Filmed by Alexis Simmons. Edited by André Rowe, Jr.
Richard Cole served as dean of the UNC-Chapel Hill School of Media and Journalism for 26 years, from 1979-2005. He is an editor, author and an inductee to the N.C. Journalism Hall of Fame, and has won numerous awards for teaching and administration. He is now the John Thomas Kerr Jr. Distinguished Professor Emeritus and Dean Emeritus at UNC and directs the Visiting International Scholars program in the School. In this interview, conducted by email with NCSMA Assistant Katie Schanze, he discusses his time as director of NCSMA.
To what do you attribute NCSMA’s longevity?
NCSMA has lasted all this time because it has been — and still is — so important. It’s important to the high school teachers and students because they learn to write and communicate better, through different media, and they learn how vital the First Amendment is to everybody. NCSMA is important to our journalism school because it cements and showcases the journalism school’s role in public schools all over North Carolina and beyond. It’s important to UNC-CH because many of these thousands of students and teachers see UNC-CH for the first time.
How did your high school experience affect your role as director?
In high school, I loved writing, journalism and the news. All that became a permanent part of me and carried over into my work directing NCSMA.
What is one lesson or memory from the job that has always stayed with you?
The eagerness, the hope and often the wonder in students’ eyes.
I had no choice. Professor Walter Spearman, who had run it about half a century, seemingly, wanted to step aside. He wanted me to take over. I couldn’t say no and didn’t want to.
What were you expecting?
I knew what to expect – just not the big size of it, even then.
What were some of the challenges you faced on the job? What did you learn from them?
Trying to incorporate all the peoples’ different interests – professionally and for fun – into the programs. You can’t please everybody on everything, but for the most part people loved NCSMA, and do to this day.
How did your time as director of NCSMA shape your views on student expression?
High school students have freedom of expression. That’s the fundamental point. But they have to learn that responsibility comes with that, and they have to learn the legal points involved. Overall, they have to come to treasure the First Amendment and all its freedoms, not just press.
When it was time to leave the job, what was the most difficult part?
I missed interacting with the wonderful people, especially the mainstay high school teachers who were so talented and hard-working and just plain good folks.
How did the Summer Institute evolve during your tenure?
More people. More schools. More media. More programs. More everything.
What is your hope for the future of NCSMA?
Keep on going. Keep on evolving and innovating. Keep on venturing into new areas. Never stop.