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School Highlights

An Unusual Year of Extraordinary Successes

The first year of E. Patrick Johnson’s deanship was as notable for its timing as for his lengthy checklist of accomplishments. Even amid the uncertainty of navigating a scattered community, the School of Communication gained exciting momentum as the year progressed and is now leveraging that energy in planning this fall’s return to work, to class, to the stage, and to meaningful systemic change. Many of the following highlights were launched in Johnson’s first 100 days as dean.

Mancosh Pathways to the Professoriate Postdoctoral Fellowship Program

Ignacio Cruz

Made possible by $500,000 seed funding from the Provost’s Office and $500,000matching funds from an anonymous donor to honor mentor David Mancosh, this pilot program was launched in 2020–21 and has recruited its first two fellows to join us this fall: Paloma Martinez (radio/television/film) and Ignacio Cruz (communication studies).

Paloma Martinez

The initiative is a postdoc-to-tenure-track program designed to increase the diversity of the school’s faculty. The only program of its kind at the University (several peer institutions have even more extensive versions), the Mancosh program will recruit BIPOC postdocs in departments that lack diversity and provide them with professional development workshops, senior faculty mentors, research support, and other resources. After a two-year fellowship, the postdocs will transition into a tenure-track position.

Diverse hires for undergraduate advising

The school hired two new advisers to round out its already stellar team. Exal Iraheta (GC19) has extensive training in understanding the arts industry and has his own active arts practice. Vanessa Champagne (GSESP20) has experience leading and managing qualitative program assessments of intercultural initiatives and using storytelling and other methods to engage and support diverse student populations.

Exal Iraheta
Exal Iraheta
Vanessa Champagne
Vanessa Champagne

Faculty program and policy initiatives

  • Through the work of an ad hoc faculty committee comprising tenure-track and teaching-track faculty, the school has devised and codified a research-leave policy to address gross inequities among faculty.
  • Teaching-track faculty whose former titles were lecturer, senior lecturer, or distinguished lecturer are now respectively titled assistant professor of instruction, associate professor of instruction, or professor of instruction in the humanities and social sciences and assistant clinical professor, associate clinical professor, or clinical professor in the sciences. In addition, a formal policy now outlines teaching-track faculty’s path toward promotion.
  • A formal mentoring program now provides professional development for postdoctoral fellows and junior faculty and will eventually expand to tenured faculty. This CommFutures program includes workshops and programming that focus on grant applications, tenure and promotion preparation, time management, and a host of other topics. Eight sessions were held in 2020–21.

Staff satisfaction and support

  • To enhance staff morale and demonstrate appreciation of staff excellence, the school has created new service awards and named their inaugural recipients. The Dean’s Excellence Award went to Peter Anderson, lighting and sound supervisor at the Virginia Wadsworth Wirtz Center for the Performing Arts. Receiving Rising Star Awards for Excellence in a New Position were James Bruning, an administrative assistant reporting to the associate dean for research, and Luz Montoya, a financial assistant with the school’s finance team. 
  • The CommStaff Advisory Council was assembled to give staff a platform for voicing concerns and advising the dean on supportive policies. The council meets monthly and among other issues is exploring professional development opportunities, community building, and technology improvements.
  • LaShanta’ Le’Sure joined the dean’s office support staff this spring as program administrator for faculty affairs and administrative activities; she previously worked in the communication sciences and disorders department. Postdoctoral fellow Michelle Rivera has been hired by the dean’s office as a research assistant.

Enhanced undergraduate career services

Before the 2020–21 academic year, the inequitable and untenable advising structure of the Office of External Programs, Internships, and Career Services (EPICS) resulted in unequal distribution of advisees among the office’s team of coaches. The school has now distributed its 1,000 undergraduates among all eight career advisers, has engaged more alumni to assist with professional development and internship opportunities, and has begun developing a capstone course for seniors to assist with their transition into the workforce.

Diversity, equity, and inclusion

The school has created a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Task Force, comprising faculty, students, and staff to advise the dean’s office on policies that will create and sustain a more diverse, equitable, and inclusive school community as well as generate new ideas and initiatives. The task force meets monthly and has worked on the school’s cohesive land acknowledgment statement, guidance for creating antiracist syllabi and curricula, and plans for a school-wide speaker series.

Equity across MFA programs

Before the 2020–21 academic year, some of the school’s MFA programs were fully funded, others partially funded, and still others based on a revenue-generation model. The school is making definite progress in creating a more equitable funding model for these programs.

First-year seminars

The School of Communication has long lacked a first-year experience program for undergraduates. To introduce students to the school and provide a platform for innovative, collaborative teaching among faculty across the five departments, a pilot seminar program for winter 2022 will be required of all first-year students. Each seminar will be team-taught by cross-departmental faculty and will introduce students to the plethora of communication methodologies and theories that the school offers.

Summer bridge course

A summer bridge program was offered prior to the start of the 2021–22 academic year in collaboration with the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences. An introduction to the communication arts and sciences, the course gave students an opportunity to earn academic credit. Such programs have proven effective in encouraging retention of first-generation and BIPOC students by allowing them to meet and bond with peers from similar backgrounds, interact with upper-level students who become de facto mentors, and discover academic resources with which they might otherwise not be familiar.

New programming

  • To raise the visibility of the dean’s office, engage with thought leaders outside Northwestern, and further our conversations and work around diversity, equity, and inclusion, last fall the school launched the “Dialogue with the Dean” series, a quarterly virtual event in which Dean Johnson facilitates a discussion with a scholar in communication. Guests this past year were John L. Jackson, Ruha Benjamin, and Safiya Noble. Programming is in progress for the 2021–22 series, themed “The Year of the Artist.”
  • The school launched the Kelsey Pharr Jr. Speaker Series to highlight artist-scholars who represent diversity and inclusion in the performing arts. Series guests this last academic year were Lili-Anne Brown (C95), Jess McLeod (GC14), and Brian Quijada.
  • Michael R. Jackson

    The school organized a conversation with journalist Dorothy Tucker (C78) as our first event aimed solely at Black alumni and also welcomed two exciting theatre makers as Hope Abelson Artists in Residence: A Strange Loop creator Michael R. Jackson and theatre director Moises Kaufman.
  • In April the school showcased an exciting partnership with the Pritzker School of Law’s Center on Wrongful Convictions: a dramatic reading of Erik Jensen and Jessica Blank’s 2000 play The Exonerated. Featuring such alumni as Harry Lennix and Katrina Lenk as well as Dean Johnson, students, and faculty, the reading was broadcast to a virtual audience; a follow-up talkback featured cast members and one of the exonerees profiled in the play.
  • A number of listening sessions were held for populations across the school to make the dean’s office aware of the unique challenges faced by specific groups within our student, faculty, and staff ranks.

New Administrative Leadership

Associate Dean for Graduate Studies: Angela Ray
Associate Dean for Research: Molly Losh
Performance studies department chair: Nadine George-Graves
Radio/television/film department chair: Thomas Bradshaw
Theatre department chair: Henry Godinez
Program in dance director: Melissa Blanco Borelli

Directors of Undergraduate Study
Communication sciences and disorders: Elizabeth Norton
Communication studies: James Schwoch
Performance studies: Shayna Silverstein
Radio/television/film: Catherine Carrigan
Theatre: Tommy Rapley 

Overall rise in student coaching appointments with EPICS in Academic Year 20-21; undergraduate appointments alone experienced a 120 percent uptick. The team oversaw a record number of internships pursued and completed for academic credit. Why? Fewer on-campus obligations meant more time and energy for (virtual) professional development.


Year-over-year conversion from in-person to hybrid and online class offerings from 2019-20 to 2020-21

Pivot: /ˈpivət/ verb

  • turn on or as if on a pivot.
  • a word that has come to define 2020-21 and its stops and starts; one we never need to hear again

$1 million

Increase in SoC research award dollars from fiscal year 2019 to 2020. This represents an eight percent rise in funding.


Total page views of Imagine U’s “Storytime” series from March 2020 to March 2021. More than 50 episodes have been produced and shared by the Virginia Wadsworth Wirtz Center for the Performing Arts since the beginning of the pandemic, and more than 90 students and guest artists have been involved and featured.

Unprecedented:  / ˌən-ˈpre-sə-ˌden-təd / adjective

  • having no precedent 
  • Just about everything that took place, or didn’t, in 2020-21
  • This particular state of yearning for precedented times

I adore Zoom… I’m so afraid to leave this venue. I love the power to mute and to be muted at any point. It’s democracy in action.

Comedian Maria Bamford in April during the annual Van Zelst Lecture in Communication


For individuals with mental health disorders, social media and technology are often used to find support, community, resources, and even treatment. Through hashtags, online groups, apps, podcasts, and even video games, social media and technology can be used to reduce stigma around mental health disorders, provide insight into symptoms and challenges individuals with mental health disorders may face, and lessen the symptoms of mental illness. The benefit of being online this year was the variety of guests we were fortunate enough to have in our class. We had social media influencers, podcast hosts, alumni who work at Calm and Headspace, researchers, and even NFL player Doug Middleton join our class this quarter to discuss how they use social media and technology to address the aforementioned stigma, lessen symptoms, etc.

Sarah Syversen, academic advisor and assistant professor of instruction, on her spring quarter class titled Social Media, Technology, and Mental Health


We should be listening to the people whose voices are in the margins; they tell us a lot about the world we live in…And we should not wait until there are mountains of harm before we decide to do something about what’s happening.

Safiya Noble, associate professor at UCLA, about technology bias and algorithmic discrimination during the spring “Dialogue with the Dean” event