Guest Column: The Perils and Promise of Change

COM’s Future in a Climate of Change

By Bill Wheatley (’70)


Editor’s note: For this issue of COMtalk, Dean Tom Fiedler (’71) invited Bill Wheatley, chair of COM’s advisory board and a former executive vice president of NBC News, to share his thoughts about COM’s future in a climate of change. Photo courtesy of Bill Wheatley

Almost a generation into the digital revolution, advances in communications technology continue to unfold at breathtaking speed, relentlessly transforming the ways in which we consume information and entertainment.

The pace of change, it seems, only quickens: the smartphone replaces the cell phone; the tablet becomes the new laptop. And now we have the smartwatch, once a fanciful futuristic gadget on the wrist of a comic-strip detective, currently in a store near you.

The effects of these and numerous other advances continue to be both exciting and confounding. As digital upstarts provide an ever-expanding range of popular new content, the nation’s traditional mass media—newspapers, magazines, broadcasters, movie studios, book publishers—remain locked in a battle for their futures, even as they work feverishly to make the latest technology benefit them. For media professionals and novices alike, it truly is a brave new world in which the only thing certain is change itself.

Revolutions are often messy, and the digital revolution, in which creativity and boldness share the stage with disruption and disarray, has been no exception. Standards of probity and taste, accuracy and fairness, are in flux. No one really knows what new information order will emerge over time. In the balance lies nothing less than the question of whether our democracy’s vital information needs will be adequately met.

All of this ferment continues to have tremendous implications for COM and other communication colleges. It is, after all, their job to help society understand what is going on, to foster high standards and to train the next generation of media practitioners. If these schools are to remain relevant, if their graduates are to become the most talented and responsible leaders in their fields, they must change too, embracing the future while holding on to the valuable lessons of the past.

I’m happy to say that at COM there is keen recognition of this need. COM upholds traditional values while implementing meaningful and sensible change. Dean Tom Fiedler (’71), the faculty and staff are busily reforming the curriculum, encouraging innovation and expanding research. COM is creating endowed professorships and planning research centers. All the while, artificial walls between academic departments are coming down and top-notch students crave admission.

At the heart of COM’s change is recognition of the fact that the fields of journalism, film, television, advertising and public relations, once largely separate, are in many ways converging. These days, those who work in these fields use similar technology to create content, and they use similar systems, principally the Internet, to distribute it to their audiences. Given this reality, it’s essential that COM students know how to use the new digital tools and understand the ins and outs of reaching and building audiences. COM’s new Division of Emerging Media Studies is in the vanguard of addressing these needs, creating coursework in such areas as social media, website construction and data mining.

Of course, COM’s graduates must be more than technologically proficient; they must also have something to say, and they must be capable of creating content that informs, stimulates and enlightens. That is why the College’s continuing emphasis on teaching the liberal arts is so important: as in the past, it produces graduates who are well prepared to apply the wisdom of the ages to the matters of the moment.

As COM vigorously embraces change, it faces some big challenges.

As COM vigorously embraces change, it faces some big challenges, including the limitations of its facilities. Despite some improvements over the years, the COM plant remains woefully outdated, especially when compared to the cutting-edge facilities at many colleges with which COM competes for students. With its tired, Soviet-modern architecture and dated studios and labs, 640 Commonwealth Avenue badly needs a big upgrade; ideally, that means a state-of-the-art, new building.

COM’s alumni and friends can help tremendously in all this, not only through generosity in financial contributions (thank you!) but also through valuable and informed advice. Intelligent change benefits from numerous insights. So if you have thoughts on how COM can better adapt to all the new realities, don’t hesitate to share them. Drop a note to Dean Fiedler ( or me ( We promise that your ideas will find their way into the ongoing discussion of how COM can best move forward.

It’s axiomatic that change brings with it both promise and peril. Rest assured that COM is doing everything possible to avoid the pitfalls of change while meeting the promise of a future filled with relevance and great achievement.

Have you heard? BU is now a member of the prestigious Association of American Universities (AAU), an organization of 62 leading research universities in the United States and Canada. Only three other Boston-area universities—Harvard, MIT and Brandeis—are members.