Q&A with Dean Will Norton: Teaching the Next Generation of Journalists

Will Norton (right) and Associate Dean Charlie Mitchell attend the 2011 Meek School graduation ceremony.

As dean of the Meek School of Journalism and New Media, Will Norton, Jr., provides an environment intended to help University of Mississippi students excel in the “real world.” HottyToddy’s Steve Vassallo caught up with the Dean to discuss the Meek School’s upcoming spring semester and recent accomplishments.

HottyToddy.com: What motivated you to leave a successful career in the private sector to enter university life?

Norton: I am not sure how successful I was in the media world, but I was employed in truly exceptional positions for a young man, and I had outstanding mentors. I did not plan my life, nor did I consciously move into the teaching profession. I merely pursued an education, and when I completed my education, there were opportunities that I found intriguing.  

HottyToddy.com: How have you brought your private-sector experience into the classroom?

Norton: I am not sure that I am bringing my experience to the classroom. However, we are hiring folks from the professional world to teach students what they need to know. I am impressed with the knowledge and the sophistication of the Meek School faculty.

HottyToddy.com: The entire faculty can be proud of the Meek School’s growing reputation. Can you point to a couple of professors who are contributing to this success?

Norton: If I named only a few faculty, I might be hung before sundown. However, I can say that I am impressed with the faculty because they have come to the Meek School with significant experience in a variety of venues, not all from media, and made students their priority. We have persons who do not think about their publication records. They focus on their students. They take long hours with them, teaching them outside the classroom. These often are teachers who never try to let me know how much they are doing. It is the students who tell me how great a particular faculty member is and how much they appreciate him or her, and they usually will give me a series of specific incidents in which that faculty person made a difference for them.

Meek School Dean Will Norton socializes with some big names in journalism, including Larry King and longtime UPI reporter Wes Pippert.

What is so impressive about these faculty is that they don’t talk about themselves. They always are talking about their students. That kind of faculty make it easy for a dean to raise money because the parents are appreciative, the students become alumni, the professions hire those graduates, and a good education results in private donations to the school. We have a good number of faculty who are going to be well-known because of their devotion to the professional advancement of our students.

Let me explain a little more: I graduated from a small, Christian liberal arts college. The focus was on the liberal arts, and that included intense instruction and feedback on writing, speaking and the liberal arts (as defined by the Greeks). Yet those professors spent countless hours with me outside the classroom on practical projects and everyday problems. In other words, in many ways I did not just receive a liberal arts education. I received an education like that from a land-grant institution. When Abraham Lincoln signed the Morrill Act of 1862, the United States committed itself to teaching students how to thrive after graduation. That is the kind of education we want for Meek School students: a healthy combination of land-grant and liberal arts.

HottyToddy.com: How is the Meek School incorporating new technologies into its curriculum?

Norton: When a school develops, many areas have to be covered. Our creation was complicated by the fact that the Meek School was created during a revolution in media.

The great journalism programs emphasize quality speaking, quality writing and quality presentation, no matter what the technology. As our school was developing, we needed to focus on these areas and try to cover the seemingly daily advances in technology as we could afford it. That is difficult to do when your school is increasing in enrollment and budget increases trail those enrollment increases. Moreover, public institutions do not have depreciation as a budget element. However, we are making progress.

I can say this because I visit many schools each year, and I find very few that are better in the technological area than the Meek School. This does not mean that we are where we want to be or should be. However, we are making good progress. What has been so helpful is the major donation of Becky and Ed Meek. Indeed, we would not be a school today if it were not for Becky and Ed.

Will Norton poses for a photo with former Nebraska Secretary of State Allen Beermann and billionaire investor Warren Buffett.

HottyToddy.com: How does the Meek School help its graduating seniors find employment?

Norton: We wish we had one person who could devote his entire time to placement, but we have to focus on hiring faculty to teach. Thus, each faculty member has a responsibility to work with students to help them get placed. More importantly, Ole Miss students know how to network, and most of them get good jobs with very little help from the school.

We try to facilitate job placement by bringing top professionals to the campus. These professionals meet and correspond with our students and help them in job placement.

What will help us in this area is private donations. I recently chaired an accreditation visit of a prominent southern state university. The Meek School has two office staff members. That school has fewer students, but it has 15 staff members.

The way to advance in a state like Mississippi (that has so many needs) is through the kindness of alumni and friends who are grateful for the education they received and for the advances of the Meek School and want to express their gratitude through financial support. That is what Becky and Ed Meek did.

HottyToddy.com: Let’s say a parent wants their child to be a reporter for Fox News at some point after graduating from Ole Miss. What advice could you provide the family?

Norton: Don’t set your heart on one medium or one geographical location. Pursue all feasible possibilities. One result will clearly be the best, and you must be committed to that result. Over time, you may be hired where you originally wanted to be, but you probably will find fulfillment in many places as experience changes your perspective.

HottyToddy.com: Name a few of the professions for which the Meek School is preparing our students.

Norton: We suggest all sorts of media positions that we hope students will pursue, but increasingly we believe that, particularly if a student has a double major, the ability to speak well and to write clearly will result in a host of opportunities beyond media.

Our view is that the mark of an educated person is the ability to speak and write with clarity and to be able to listen carefully and be persuasive when necessary. Thus, we are not merely preparing media professionals. If a graduate masters those skills and has a strong liberal arts background, the possibilities seem endless to us.

Norton speaks at an event at the DACOR Bacon House in Washington, D.C.

HottyToddy.com: Your travels have exposed you to many recent trends and technologies. Care to mention one or two?

Norton: I will cite a few trends that I have observed:

1. We all know that our world is becoming more complex, but the complexities have been exacerbated because public debate does not seem to be based on a commitment to facts. 

2. Universities are continually being criticized for being liberal or in some cases conservative. Some may take a point of view, but faculties at good universities present both sides of issues and allow students to come to their own conclusions in order to allow dialogue that will advance state and national policies as well as the sciences, social sciences and humanities. However, dialogue now seems to be portrayed as evil. Nonetheless, universities have to be committed to presenting all relevant perspectives.

3. We also have noted that many of our leaders do not want to listen to those who have different opinions or who are not supporting them with large amounts of money. Such behavior seems to be defensive rather than an expression of confidence that allows another point of view to be expressed.

4. We find the computer is doing things that humans cannot do as well, and automation is taking jobs.

5. We have to be thinking outside the box about how to prepare students for jobs that do not yet exist, and we as a university have to work intensely to develop centers to create jobs in our state. It does not seem that governmental policy makers know how to do that. They fund entities, but those organizations do not seem to have the energy to overcome obstacles, and we will have to develop private funding for startup companies to enable bright young graduates to create jobs.

HottyToddy.com: If there is one elective course that journalism students should not avoid, what would it be and why?

Norton: I would not want to select one of the many “not-to-avoid” classes in the Meek School. I am a big believer in Speaker’s Edge, a course that teaches students how to make quality presentations. It is in the Department of Writing and Rhetoric. The instructor is JoAnn Edwards. She creates a format for each section of the class that is related to the needs of students who take the class. She is an amazing faculty member and is committed to advancing students to new levels.

HottyToddy.com: The Meek School is definitely not resting on its laurels. Share with us a “something new” for Spring 2018.

Norton: Our faculty is having workshops this semester to see what we need to keep or change in our curriculum to stay up-to-date on technology issues while maintaining traditional values. We are talking about how we can help each other focus on advancing our students and on helping our community, our state and our nation enhance its commitment to the pursuit of happiness for the citizens of our state.

Our campaigns classes in Integrated Marketing Communications are devoted to that, and our reporting and depth reporting classes focus on that each semester. We believe dialogue results in improved public policy and improved corporate performance.

HottyToddy.com: What is Will Norton’s definition of success?

Norton: The Wisdom Writing of the Book of Ecclesiastes makes clear what success is. It would be foolish for me to try to outdo the author of that Book. It is clear that it is not fame, expertise, fortune, etc. It has to do with servanthood. However, that is not a popular idea in a culture that tends to emphasize “me-first” and “my rights.”

I hope Meek School students are watching our faculty at work and deciding that servanthood brings the kind of satisfaction that “me-first” cannot. I have kept up with many of our alumni, and they mean a great deal to me because that is the kind of persons they have become, and they make me continually evaluate myself to eliminate self-centeredness. Thank God for students.

Steve VassalloSteve Vassallo is a HottyToddy.com contributor. Steve writes on Ole Miss athletics, Oxford business, politics and other subjects. He is an Ole Miss grad and former radio announcer for the basketball team. Currently, Steve is a highly successful leader in the real estate business who lives in Oxford with his wife Rosie. You can contact Steve at sovassallo@gmail.com or call him at 985-852-7745.

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