Neurons to Nations

Posted on: May 19, 2017

Typically, the academic discipline of communication conjures up images of students preparing for careers in journalism, advertising, public relations, radio, television, film and cutting-edge areas in media and information, such as virtual reality.

At ComArtSci, we are committed to training students for careers in these professions through the wealth of experience that our faculty bring to the classroom.

At the same time, the quality of education and reputation of our college rests on the research of our faculty, who pursue research on a range of topics at different levels of analysis, which lends credence to the claim, “from neurons to nations, we study communications.”

In the last few weeks, three major research projects by our faculty reinforce the neurons to nations theme.

In a publication in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a highly prestigious journal, Ralf Schmäelzle and his research team used fMRI to examine activation patterns in the brain to study social isolation and its relationship to social networks on Facebook.

By relying on activations in collections of neurons, they reported that those with sparse Facebook networks respond to social isolation differently than those with richer Facebook networks. That’s pretty cool science.

In another study, conducted in seven countries, with over 14,000 respondents, Bill Dutton and his team examined the role of computer search algorithms on the diversity of political information.

In this cross-national study, they tested the conventional wisdom about fake news, filter bubbles and echo chambers, topics that have come to dominate our discussions about politics in the United States and around the world.

Though between-country differences were evident, they found that the alarm over fake news and filter bubbles is overblown. Their findings indicate that netizens are smart and active consumers of information and can tell the difference between fact and fiction.

Another notable research accomplishment is Kami Silk’s grant, that focuses on human interactions. This line of research falls between neurons and nations and can be categorized as individual-level analysis.

Through a grant from the National Institute of Health, Kami and her team will develop continuing education modules to train pediatricians to engage in discussions with adolescents about breast cancer risk.

These three research projects offer a glimpse of ComArtSci’s research agenda that spans from neurons to nations. Communication is a rich phenomenon that touches all aspects of life. To fully appreciate its nuances and effects, faculty in our college engage different theories, methods and research tools at different levels of analysis.

Hence, neurons to nations is not just a slogan. It is an apt description of how we do communication science in ComArtSci.

By Prabu David

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In the Moment

Posted on: April 18, 2017

As we come to the close of this academic year, it is time to pause and reflect on this year of “new faces and new spaces.” We end the year having added 36 new faculty over a span of 18 months and a sparkling new media center that nurtures the birth of new ideas every day. It is indeed a greenhouse where ideas sprout and take a life of their own.

It is important to remember that new ideas sprout from seeds, many of which were sown by professors like Bob Albers and Darcy Greene, who will retire this year. Bob is a legendary figure among our broadcasting students. Three decades ago, he was given a difficult challenge of creating a broadcasting program with limited resources. Like the engine that chanted “I think I can,” he has mentored generations of broadcasting students. At a recent alumni event in Los Angeles, I was touched by the genuine outpouring of goodwill from those who have benefitted from his mentorship and gone on to successful careers.

Bob is also one of the architects of the Media Sandbox, a signature program in our college. Bob’s definition of the Sandbox as a curriculum and creative community has stuck with me. And the new faces and spaces in our college are a manifestation of this creative community he envisioned. Generations of undergraduate students with a yen for making movies will remember Bob through the Albie awards that were created in his honor.

Darcy Greene was one of the first professors in the college to teach interactive media. From designing websites to e-books, Darcy’s skills evolved with changes in technology, media and journalism. Although she has won numerous awards for her photography and design, she prides herself on the awards her students have won and her face lit up when we talked about her students who have gone on to stellar careers. Darcy will be recognized this year with a lifetime achievement award from the Society for Newspaper Design.

In Bob and Darcy, we find the inspiration, values, intellect and dedication required to build something new. They have served as pillars of broadcasting and visual communication in the college and their legacy has now evolved into the Media Sandbox.

Bob likes to day, "The Sandbox is both curriculum and creative community." My hope is that the Sandbox is a space that fosters creativity, community and collaboration in the media arts, where work is play.

Too often these days, we worry about results and awards. In doing so, we lose the joy of the process - the process of creating and the process of teaching. When focused obsessively on outcomes, we become oblivious to moments of “being in the zone” and finding joy in everyday experiences.

Bob and Darcy can retire with satisfaction, knowing that they have instilled in their students and colleagues the notion that the journey is as important as the destination. There is more joy in the process than in the reward. Let’s be intentional about enjoying the process because work is play.

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Celebrating Communication Arts and Sciences Through Water

Posted on: March 22, 2017

In recognition of World Water Day (March 22, 2017), this month’s blog focuses on water.

One of the strengths of ComArtSci is our focus on both communication arts and sciences. Long before STEAM, the integration of Arts (A) into traditional STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) areas, came into vogue, our college has been a leader in the fusion of arts and sciences. Recently, I was asked to co-lead an initiative on campus to celebrate MSU’s leadership in water research. This initiative, titled Water Moves, was intended to incorporate the arts with the science of water to effect better stewardship.

ComArtSci has sponsored a number of projects to promote the arts and science of water, including The Great Lakes Echo, a publication produced by the Knight Center for Environmental Journalism, an event at the MSU Museum displaying photography by Camille Seaman of melting ice and shrinking habitats in the arctic and antarctic, and water games produced by Elizabeth Lapansée, Ph.D., assistant professor in both ComArtSci and the College of Arts and Letters.

Growing up in India, I experienced the scarcity of water during my childhood and teen years. Monsoons were irregular, as they still are, and insufficient rains in the catchment areas led to frequent droughts.

I remember having to get up early to stand in line for water that was delivered in a truck. The water truck would arrive before the crack of dawn and each person in line was given two pots of water. To make sure that the water did not run out before our turn, sometimes my parents and I would get in line by 4 a.m. With plastic and metal pots and buckets, we would push and shove and jockey for position in the line, which led to fights. The futility of such pettiness only reinforced the art of waiting patiently for water.

About a five-minute walk from this morning pandemonium was a serene beach, where the waves from the Bay of Bengal would rise and fall. Against the rising sun in the east, the shimmering ocean was dotted by fishermen in their small boats. The irony was not lost on us that we were a stone’s throw from an ocean of water that was utterly useless. Desalination was dismissed as an option because it was far too expensive.

Held hostage by the drought, people of the city would turn to the heavens to implore their Gods for mercy. Christians would hold fasting prayers, Hindus would hold special ceremonies and vigils and scientists would try cloud seeding. But nothing excited the heavens as the drought dragged on.

So it went every year, our fate in the hands of the capricious monsoon rains, which could be stingy one year, generous the other and downright violent sometimes. When the rains came, it was near delirium and we would play in the water until we could take it no more. It would pour in torrents and overburden the drains that were no match for the deluge. And the monsoons would whip up cyclones, which would bring days of nonstop rain and bruising winds that would knock out power.

We would huddle around a battery-operated transistor radio, listening to weather reports. Low lying areas would flood and the poor, particularly the fishermen who lived near the ocean in huts and shanties, would lose their homes to the surging waters. Joy would eventually give way to misery, as we braced for malaria and cholera.

When I moved to the United States, I was struck by the quality and abundance of water. We don’t realize that drinking water right from a faucet or taking a long shower is a luxury that is not available to a large portion of the world’s population. We take water for granted. I confess, I am as guilty as the next person for not being a good steward of water.

To make a difference, we need both the sciences and the arts. I believe the science of water is far more advanced than the human will to act upon the scientific knowledge. Water Moves MSU is an attempt to animate scientific knowledge into human behaviors of environmental stewardship. And what can move us more than music, art, dance, drama or eloquent words? Join us as we embark on this movement of water at MSU.

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American Dream

Posted on: February 15, 2017

Over the last few weeks, I have heard from students and faculty who have expressed concern about President Trump’s executive order on immigration. Anxiety is high among students from Muslim countries who fear that they might be deported or not allowed to return if they leave the United States. They also worry about the effects of the travel ban on family and friends who were ever so close to their American dream, but now barred from entering the United States. 

The American dream animates not just our nation, but people from many nations. It fans the flame of audacious hope among young men and women from around the world who somehow believe that they can land at JFK with a backpack and a suitcase and can become a part of the American dream even though they are foreigners. Current CEOs of Microsoft, Google, Adobe and PepsiCo are only a few examples of those who came to the U.S. as graduate students and realized their American dream.

I was one of these dreamers, roughly 30 years ago, who was fortunate enough to enter the United States and experience the welcoming hospitality and generosity of American friends, mentors and colleagues. Though an immigrant citizen, I now consider the U.S. my home and I am proud of it.

To me, the American dream is more than aspirations of upward mobility or a better economic future. It is entrenched in the ethos and ideals of democracy, openness and the egalitarian and humanistic ideal that all individuals are equal. In addition, values such as decency, compassion, hard work, due process, rule of law, unbounded optimism and an indomitable can-do spirit make us the beacon of hope and the city on a hill for people around the world. The soft power of our country lies in these immutable values that are no match for any arsenal.

I empathize with the refugees and dreamers who have waited many years to experience the American Dream. I empathize with our own disaffected citizens for whom the American Dream has been elusive. And I see the potential threat of terrorism that cannot be ignored. But we should be careful not to conflate these emotions and jump to conclusions of cause and effect.

I don’t have an answer. But I know it is important to resist the reflex to batten down the hatches because it will snuff out the flame of freedom in the hearts and minds of the citizens of the world.

I assure you that we remain committed to an environment of inclusion, mutual understanding, cultural openness and free expression. If you know of a member of our community who has been affected by these developments, I am available to listen and help. Further, we have developed a ComArtSci resource page on this topic that I encourage you to check from time to time.

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New Online M.A. in Strategic Communication is an Example of Spartans Will

Posted on: January 9, 2017

On a cold winter morning, roughly two years ago, the leadership team in the college discussed the possibility of an online master’s degree in strategic communication and there was a sense that we could pull it off.

There was room for well-intentioned caution as well. Faculty in our college have looked askance at online programs because of concerns about quality. Can we offer a quality program that is fully online? And do we have the bandwidth to add a new program given our current commitments to our undergraduate and graduate students?

After careful thought and deliberation, our faculty and staff, with valuable suggestions from alumni, have pulled off a remarkable feat. In less than two years, whiteboard drawings on a cold January morning have come to life as a full-fledged degree program with 20 students enrolled in classes. Spartans Will.

5 Reasons for Our Online M.A. in Strategic Communication

A golden era for communication. We live in a time that would easily qualify as a special moment in history for the discipline of communication. Every dawn brings new breakthroughs and innovations in communication technology. Keeping up with these changes can be bewildering. Natural curiosity combined with lifelong learning is the only way to keep pace. Our new M.A. program will spark new interests and offer the scaffolding for lifelong learners. At the same time, students will acquire new digital skills that can be put to immediate use on the job.

Nothing more practical than a good theory. ComArtSci is home to world-class researchers and experts who examine various facets of media and communication. From neurons to nations, our faculty generate new knowledge on mobile and social media, human-computer interaction, social influence, public relations and advertising, health, risk, science and environmental communication, computational communication and virtual reality. The new Strategic Communication M.A. is a vehicle to translate research in these areas into actionable insights that offer a competitive edge for working professionals. Such translational efforts that benefit students and citizens are at the heart of MSU’s land-grant mission.

T-shaped curriculum. Our T-shaped curriculum offers the right balance of breadth and depth. Depth is essential for success in today’s highly technical and specialized communication careers. But breadth is an equally important dimension. Studies show that soft skills, such as critical thinking, social and emotional intelligence, active listening, effective communication, and ability to collaborate are essential for success. Our curriculum offers the best of both worlds.

Learning through peer interactions. Best practices in executive education emphasize the importance of peer learning. When working in groups, students bring their unique knowledge and work experiences to bear on course content. This constructivist approach allows for a robust exchange of ideas and peer-to-peer learning and networking.

Enduring values and self-reflection. It is often said that communication is power. With power comes responsibility. In our busy professional lives, rarely do we have the time to reflect on the unintended effects of our work. We work at a frenetic pace, almost instinctively from muscle memory. An important objective of our program is to force busy professionals to use the pause button to make time for self-reflection. We need to think about what we do and why we do it. Through this program, we hope to offer a transformative experience by integrating sound values with new skills, theories and principles.

Many individuals contributed to the launch of this program. I would like to highlight a few who played an instrumental role -- Kami Silk, John Sherry, Bree Holtz, Valeta Wensloff, Keesa Johnson, our faculty who stepped up to create and teach the classes under tight deadlines, and our students who placed their trust in us. Special thanks to Jason Archer, director of the program, for his leadership and relentless optimism.

Learn more about the program
To learn more about the program, sign up for a webinar and apply, visit

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Bring Joy to the World Through the Gift of Listening

Posted on: December 13, 2016

When the ComArtSci communications team informed me that the theme of this year’s holiday greeting was Joy to the World, I gave it an enthusiastic thumbs-up. Then when they asked me to explain how I had brought joy to the world, I had to scratch my head. I said I would get back to them.

For the last few days, I have been doing some soul searching to come up with an honest answer. Sure, I have done a few things here and there, but can I really say I have brought joy to anyone, let alone joy to the world?

As I began to create a list of activities, I was struck by how short it was. I had made some financial contributions, recognized the success of colleagues via social media and said some nice things in person or via email.

When I analyzed these activities closely, I was encouraged by the fact that most involved some form communication. But I am embarrassed to admit that most of my actions were perfunctory and lacking in conviction. I am further humbled by the realization that my actions involved communication from me to others. There was very little of the complementary part of communication, listening actively to what others had to say.

After this exercise, I have come to realize that I speak more than I listen. I have been too focused on saying the right thing, at the right time, to the right person, in the right context, for the right effect or benefit. And in the hustle bustle of life, I have lost sight of the importance of listening carefully and empathically.

So this season, instead of ordering gifts from Amazon, I am going to make an effort to reach out and listen. I am going to Skype, make calls and create new opportunities for listening. And the rest of the year, I plan to take at least one person a week to coffee or lunch to practice the fine art of active listening and conversation. Just myself with another fellow human and without fiddling with my phone.

I have placed far too much importance on being heard than hearing the voice of others. It is about time to double down on listening. Listen carefully. This holiday season, listen joyfully to others.

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Opening Doors to Experiential Learning

Posted on: November 1, 2016

The next time you visit the ComArtSci building, I hope you will find your way to the new media center on the first floor. You will be impressed by what you see -- an open newsroom with glass walls joined symbolically and physically to a game design studio with a motion capture cube. This is the largest capital investment in the college’s history, which was set in motion by a
transformative gift by John Gruner in memory of Mary Gardner, a professor who had a profound impact on his life some four decades ago.

To go with the values and ethics taught in the classroom, students now have access to a cutting-edge newsroom to practice and hone their craft. With the push of a button, robotic cameras can live stream news via the internet. Audio, video, graphics and text can be stitched together to tell rich media stories. Real time audience engagement can be captured through social media analytics.

On November 8th, our students will integrate all of these options to offer live coverage of the election results from the new newsroom. Titled MI First Election, coverage will focus on first-time voters, including those just old enough to vote and new immigrant citizens who can vote for the first time.

I remember when I became an immigrant citizen of the United States and pledged allegiance about 15 years ago. An octogenarian judge presided over the ceremony. I don’t remember all the details, but I remember his core message that it is a privilege to be an American and that each citizen is special and unique and it is our responsibility to vote. Whatever misgivings we have about this election cycle or about the role of journalism, we cannot ignore the obvious.

Our democracy is still the envy of the world. And what started as a bold experiment in democracy will always remain a work in progress. America is great not because of the cynicism, negativity and pettiness that is on parade every election cycle. America is great because of attributes like compassion, kindness and generosity that make up the fabric of our democracy.

elevatorJohn’s gift opens the door for students in journalism to experience, reflect and report on what it means to participate in an election for the first time and how the ritual we participate in every four years is an integral part of the American experience.

We would like to offer more such opportunities for experiential learning. So, on Giving Tuesday, I hope you will join me in making a donation to a fund that supports experiential learning for ComArtSci students. Just last week I heard from Leland Bassett who made a generous contribution, affirming his belief in our college. I hope you would join John, Leland and many others in supporting us. Also, I look forward to hearing from our alumni about other ideas for engaging with our college. You are welcome to email me at

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A Teacher's Kindness and a Student's Gratitude

Posted on: October 17, 2016


Almost a year ago, in the midst of the excitement of fall football, with the campus at the peak of its countenance, I met John Gruner. John was gaunt. His clothes hung loosely on a frame that had lost much of its muscle to cancer, significantly altering and slowing his gait. He wore a necktie printed with dollar bills that seemed like a gag gift from a holiday gift exchange. His eyes shone brightly behind large horn-rimmed, soda-bottle glasses. He was excited to meet the dean of his college, he told me, a college that had launched his career more than 40 years ago. He also proudly announced that the dollar-bill tie was a sign that he was ready to make a planned gift to the college.

Trajan Dubiel, development officer in the college, and I took John to lunch. He talked about his health and the various treatments he had endured. He reminisced about his travels, talked excitedly about sports teams from his hometown of Cleveland and about MSU football and basketball. But it was his experiences as a student at MSU that he recounted with great delight.

After graduating from MSU, John worked on small newspapers. He then joined the Cleveland Plain Dealer where he was an editor for more than three decades. Being single and frugal, he saved much of his income. And when his brother died, John inherited his estate and ended up with sizeable assets.

At the root of John’s allegiance to his alma mater is his affection for one of his professors, Mary Gardner. Much like all of us, John arrived on campus with a hope and a dream and unsure of his future. He went through the motions, taking classes and doing what students do, until he arrived at Professor Gardner’s advanced reporting class.

Professor Gardner is a mythological figure among journalism alumni. A legion of students talk proudly about the battle scars from her class. They groan at the mention of her name, yet in the same breath concede that her course, more than any other, was most beneficial to their careers. By the end of the conversation, they express fond gratitude for her dedication to her craft and the success of her students.

Gardner was the quintessential writing instructor from a bygone era. She was demanding and tough, frugal with grades and routinely flunked students on assignments for misspelling a proper name. But above all, she was dedicated to her cause and her students. Three rewrites of each part of a four-part series was the norm, and each version was returned with detailed edits and references to previous versions. She also would not tolerate absence from class or tardiness.

One day, after a long overnight shift on election night at the State News, John arrived late for Gardner’s class. He was mortified and came prepared to bear the punishment that was in store. To his surprise she let him off easy. This simple act of kindness had a profound impact and to this day John recalls that incident in great detail. By the end of the semester, John had a 3.5 out of 4.0 in Gardner’s class, which he considers one of his major accomplishments.

More than four decades later, here was John ready to make an endowment in Mary Gardner’s name.


John Gruner with Trajan Dubiel in front of the Newsroom while still in construction

Though John is the protagonist in this story, Trajan’s role cannot be underestimated. He had encountered John at a brunch and cultivated a friendship that was not transactional. Trajan had no idea of John’s intentions to give or his potential capacity.

A year later, as we prepared for our lunch meeting, Trajan cued me in that John was ready to document a gift in Mary Gardner’s honor. The timing couldn’t have been more perfect. We had dreams of building a state-of-the-art newsroom and we pitched to John the possibility of naming some section of it after Gardner and he sprung for it.

With John’s investment as seed funding, we were able to leverage other resources to fund the project. This summer, Trajan and I visited John in Cleveland to thank him. With great zeal and joy, he took us on a tour of his city. He seemed to know every restaurant, street, and short-cut.

Though the roads he traveled were in Cleveland, his heart was very much green and white. His 1998 Toyota Corolla with more than 250,000 miles proclaimed his allegiance. “My only concession to vanity is my GO MSU plate,” he said with a grin.

John is doing well for now. His treatments have been successful. His razor-sharp memory has not diminished and he can recount the granular details of many events in his life. He completes every sentence, each beautifully formed and delivered in rapid succession as he flits from one thought to the next, all of them stitched together as a rich mosaic, representing a life well lived, without fanfare, without grudges, but with gratitude.

Two weeks ago, Trajan and I met with John at the pre-game brunch he attends every year. When we showed him the newsroom he had helped fund, his face lit up with joy. The pupil had finally made good to his teacher who didn’t take him to task on the day he was tardy for class.

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Catalysts of Communication

Posted on: September 20, 2016

ComArtSci's new lab will create future generations of communication catalysts.

Last year, when collecting ideas for our strategic plan, I asked if there was one word that captured the essence of who we are and what we want to be. After various discussions and deliberations, we settled on catalyst.

Typically, the word catalyst is used as a synonym for an agent that accelerates change. But this propulsive, dynamic characterization of a catalyst captures only one of its two essential characteristics. The other characteristic is that, despite all the changes it stokes, the catalyst itself remains intact in its chemical form. 

On first pass, focusing on the permanence or constancy of a catalyst may seem counterintuitive given the inevitability of change in communication technologies and its effects of human communication.

Upon reflection, the importance of constancy began to emerge. We are the first college of communication. Over the years, we have contributed values, insights, theories, principles, and models that have stood the test of time and shaped the discipline. That cannot change.

So our catalyst culture is a blend of constants and changes, and our desire for change should be balanced with our our drive for contributions of enduring impact. The change and constancy that make up a catalyst are evident in community, curriculum, and creativity that are the pillars of our college.

The soul of our college is our community, which is a mosaic of the current and the future. The addition of 30 new faculty is an indicator of change and progress. The accomplishments of our current faculty who have created a top-10 program is an example of the constancy of excellence that has been forged over many decades.

At the heart of our college is our teaching mission and curriculum. We have made numerous changes last year, including a massive curriculum revision in Media and Information. We added new minors in animation and comics, and communicative sciences and disorders. Revisions in Ad+PR and Communication are on the way.

A catalyst’s approach is manifest in our modular curriculum designs that include constants and variables. The constants are our core courses that introduce values, principles, and enduring knowledge that hold up over time and across contexts. The variables are new courses or clusters that offer timely skills that make our students competitive in the marketplace.

There are a number of ways to be a catalyst. I like to fancy ourselves as being creative catalysts. Creativity blossoms with placemaking, which is the intentional use of space to help a community achieve its fullest potential.

You will see a catalyst’s approach in the design of the new lab on the ground floor. We have left some of the brick walls that have served us well to remind us of our roots and the constancy of our rich heritage of excellence. We have torn down some walls and replaced it with glass for a clearer vision of the future. 

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A Time for Reflection and Looking Forward

Posted on: December 10, 2015

Prabu DavidAt a recent staff meeting, our staff teased me for my penchant for the number five when I listed five items on my agenda. I seem to have become fixated with the number five. They have a point. It should come as no surprise, then, that we started off this year with five goals. Here’s a quick update.

Adding 25 new faculty. With retirements, faculty transitions and good stewardship of resources by the college leadership team, we were able to announce 15 open tenure-track lines. This is quite remarkable. Most universities have approximately 15 tenure-track lines, period. We are in a position to add 15 more to our roster. Various offers have been made and we are making good progress with these searches.

That’s not all. In keeping with our commitment to the arts, we will be adding 10 professors of practice, to teach skills, such as multiplatform journalism, advertising, game design, audio and video production.

I believe we already have the best collection of faculty in the discipline. Twenty-five new faculty will make us even better.

Currently, we are ranked sixth in the world by QS. Much like our Spartan football and basketball teams who will settle for nothing less than a national championship, we will strive to become the best in our field. And that is a very realistic goal.

Online M.A. program. In Fall 2016, we will launch an online M.A. program in Strategic Communication aimed at working professionals. With the reputation of our college, talented faculty and vast alumni base, we have an opportunity to offer career-enhancing training to communication professionals. I am happy to report that our faculty have created a rich curriculum that is ready for launch in the fall. Surprisingly, in the state of Michigan, options for an online M.A. in strategic communication are limited. Our online M.A. program will fill this gap.

Foundational Sandbox Curriculum. Our students excel in content creation and media design and win numerous awards based on training they receive in our current Sandbox curriculum. Our faculty have consolidated courses to create a more rigorous, cohesive and creative foundational curriculum in content creation, storytelling, illustration, animation and game design that will be ready for launch in Fall 2016. This curriculum will be available to all students in our college and eventually to all students at MSU.

Media Center. To enrich student experience, we are designing an innovative space for instruction in new media. One half of this space will house a live newsroom with integrated social media feeds and a studio with livestreaming of audio and video. The other half is a creative space for instruction and creation of media arts, including motion capture and game design. Through the proximity of these spaces and specialized courses, we hope to spark creativity, innovation and entrepreneurship as well synergies between multiplatform journalism and the media arts.

Capital Campaign. To accomplish the above goals, we need your financial support. I am happy to report that our development team has been on a mission and with your support we have reached the 66% mark of our campaign goal of $18.5 million.

We can take pride in the progress toward these goals. But we can never forget that our primary asset is our faculty and staff. They turn students into successes. During this holiday season, I wish you the very best. Through your support and the support of our alumni and friends, I have grown much this year. May you have a joyous holiday season that is brightened by the glisten of green and white!

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