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School of Communication Dean Barbara O’Keefe plans to step down next year

Distinguished dean will have served 20 years expanding the reach, impact of the school

Barbara O’Keefe, dean of Northwestern University’s School of Communication for nearly two decades, plans to step down as dean in 2020 after a distinguished tenure leading the transformation of the school’s faculty and programs, national reputation and global impact, Provost Jonathan Holloway announced today.

Barbara O'Keefe
Barbara O'Keefe

O’Keefe, a professor of communication studies and Annenberg University Professor, became the sixth dean of the School of Speech in 2000. Under her leadership, it was renamed the School of Communication and became a prototype for what a communication school should be in the 21st century.

She led the transformation of the school’s curriculum and fostered highly interdisciplinary, cross-platform programs at every level from pre-college to undergraduate, professional and doctoral studies. Today, the school is comprehensive, housing the departments of communication sciences and disorders, communication studies, radio-television-film, performance studies and theatre, which includes music theatre and dance. 

O’Keefe will continue as dean for another academic year, help a successor with the transition and step down as dean Aug. 31, 2020, after 20 years in the role, Holloway said. She will continue to serve on the school faculty. The University will name a committee to launch a global search for her successor later this fall, he said. 

“Dean O’Keefe has led the School of Communication through a dramatic period of change and progress and broadened its impact and influence, not just nationally, but globally,” President Morton Schapiro said. “We are extraordinarily proud of the work she has done and how she transformed one of Northwestern’s oldest, most eminent schools so that it could advance the art, science and practice of human communication in countless new ways.”

In announcing her plans to step down, O’Keefe said, “I feel very privileged to have been given the opportunity to reshape and build the School of Communication. A quirk of its demographics meant that early in my tenure, we had a wave of retirements, which permitted us to recruit an entirely new generation of faculty, including increasing numbers of women and faculty of color.”  

“Throughout my tenure,” she added, “Northwestern’s leadership provided amazing support for our plans to rebuild the school, investing in our facilities, graduate programs and faculty. The gratitude I feel toward them is boundless. I have loved being part of the great project they gave me, but it has taken 100 percent effort, every day and every year. I believe I have finished the work I was brought here to do, and now I am eager to have more time to spend on my own agenda.”

The School of Communication’s vibrant programs have their history in the art of elocution and oratory, dating back to 1868, when the first course in elocution was offered at Northwestern, followed quickly by a certificate program that launched the school’s offerings. 

Today, its alumni include some of the biggest names in entertainment, theater, film and the performing arts, such as Stephen Colbert, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Seth Meyers, Heather Headley and Mary Zimmerman. The school’s goals are to transform “how our culture hears, speaks, shares, creates, emotes, engages, includes and inspires.”

“Barbara O’Keefe has dedicated her leadership as dean to improving the scholarship, faculty and programming in the School of Communication and to ensuring its students and faculty remain at the forefront of communication research and discovery in America,” Holloway said. “In an era when communication skills and platforms are constantly changing, Dean O’Keefe has been instrumental in making Northwestern a role model in both theory and practice in communication arts and sciences.”

The School of Communication’s devoted alumni underscored that leadership and their own allegiance to the University by coming back in large numbers to participate in CommFest 2018, a gala night of high-wattage star power and performances to raise money for a new MFA program in acting and a new downtown location for the school’s students. Stars like Colbert, Harry Lennix and others gave moving tributes to the dean and the school and expressed their gratitude for their professors and Northwestern, saying they were pivotal to their later success.

“It did everything we hoped it would in terms of bringing our alumni together here in Evanston to reengage, rediscover and reunite the school,” observed O’Keefe after the event, which some called the party of the century.

O’Keefe’smission has been to keep Northwestern not just competitive, but a leader in the communication disciplines. The school is currently developing an innovative graduate program in performing and media arts, to be housed in a new center in downtown Chicago. Plans for the center include several acting studios, a black box theater, a motion-capture studio and other teaching spaces.

In discussing her plans for the future after she steps down next summer, O’Keefe said, “I will refocus on the two things I most want to accomplish. The first is my scholarship: I have writing to do, and I am looking forward to having unfettered time to devote to it again.

“The second is my desire to help our country get back on track. I believe that the foundation of healthy and joyful human development throughout the life span — resilient families — is disintegrating as a result of inattention and misguided policies,” she said. “I believe my talents and energy can make a difference, and I am eager to shift from a role in which I must avoid the appearance of partisanship to one where I can act for change.”

Prior to coming to Northwestern, O’Keefe served as director of the University of Michigan Media Union, a center for interdisciplinary study and application of emerging digital media. She has edited two books and authored more than 60 technical publications, including contributed chapters in books, articles or reviews in archive journals and chapters in refereed conference proceedings. 

Much of this work is focused on developing and applying systems for content analysis of communication in studies of lifespan communication development. She also has had a long-term interest in the application of interactive computing to support cooperative work and learning. She was a co-principal investigator on Project CITY, a project funded by the National Science Foundation for three years to study human-centered design of collaboration technology to support sustainable management of civil infrastructure in a public works department.

O’Keefe believes she may be the oldest person in her field who was “born digital,” since she began learning computer programming in high school, in the days when users communicated with mainframe computers via punch cards. She entered the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 1968 with the intention of studying mathematics and computer science, although her passion for intercollegiate debate led her to shift her major to communication studies and pursue a doctorate in that field, becoming a prominent discourse analyst and communication theorist.

Across her career, O’Keefe maintained her interest in the impact of digital technologies on both human interaction processes and methods for studying them. In the middle of her career, as social media were just emerging, she shifted her scholarly interests to focus on design, implementation and evaluation of these new methods of communication. She also became a leader in the application of interactive media to create new methods for teaching and learning. 

Among her many achievements since coming to Northwestern, O’Keefe was instrumental in working with Northwestern University in Qatar, the University’s 12th school, to establish one of the first two degree programs on the Doha campus of Northwestern, a Bachelor of Science in communication.

From Evanston to Chicago to Doha, the School of Communication has a long, storied and proud history. In 1891, the School of Oratory was founded. In 1921, the school was renamed the School of Speech, and in 2001, renamed again the School of Communication to better reflect the broad array of subjects studied there. Today, the school has more than 1,200 undergraduates, 700 graduate students, 170 faculty members and six majors in five departments.

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