In 1957, the Department of General Communication Arts was the first new department created in the College of Communication Arts & Sciences at Michigan State University, joining the pre-existing School of Journalism and Department of Speech. Gordon Sabine, then dean of the new college founded in 1955, served as interim chair of this new unit. The new unit changed its name to the Department of Communication in 1962.
The operational beginnings of the department included the partial services of one faculty member and the partial services of a secretary... The total budget was $7000. In 1958, the department enrolled six graduate students, one of whom had an assistantship. There was no undergraduate major, no undergraduate students, and no curriculum.
There were no precedents in 1957 for this type of department because there were no other departments of communication in higher education at that time that sought to be what the faculty here wanted to try as an institutional experiment: A social science, empirical research department that would focus on theory and research about communication processes and outcomes. The idea was that there may be generalizable truths about communication phenomena that at least to a degree held across different contexts, such as in interpersonal relationships, organizational settings, and mass communication, and that those general tendencies could be observed and learned from for building a science of communication. The intellectual leader and its first full-time chairperson was David K. Berlo, a new Ph.D. from the University of Illinois. His leadership, from 1960 until 1971, engendered the development of this program at MSU and through the progeny of the department, throughout the world. When Dr. Berlo left MSU, it was to become President of Illinois State University.
But for its first five years, the department had a simpler, more modest goal: To exist. It did so by acquiring young faculty with high potential - Hideya Kumata, Erwin Bettinghaus, Verling Troldahl, Jack Bain, Mal MacLean, Paul Deutschmann, and Gerald Miller, among others -by creating undergraduate service courses for students in other majors (COM 100), and an undergraduate major. In addition, the department began a 20-year association with what would become the United States Agency for International Development; the faculty designed and conducted hundreds of communication training seminars for foreign participants in U.S. technical assistance programs. Initial efforts also were directed at establishing an interdisciplinary Ph.D. program. Quickly, the department was establishing itself as a visible contributor to Michigan State's proud Land Grant mandate.
From its beginning, the department sought to examine symbolic behavior in all its forms - verbal and non-verbal, interpersonal and mass, small groups and large organizations, intra-cultural and cross- cultural. Coursework developed for undergraduates was matched with parallel courses for graduate students, with a consistent emphasis on a quantitative, behavioral science approach to research questions. This was never a skills department, per se; rather, graduates were to have mastery of communication concepts that they could then deploy across a range of as of yet unanticipated behavioral contexts, as the work demanded. Technology would continue to change and die, but mastery of conceptual knowledge, both basic and applied, would not.
The faculty mentored the graduate students, and the graduate students mentored each other. Occasionally, the graduate students mentored the faculty. The department established a unique, high-touch approach to doctoral education in which every Ph.D. student was apprenticed to a faculty member or two, and students and faculty worked hand in hand in teams. That practice continues today.
By 1968, one decade after its onset, the Department of Communication had graduated 60 Ph.D.s in communication and began to stock the faculties of other universities across the U.S. and the world. Large new cohorts of doctoral students entered the department. By the late 60s, the department could lay claim to 250 majors, state support of $400,000 and research grants totaling $200,000. Then, all the faculty and student majors from the Speech component of the Department of Speech and Theatre were transferred into the Department of Communication, increasing the faculty by 50% and the student majors four-fold.
The department also was branching out internationally, with diffusion of innovation projects in Brazil, India, Costa Rica, Nigeria, and Peru, as well as major funding from federal agencies to study contemporary communication issues, e.g., decision-making in jury trials, violence on television, advertising effects on children, communication among the urban poor. To better see the scope of ongoing changes and growth, by 1978, now 20 years into its existence, class enrollments had grown from fewer than 300 to more than 800, and undergraduate majors from 60 to nearly 500. From a handful of graduate students, there were now more than 100. And the department now had its first two female faculty members!
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the Department of Communication continued to undergo significant changes, as financial issues in higher education required most university units to re-allocate resources, find more outside funding and engage with more students, with fewer resources. Throughout these periods, innovative teaching methods and successful external grant proposals maintained the integrity of all the department's programs.
The Department of Communication has had dozens of young faculty who launched very impressive careers here: Don Cushman, Don Ellis, Judee Burgoon, Steve Wilson, Joe Woefel, Kathy Kellerman, Stacy Smith, Ed Fink - to name a few. They were individuals trained elsewhere who contributed strongly to the dynamic of change and evolution in the department.
No history of the department, however compact it might be, can fail to identify and honor three 'den mothers' - Shirley Sherman, Barbara Haslem and Ann Wooten - who functioned as department secretaries for periods longer than the chairs with whom they worked. This wonderful tradition of long service to the department by expert staff continues today with Marge Barkman and Debra (Tigner) Waters.
Department leadership has emerged consistently from among its own ranks. The first chair, David Berlo, was succeeded by an interim chair, Jack Bain, who had recently resigned as the College's Dean. Erwin Bettinghaus served as chair from 1972-1976 (subsequently serving as the Dean of CAS for 26 years), Bradley Greenberg (1977-1984), Gerald Miller (1985-92), David Johnson (1992-1997), Charles Atkin (1997- 2012) and now James Dearing (2013-present). All these chairs began their academic careers at MSU as assistant professors, save Dr. Johnson, who received his Ph.D. from the MSU program and later returned to its faculty. Atkin, Miller, and Greenberg all received MSU's highest research accolade as University Distinguished Professors.
One benchmark of the Department of Communication has been its penchant for change. About each decade, the undergraduate and graduate programs underwent major revisions to better serve the interests and needs of the students. This has made the department courses and degree programs viable and attractive throughout the university. A second has been the contributions of its faculty to research and scholarship. Recent assessments of the quality of the Department's offerings place it in the top five in study after study. The faculty remains among the most published faculty in the country.