The J-School change agent
As dean, Jimmy Gentry rallied the faculty to institute major curriculum change to address the evolving media industry
Summer 2019 Edition
If there is one word to sum up Professor Jimmy Gentry’s career, it’s “change.” He has studied it, taught it, managed it and embraced it.
Over the course of his career, including 22 years at the J-School, Gentry’s message has been that change is inevitable, and students need to be prepared to navigate the ever-changing world of media.
Gentry, who retired at the end of the spring semester, was the Clyde M. Reed Teaching Professor and former dean of the William Allen White School of Journalism and Mass Communications for seven years from 1997- 2004. He taught classes at the graduate and undergraduate level in Lawrence, at the KU Edwards Campus in Overland Park, Kansas, and with different off-site programs. He is nationally known for teaching thousands of communicators, journalists and students how to turn complicated financial and accounting information into understandable language.
Gentry’s career at KU started in 1997. The school sought a dean who could lead the effort to modernize the curriculum and shift the instruction to digital communications in a time of adjustment and uncertainty in the field of journalism.
Gentry, who at the time was dean at the School of Journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno, was recruited by Professor Susanne Shaw.
“Part of my gospel was that we needed to change and that our students needed to be able to work cross platform,” Gentry said.
Having done his dissertation on change and leadership, he understood and enjoyed the process of preparing an organization for challenges of the future, and he was excited to embark on that process as dean of the School of Journalism at KU.
Preaching media convergence, Gentry brought in instructors and sought buy-in from faculty to teach students skills that would translate to a wide range of careers in the digital multimedia world.
“Advertising and PR students needed to understand marketing and needed to be able to work together; they needed to use research in ways never before,” Gentry said. “Reporters needed skills in print and video and audio and digital media as well, so we were among the first schools to make that real commitment to changing the curriculum. And when you’re first, there are some traditionalists who were appalled by that very notion. It turned out later on that we were right.”
One of the faculty members who was on board with Gentry’s ideas was Professor Rick Musser, who said Gentry’s vision was to emphasize skill sets, not media-centric silos.
“I don’t think anyone in the ‘90s really foresaw the digital disruption that was coming to the newspaper world,” Musser said. “I think what Jimmy did understand was that the future of newspapers was already on unsteady ground and that we had a program built around being a top newspaper school. Yes, we were very good at what we did and at what we taught, and our students had been very successful reporters and editors and photographers, but it was a dangerous strategy to ride that print-product brand into the university’s future.”
Musser led about 15 faculty members from various career sequences and media types in a process of discussion and action that was not easy or painless, starting from working on designing one introductory course with a single syllabus that would prepare every student for the more advanced courses in different sequences.
“The task meant getting students out of their “silos” and restructuring the school’s curriculum leading to news editorial, public relations, broadcast journalism (TV and radio) and advertising degrees,” Musser said. “And then ... get the entire faculty to vote the change into existence. All with about a one-year deadline.”
And they did it, and Musser said that in the end, the change benefited the students and the faculty.
The school also instituted tracks — news and information and strategic communication — and adjusted the ratio of faculty to reflect the increasing numbers of students choosing the strategic communication path.
“The great thing was that we all had to do a lot of reading and research about where the future of communication was going,” Gentry said. “And again, the digital world created these environments that no one knew. And so we used to talk about that we were preparing students for jobs that don’t exist — jobs we don’t even have a clue about what they are. Of course, that’s the same today. ”
During Gentry’s tenure, he also led the charge to revise the mission and values statement to be more student-centered, and the wording remains the same today.
Even though the dean’s job was rewarding, Gentry was not interested in a long-term commitment. As a believer in the idea and power of change, he went back to teaching after he had accomplished his goals in the dean’s office.
“To make all those changes we did was a herculean effort by a whole lot of people, many of whom had to totally change their syllabi and what they taught,” Gentry said.
In 2004, he moved out of the dean’s office and returned to his roots as a “business journalism guy.” At the University of Missouri in the 1980s, he had been the director of the business journalism program and enjoyed teaching students and professionals financial literacy, innovation, entrepreneurship and marketing. He liked the challenge of taking what many people would consider a boring, dry subject and making it interesting. When looking at financial statements and sheets of numbers, he made sure students understood they weren’t in a math class — he wanted them to think critically to find the story the numbers were telling.
Jeff Akin (j’11), president of Westwork Content + Design who earned a master’s degree through the J-School’s Integrated Marketing Communications program at the KU Edwards Campus, at first was dubious about taking Gentry’s Financial Fundamentals for Communicators class.
“With remarkable patience, perseverance and humor, Jimmy soon had me eagerly poring through 10-Ks and corporate balance sheets,” Akin said. “It’s one of the most important courses I’ve ever taken and essential in giving me the knowledge and perspective needed to start my own agency.”
Gentry created that program’s capstone course in marketing and communications and ran a program for the Reynolds Center for Business Journalism at Arizona State University that immersed working professionals in a week of research analysis and sorting out financial statements. Most recently, he taught a class that on Fridays met in a co-working space in Kansas City, which brought together students and local entrepreneurs to learn and work together.
Katie Kutsko (j’16), who is partner development manager, metrics for news, at the American Press Institute, took three classes from Gentry because she said the topics he taught were relevant to real life and he challenged, supported, critiqued and inspired students. She praised the Friday co-working class as the best course she took at the J-School.
• B.A., history, Millsaps College, Jackson, Mississippi
• M.A., journalism, University of Missouri
• Ph.D., journalism, University of Missouri
• Barry Sherman Teaching Award, Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication, 2008
• Distinguished Achievement Award, Society of American Business Editors and Writers, 2002
“We learned ‘lean startup’ principles, met dozens of founders, several entrepreneurial communicators, journalists who cover entrepreneurs, learned about ‘intrapreneurship,’ and immersed ourselves in the lingo, environment and culture,” Kutsko said. “This course, coupled with many conversations with Professor Gentry along the way, allowed me to realize I didn’t want to work at a traditional business immediately after graduating. I do not think I would have come to this conclusion about myself and my goals without Gentry’s mentorship.”
Former students recall that Gentry’s influence went beyond what they learned from him in the classroom. He became a mentor, adviser and friend.
Shortly after Nick Boehm graduated in 2012, he was offered a full-time position and needed some advice.
“I barely knew what a 401k was, let alone how to negotiate a salary, so who did I ask for guidance? You guessed it — Jimmy Gentry,” said Boehm, who is a business intelligence specialist at the University of Kansas Health System. “Intangible things like character and integrity can be hard to define, but the kind of person who will spend time helping a former student when they have no obligation to do so is the kind of person who is full of both character and integrity.”
Gentry has enjoyed his career being a teacher and an administrator, but as he has always been, he is ready for a change. He’s retired from KU, but he still plans to teach an online class in financial fundamentals for the University of Iowa. He plans to volunteer more with his church and with his wife’s nonprofit organization, Young Women on the Move. He will do consulting work on curriculum change and plans to do some learning as well — he wants to learn more about artificial intelligence and machine learning and wants to play the guitar better. With all of that on his plate for retirement, he’ll be taking his own advice that he has shared with his students: “Given the way things change so rapidly these days, you’ve always got to be thinking about how you will be refocusing yourself,” he said.
– Julie Adam