Retiring MU journalism dean leaves legacy of leadership, innovation

Thursday, February 6, 2014 | 9:22 p.m. CST; updated 8:52 a.m. CST, Friday, February 7, 2014
Dean Mills, dean of the Missouri School of Journalism, talks with colleagues after the Reynolds Journalism Institute groundbreaking.

COLUMBIA — When Dean Mills landed the opportunity to serve as dean of the Missouri School of Journalism in 1989, he expected he'd step down in five or six years.

He ended up staying for 25.

Mills, 71, announced his retirement Thursday morning, effective Aug. 31. He is currently the longest-serving dean at the university, according to information from the MU News Bureau.

After he retires, Mills will work part time as director of the Reynolds Fellows program at the school's Reynolds Journalism Institute. The institute gives fellowships each year to journalists and scholars developing new approaches to journalism.

"They work on projects involving research on the future of journalism, and that's certainly an area I'm interested in," Mills said.

He said he thought the time was right for a new dean as MU changes its leadership in Jesse Hall.

"It just seemed to make sense to do this now so that a new dean will have a chance to build those relationships," Mills said in an interview. "It's time for a change."

Among Mills' accomplishments during his time as dean was the establishment of the Reynolds Journalism Institute in 2008, a large research and development center for journalists.

He also served as dean during the launch of online versions of KOMU, KBIA, the Columbia Missourian and Vox Magazine. Mills is publisher of the Missourian, which includes Vox.

MU’s first online master’s degree program was also established under his command.

Mills earned a bachelor's degree in Russian and journalism from the University of Iowa and a master's degree from the University of Michigan. He received a doctorate in communications at the University of Illinois in 1981. 

Before arriving at MU, he had been director of Pennsylvania State University's School of Journalism and a coordinator of graduate study in communications at California State University, Fullerton.

He also worked as a journalist for the Baltimore Sun, where he was Moscow bureau chief in 1969 and a Washington, D.C., correspondent from 1972 to 1975.

In 1989, Mills stepped onto the MU campus as dean of the Missouri School of Journalism.

“I couldn’t believe my good fortune when I was offered this job,” Mills said in a news release. “Twenty-five years later, I can still barely believe it.”

Former Chancellor Brady Deaton arrived at MU as the chair of the agricultural economics department the same year as Mills. Deaton, who retired in November, praised Mills for his active presence in the School of Journalism and at MU.

"He has just been a tremendous leader in so many ways," Deaton said. "He's taken a great school of journalism and added luster to it."

Impact on individuals, MU, journalism school

Brian Brooks, who served as associate dean alongside Mills for 10 years, said the outgoing dean raised more money for the school than all previous deans combined.

"He gave direction to the school," Brooks said. "He left us in a really good position at the start of this century."

Brooks was on the search committee to appoint a new dean when Mills was selected. Mills had applied for the position once before, but the chancellor at the time deemed him too young for the job, Brooks said. Years later, when the hunt was on again, Mills was an obvious candidate.

"He left a really good impression on everyone," Brooks said.

With the founding of the Reynolds Journalism Institute, establishment of the Walter Williams Scholars program, and efforts to expand and strengthen the graduate and international programs, Brooks said, Mills has helped MU maintain its standing as having one of the top journalism schools in the nation.

"He took a great school and made it better," Brooks said.

Alecia Swasy, a Ph.D. candidate at MU, first met Mills when he was director of Penn State’s School of Journalism about 30 years ago when she was an undergraduate.

Swasy called Mills a terrific advocate for both young and female journalists, citing his work to help start a Reynolds Journalism Institute project that collects oral histories of female pioneers in journalism. Mills has also served as a mentor to Swasy, she said, editing both of her books.

“I have been privileged to have his guidance for 30 years, and I hope it continues after his retirement,” Swasy said.

Joan Gabel, dean of MU's Trulaske College of Business, said she admired Mills’ leadership skills in the time they worked together, most recently on the search committee for a new chancellor.

“I learned so much from him that I hope I can emulate over the course of my own career,” Gabel said.

Michael O’Brien, dean of MU's College of Arts and Sciences, saw Mills as someone who set the tone for the rest of the deans on campus.

“He is a tremendous role model on how to get things done at a major research university,” O’Brien said. “I have the utmost respect for him.”

Industry and organizational impact

Mills has left his mark on different organizations in the journalism industry, evidenced by his election to the Missouri Press Association Hall of Fame in 2012.

The executive director of the Missouri Press Association, Doug Crews, has known Mills since 1989 and said the dean has fostered good relationships with newspaper publishers. He also commended the dean for maintaining strong ties with Missouri's journalism community.

“There is strong support for him and his good work for supporting the newspaper industry in the state," he said. “He’s been a friend of the press association.”

Chris Martin, president of the Poynter Foundation and former dean of West Virginia University's Perley Isaac Reed School of Journalism, said Mills was highly respected by other journalism school deans.

"Dean Mills was always known as someone who led Missouri to the forefront of journalism education," Martin said. "I think the thing about Missouri that was always of great interest and a point of admiration for the rest of us was the fact that Missouri always held tightly to the important core values of journalism but was always responsive to the changes in how journalism is practiced."

Embracing new ideals

Randy Picht, executive director of the Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute called Mills' retirement bittersweet. He said he was sad to see Mills step down but is grateful that he won't be leaving the school entirely. As director of the Reynolds Fellowship program, Mills will help choose the fellows each year and help them complete their research projects, Picht said.

"Mills had had a great impact on news companies in this country and journalism in general by ensuring a steady stream of talented journalists and the willingness to work with the industry on challenges and opportunities," Picht said.

"He has embraced new ideals during his time here. He knows how to accept changes, lead the way, and do things differently."

Reporters on this story were Kevin Modelski, Thomas Dixon, Max Havey, DaVett Jones and Wendy Pennington. Supervising editor is Jeanne Abbott.

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