During an afternoon basketball practice four years ago, my basketball coach took out a small note from his pocket. It read, "The harder I work, the more luck I seem to have."
Hard work — and a little bit of luck — shaped John Lavine, the now-departing dean of the Medill School of Journalism. He struck a deal with opposing ends of the media world, journalism and marketing, and established a curriculum for those interested in new media.
With his departure now certain, Lavine's legacy however, falls between two polarizing representations: the visionary and the leader. He remains lauded by his colleagues, The Daily reports, setting the school in a prime position for future success. He introduced the Integrated Marketing Communications Certificate program for undergraduates, providing an outlet for marketing-minded students at a school that lacks a business major. He broke global barriers for journalism students interested in Qatar and Latin America.
Colleagues have said Lavine spent plenty of time working to make Medill what it is today. Nevertheless, his work should be taken with a grain of salt. His stumbles into controversy highlight flaws in his leadership.
Lavine, despite years of success, represented only the face of change, and failed to lead when luck ran out.
He officially announced his retirement last Wednesday, ending a term filled with change and mired in controversy.
His announcement came as abruptly as his reign began in 2006. He likely sat at his computer and poured over his farewell address to Medill community for several hours. He likely made sure each sentence was carefully worded, and that his final message — unless something happens between now and next August — was memorable.
"What counts is the progress we’ve made, the foundation for the future that we’ve built, and the validation of what we’ve done from external sources," he said in his farewell email last Wednesday.
Over the past couple years, his name was dropped during times of controversy. From allegations of quote fabrication in a Medill magazine in 2008 to Medill's name change last year, colleagues and critics alike have scrutinized Lavine’s actions. He was linked to the University's suspension of Medill professor David Protess, after the University found Protess had misled the school about class documents Cook County subpeonaed in 2009. For Lavine, the allegation presented the wrong message at the wrong time.
To alumni like Ari Berman and Jeff Jarvis, it represented the departure from serious investigative journalism in favor of his vision of how the media world is changing. Despite Lavine's ambition to redefine the nature of journalism and marketing, the link left the definition of journalism at Northwestern temporarily in doubt.
Lavine could have stood by his professor amid pressure, but declined to comment on the matter.
As a media marketer, Lavine did what any analyst does entering a new market: learn how the field is changing and react to it. He has said the Medill today has surpassed his expectations. He blew up the curriculum to introduce students to new media’s frontier: the web. Recent hires, such as former New York Times multimedia producer, reflect that trend.
On the contrary, the Medill name change sparked a whirlwind of disbelief. The Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications — which I refuse to cite as such due to its sheer absurdity — brings Lavine's vision to true form, and represents his desire to emulate today's media landscape. But the idea that the school needed a name change reflects only his vision, rather than take into account the wants of the greater community. Taking his vision and placing it onto the school he governs reinforces his brand, but unnecessarily diminishes the school's image. In the real world, it would be deemed a poor marketing ploy, threatening an established brand. Doesn't that hinder the brand itself?
But something provocative could be learned from Lavine's time: visionaries may succeed not through boasting about their grand plans, but rather through leaving their mark in the future. A visionary, however, is not necessarily a leader. The measure of a leader comes from the moments when such ideas are challenged. The leader does what’s best for the greater community in the face of doubt.
It appeared in these last few months, such criticism amplified. Lavine told the Daily he had been mulling retirement for over a year now. Did Lavine finally realize his time at the forefront of change was coming to an end?
To define Lavine as a leader solely based on his visions would diminish his current accomplishments and future aspirations. Of course, those should be praised. His unclear stances on sensitive issues, however, diluted his image as both visionary and dean.