Father Journalism retires

It has been 33 years since Dr. Robert Clayton Cole, 68, first arrived at the College for the Fall semester of 1973. His career here, set to end with his retirement at the end of this academic year, has been a storied one.

It is also one that almost never took place.

In 1971, Cole walked away from Lehigh University with a Ph.D in American Literature and entered the work force. When August 1973 came around, Cole accepted a position as an English and journalism professor at James Madison University in Virginia. And then he got a call – and a job offer – from Alex Liddy, a professor in the English program at the College familiar with Cole’s work for the Lehigh’s University Magazine.

“All my family connections were up this way,” Cole said on deciding to take the job at the College. “But it was still an awkward thing to do.”

According to his colleagues, his presence at the College has been invaluable. It was thanks to Cole’s work in the English department that the College began offering degree programs in journalism and professional writing.

“As the originator of the journalism major, Cole has certainly made his mark on the program,” Kim Pearson, assistant professor of journalism and interactive multimedia, said. “That impact has been felt not just at (the College), but in the state press associations and among newspapers throughout the region.”

“You go anywhere in New Jersey and talk to other journalists and they identify this as ‘Bob Cole’s program.’ He’s a legend,” Donna Shaw, assistant professor of journalism, said.

According to Cole, when he started teaching at the College, the English department offered one journalism class, Introduction to Journalism, a class taught primarily “by people who had never been in a newsroom,” he said.

“After I got hired, I’d add a course or two every semester,” Cole said. After several years, the College started offering a journalism minor, “which was like a major in disguise.”

Fueling the growth of the fledgling journalism program was the Watergate scandal, which was reaching its peak as Cole ascended at the College. “Watergate was feeding the students,” Cole said. “Watergate was the peak. Through Watergate, we were heroes. Journalists were highly respected.”

Even after Watergate peaked and the popularity of journalism has found itself in decline, the program has continued to attract potential journalists and put them into the work force.

According to numbers provide by Cole, Dow Jones Newspaper Fund said that 28 percent of the College’s journalism graduates enter the newspaper industry as opposed to the national average of 11 percent.

Cole has also spent an inordinate amount of his professional energy trying to hook students up with positions in the journalism job market. According to Cole, he has placed over 400 students in journalism jobs since he first came to the College.

“Don’t think just because I’m retiring I won’t be available for help with jobs,” Cole added.

According to his colleagues, Cole’s retirement will be felt strongly in the program.

“First, let me say the obvious: no one will fill Dr. Cole’s shoes,” Shaw said. “We will hire someone wonderful and smart and talented, but no one can really take his place.”

“In this state, you can retire at 50,” Cole said. “I’m 68. Most people I’ve known in the English department have retired at 65.”

With two of his four children still in College, Cole chose to delay his retirement to help finance their education.

“I would’ve been in the position of putting them through school on a pension,” Cole said. “It’s hard enough putting them through school as it is.”

The School of Culture and Society, under which the English and journalism programs fall, conducted a search last year to try and find a candidate to fill Cole’s position to no avail. Three finalists were chosen including staff members at The New York Times and the Washington Post.

“As for last year’s search, I think it’s fair to say that we were all disappointed with the outcome,” Pearson said. “However, I think it’s fair to say that the fact that we attracted applicants with substantial experience at some of the most respected news organizations in the U.S. and abroad speaks well for the course of study that Cole initiated here.”

With the school facing a potential budget crisis at the hands of newly inaugurated governor Jon Corzine, it is unsure when the College will be able to conduct another search, but Shaw is confident about the future of the program.

“I see two things that lie ahead,” she said. “One, we will continue offering a program that is rigorous and challenging – rooted in journalistic and academic excellence, with emphasis on strong ethical and moral behavior. Two, we will evolve as the journalism industry evolves, so our students can write and edit for print but also for broadcast, the Internet and beyond. In other words, it will be a program that I hope will make Dr. Cole proud.”