University and its addition of a widely respected and accredited School of Communications. I told Paul so in an email I sent to him immediately after reading the university release. He is the founding dean of the School of Communications, which has become one of the trademark areas of study for Elon students. Only 18 private universities in the nation have accredited communications schools and Elon is among the best of them.

Under Paul’s leadership combined with outstanding faculty and students, the Elon School of Communications is training print, broadcast and digital journalists who are making an impact nationally and around the world. I’ve worked with many of them over the years as full-time reporters or photographers at the Burlington Times-News. Dozens of others served shorter but meaningful roles as interns for the Times-News. The vast majority have advanced to much larger media outlets where they are producing high-quality journalism. I see their work every day in one place or another from my longtime friend Natalie Allison Janicello now with the Nashville Tennessean to Kate Murphy of the Cincinnati Enquirer to Al Drago, a photographer covering the White House for the New York Times. The list goes on and on.

Their efforts are a direct result of things learned at the Elon School of Communications or in the field as interns for a variety of media outlets. School of Comm students at Elon take full advantage of the kinds of real-world experiences the university encourages. In fact I would call them the best role models for the university’s emphasis on experiential learning. When I was editor of the Times-News we could never have enough interns from Elon, a pipeline that continues today.

It wasn’t always the case.

In 1992 just before I left Burlington to take a job in Jacksonville, North Carolina, I spoke to a communications class at then-Elon College. It was a small department, only a few classrooms. There was no TV studio. It had a few students who produced the campus newspaper. One or two became interns for the Times-News — Charity Apple was among them. But we didn’t see many. Most seldom left campus back then.

When I returned in 2007 it was to a different world at Elon. Paul was among the first in the School of Communications to reach out to the new editor of the local newspaper. I had lunch with Jana Anderson and Colin Donohue where discussions about partnerships between Elon and the Times-News were forged. Paul and Don Bolden invited me to McEwen so I could tour the School of Communications, look over the TV operation, the Live Oak public relations operation, the film division and the Sunshine Center for open government in North Carolina — once headed by incoming university president Dr. Connie Book.. As Paul showed me one remarkable thing after another, he was also telling me about spending time back in a newsroom in recent months, recharging his batteries as a reporter for the Winston-Salem Journal. It was obvious the experience gave him a fresh perspective on newsrooms in 2007. Sometimes even a slight change can have a profound impact.

Since that time the School of Communications has only grown exponentially. It now has more than 1,250 undergraduate and graduate students and 75 full-time faculty and staff. Its majors include: journalism, strategic communications, cinema & television arts, communication design, media analytics and sport management. My spouse is now taking graduate level courses in corporate communications there.

The list of achievements under Paul’s watch is head-turning. Elon provided this list.

  • Receiving the discipline’s national Equity & Diversity Award for the school’s success in building faculty diversity and gender equity
  • Establishing the Imagining the Internet Center and becoming home to the North Carolina Open Government Coalition
  • Publishing the nation’s only journal of undergraduate research in communications since 2010
  • Creating student opportunities such as Live Oak Communications student agency, elondocs documentary program, Cinelon Productions and Maroon Sports
  • Celebrating student successes such as two collegiate Emmys, gold and silver ADDY awards, championships in filmmaking and sports analytics, and national top-10 recognition in writing, multimedia and broadcast in the Hearst Journalism Awards
  • Establishing and staffing the Elon in Los Angeles program
  • Inaugurating the master of arts in interactive media degree and partnering with Elon’s Martha and Spencer Love School of Business to offer a corporate communications concentration in the master of science in management degree
  • Completing a major building project that more than doubled School of Communications space

Shortly after the announcement concerning Paul’s future plans an alum from the School of Communications asked me why I thought Paul might be stepping away now. I replied that the timing is just about perfect. The completion of the major construction expansion that brought Schar Hall and Stiers Pavilion online ended last year. A month ago the School of Communications successfully renewed its accreditation, a labor-intensive yet vital process that the next dean won’t have to face for a few years. Paul is leaving behind a School of Communications in excellent shape for its next leader. A search committee to find Paul’s replacement was announced this week.

And sometimes change is the best tonic after a long time in one job. Almost a year ago exactly I walked away from the newspaper business of my own accord after 34 years — the last 28 years as a newsroom editor / manager. I had accomplished all I cared to in print journalism and at age 57 wanted to get back to writing more and supervising less while there was still time and opportunity.

I needed something . . . different.

And as we crossed paths last week on that rainy and raw day, I offered Paul congratulations on his decision. It echoed the many congratulatory messages I received on this week a year ago. “Speaking as someone who made a similar decision at almost this same time last year I think you’ll enjoy it,” I told him.

“Let me put it this way,” Paul said, “I don’t regret it.”

I know he won’t.


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