A conversation with Dean Rochelle Ford as she leaves the Elon School of Communications

By Eric Frederick, NC Local Newsletter Editor

Rochelle Ford

Rochelle Ford, who led a transformation of the School of Communications at Elon University as its dean for the past four years, has left that post to become president of Dillard University in New Orleans. She starts at Dillard on July 1.

Ford, who had been a distinguished faculty member at Howard and Syracuse universities before coming to North Carolina, worked with the faculty and staff to build a new departmental structure at Elon, creating six undergraduate programs in cinema and television arts, communication design, journalism, media analytics, sports management and strategic communication. She and the school have won several prestigious awards in these four years.

I had the privilege of catching up with her a few days ago during her last week at Elon (which, as you know, is the home of the Workshop and the NC Local newsletter). Naturally, we talked a little about gun violence — “we’ve got to deal with the crisis of racism, with the crisis of people lacking conflict resolution skills, and get back to the humanity, seeing each other as real people,” she said — before we discussed her tenure as dean, her views on journalism education, and the reasons for her optimism.

Here’s our conversation, edited for length and clarity:

EF: What are you most proud of at Elon?

RF: My faculty colleagues and my staff colleagues, because they were able to take a great organization that literally was built on best practices, and they were willing to change the organizational structure to put mentoring at the forefront. When I came in, it was one communications department with five undergraduate majors, and the sport management department with one major. They were looking at communications as a whole, but not necessarily being tightly knit to industry, and were very, very generalized — which is good, except when it comes to really developing strong mentoring relationships with students. They were brave enough, and they trusted each other and me enough as their leader, that within six months we were able to restructure the school into a departmental structure that made us closer to industry, that made us more accessible to students for mentoring, and created better professional development relationships for faculty, for long-term career development. So I’m proud of them.

I’m also really proud that we elevated our standing within our largest sector, within the public relations, strategic communications area, where we won the Outstanding Education Program, the PR Week award (in 2019). Strategic communications is our largest major, and that year we had a finalist for the PR student of the year we won the outstanding PR program of the year. We had the grant scholarship winners, and it really just showed the public relations industry that Elon is a place to watch for strategic communications.

Another thing that I’m really, really excited about is that we were able to use corporate partnerships to ensure that our content was delivered across OTT on the ElonComm channel (available on Roku, Apple TV, Fire TV and Android TV). … You can watch our students’ work — their film productions, documentary work, narrative shorts, our faculty work — and get to know the School of Communications. So when COVID hit, we were able to pivot because we were so connected with alumni, with prospective students, with our own students, and were able to really be ElonComm on-demand through our OTT streaming, through our social media, through delivering education through Zoom and Teams, and even utilizing Facebook and virtual tours for prospective students. So we thrived even through the pandemic, when everybody else was shutting down, and even professional newsrooms were shutting down. We came back in the fall of 2020 and didn’t stop. We were back in the studio. We were back in the classrooms. We were in the newsroom. And we were producing local news. And even in that summer of 2020, we were helping local news organizations, through the North Carolina Local News Workshop, to meet their needs when their budgets were cut.

EF: Congratulations on all of that. What are the biggest challenges right now for journalism education?

RF: Journalism education needs to lean all the way into sustainability issues facing news and information. We are really good about teaching students how to report, how to write, how to produce the news and information. What we aren’t so good about is teaching media ownership, partnering with business schools to understand how to market, understand audiences … I’m really proud of our media analytics program at Elon, where we were helping local publishers to understand who their audiences were and how to capture the data that they have on their websites and from their newsletters and from their apps. Journalism educators need to lean into analytics, not just for data-based reporting, data journalism … but for the sustainability of news and information.

I think another thing that journalism education needs to continue to do is media literacy. We have to fight mis- and disinformation. And I’m really proud of our faculty at Elon because they are tackling it. They’re tackling it through public workshops, through partnerships with high schools. We just launched, with the help of Scripps Howard, the emerging journalism program and have students from throughout the nation coming to campus as well as over 100 students who participated in the online portion. We have faculty like Amanda Sturgill, who really wrote the book about how to fight misinformation. Or Kathleen Stansberry, who was doing research on the anti-vax movement before COVID.

But that’s part of journalism education. And a lot of us think about the fundamentals only, and absolutely we need the fundamentals — writing, reporting news and information, making sure that we get facts right, and moving away from sound bites, from thinking there’s just two sides of an issue, and learning the complexities of it — but we have to teach our students entrepreneurship, how to work in the gig economy. We have to make sure that we really lean into diversity, equity and inclusion, meaning that we have to teach our journalists how to get out of their comfort zone and go into communities where they are othered, and be able to listen and to really provide news and information that resonates — and when they can’t be the storytellers, empower others to tell the stories of their own community.

And I don’t know that we have done a good job of that in the industry, but I’m really proud of Elon, because my faculty colleagues voted last year to require a course of all of the students on inclusive leadership in communication — how do they build and retain diverse and inclusive teams, how do they advocate for inclusion within a newsroom and other communication environments. Because everybody is diverse. And we’re helping our students to know that even if I’m a, you know, a straight white male, I’m part of the diversity, equity and inclusion — and having an understanding of self and then having an appreciation and empathy for others, and the beauty that people bring to the table, and how to create those kinds of inclusive environments. … Being a competent, multicultural communicator is also building and retaining diverse and inclusive teams and advocating for inclusion. But it’s also capturing analytics and understanding audiences so that diverse stories that really support democracy thrive, and that we can fight mis- and disinformation…

We have an Inclusive Excellence committee in the School of Communications, and they work to get a baseline understanding of how people feel about the climate in the school, meaning, do they feel like they can bring their whole selves to work? Are they experiencing any of the “isms” of racism, sexism, ageism, homophobia, etc.? What are they actually feeling in terms of — are we an inclusive place? Are they satisfied with the level of diversity? You know, religious and political and race and age and nationality and perspectives, are those things being taught in the classroom? We’ve launched a survey of faculty and staff already, and the student study will be launched in the fall. And I’m excited about that because you can’t move the needle if you don’t know where people are currently.

EF: What keeps you up at night?

RF: Too much caffeine after 5:30.

What keeps me up at night? I really worry about mis- and disinformation. Honestly, because of (the recent mass shootings) — these people went down these rabbit holes of false and misleading information that was just filled with hatred. And they believe things that aren’t even accurate. They’re quoting things that aren’t real. And there are people out there who are spewing hate, and because we really no longer have mass media, everybody is so polarized in their media habits. People don’t know how to even determine what’s factual, what’s opinion, what is conjecture, right? And our media organizations are to blame because we put on these pundits who feed ratings, and we do that on the liberal side, the ultra liberal side, and on the ultra conservative side. It’s not factual reporting, it’s “what do you think.” And nobody knows the “why.”

EF: Given all that, what gives you hope?

RF: The students we have right now, the Gen Z students. They’re standing up, and they’re saying, “Stop it. Hear us.” And “We’re going to put an end to this.” … And they are activists, and they are passionate. They are going to let their voices be heard. And that gives me hope. When I see their commitment to social justice, when I see … they still have an interest in journalism, and “I need to make a difference.”

You know, I love it that ENN scooped the story on my announcement! Journalism is alive. Yeah, I have hope in these young people. They recognize that our generation has kind of screwed stuff up. And they want to figure out how to make it possible for them and their children to be better. And they’re doing it!