The Department of Communication at Michigan State University as a Seed Institution for Communication Study

Article excerpt

The present essay explores the history of the Department of Communication at Michigan State University (MSU) as a seed institution, defined as an organization that plays a dominant role in a new scholarly field by shaping intellectual directions for theory and research. From the date of its establishment in 1958, for the next 15 years, when David K. Berlo left the Department that he had founded, the MSU Department produced more doctorates in communication (N = 122) than any other university department in the United States (through 2000, this number grew to 276). These MSU graduates then joined the faculties of communication departments in North American and foreign universities. They had been trained in quantitative research methods and in a distinctive vision of communication study, one that originated with Wilbur Schramm, a founder of the field of communication study, and that was implemented and modified by several of his former graduate students, including David K. Berlo, at MSU.

Like the Department of Sociology at the University of Chicago from 1915 to 1935 (the so-called "Chicago School"), with which certain comparisons will be made here, the MSU Department developed a distinctive approach to its field, and helped institutionalize the name "communication," a singular noun without modifying adjectives. The MSU faculty formed a community of scholars who wrote important books that helped define the new field, launched several new specialty sub-fields of communication study, and trained many of the early generation of communication scholars. Unlike the Chicago School, however, about which over 1,000 books and articles have been published (Rogers, 1994), almost nothing has been written about the MSU Department of Communication.

One scholarly approach to understanding the process through which a new academic field/discipline develops is to focus on the founders and forefathers (2) who launch the new scholarly enterprise (see, for example, Rogers, 1994). Such key individuals create a new scholarly field within an institutional environment. University structures are notably resistant to innovation; they are reluctant to provide the budgetary and other organizational support for a new academic unit. Relatively few new scholarly fields have been created in U.S. universities in the past century, since the five traditional social sciences (anthropology, economics, political science, psychology, and sociology) were institutionalized around 1900 (Rogers, 1994). How then was the new field of communication study, now taught in departments of communication at some 2,000 North American universities, and perhaps at least an equal number in other nations, born?


The MSU Department of Communication was the first, and perhaps the best, representation of Wilbur Schramm's vision of communication study. Strangely, for the student who wanted to study communication (rather than speech communication, or mass communication, or journalism and mass communication, or telecommunications, or communication-with-some-other-specific-adjective), Michigan State University was essentially the only choice in the early years of communication study. Small matter that the Department was officially called "General Communication Arts" until 1964, shortly before the present author joined its faculty. Never mind that Wilbur Schramm's department at Stanford University, which enjoyed its golden era under his academic leadership from 1955 to 1973, was named the "Department of Communication" (it was more accurately a department of mass communication). All doctoral programs in the field of communication study prior to Michigan State's were grafted onto a previously-existing academic structure, either (1) a school or department of journalism, as at the University of Iowa in 1943, at the University of Illinois in 1947, and at Stanford in 1955, Wilbur Schramm's three stops on his way to eventual retirement in Honolulu, or (2) a department of speech, several of which already had a doctoral program in rhetoric before Schramm's vision of communication study emerged in 1943, which later became a "speech communication" department by increasingly emphasizing a social science approach to communication study. …