Richard Cole, Distinguished Service Medal Citation

(Editor’s Note: The GAA’s Distinguished Service Medal citations, such as this one, are read to the audience at the Annual Alumni Luncheon and then presented as a keepsake to the recipients.)

Today, Carolina’s journalism school is ranked among the five finest in the nation – and in some rankings, as the finest. And the man who has been the school’s dean for some 25 years has a lot to do with that.

As the dissemination and delivery of news and information has undergone a revolution in the last quarter century, Richard Cole has presided over a professional school for which change was a constant demand. It is his students who remind us that throughout that change, the same principles applied, and Dean Cole was the continuity, the steadying influence.

A 1981 graduate said Richard’s class operated like a newsroom and took the most realistic approach toward making a fledging journalist feel true deadline pressure.

Another said this: “The school never seemed to stop going from success to greater success under Dean Cole’s leadership. I’m sure careful administration and dogged fund-raising were the key factors there. But when I think of the UNC School of Journalism as standing for high standards in journalism, I picture a lone man sitting at a desk marking up copy, offering words of praise here and showing how things might have been improved there.”

His way was not to coddle students but to prepare them, and like a seasoned beat reporter, he knows how to drive home a point effectively and succinctly..

The story is told that shortly after the University enacted a ban on smoking in classrooms, Richard walked into class, lit up a cigarette and told his students that such a ban would misrepresent the real world they sought to enter-they wouldn’t find a newsroom in America that banned smoking at that time.

In a profession once dominated by newspapers, journalistic media have changed radically. Richard Cole has a sign on his desk that says “Innovate or die.” It was a gift from a Carolina alumnus who went on to run Young & Rubicam, the international advertising firm.

While leading the school’s diversification-building its broadcast, public relations and electronic media programs and broadening opportunities at technical proficiency-Richard also has kept students focused on the traditional mission of journalism: to inform the people, to give the public full, fair and accurate information. That is, not just facts, but complete facts, in a meaningful context, with a sense of all the several viewpoints surrounding an issue.

And he believes that whatever new medium is used to deliver information, communicators need the same core skills and values. They need to write clearly and well. They must understand the laws that govern mass communication. And they need to espouse a strong set of ethical guidelines to govern themselves.

“He really has raised the reputation,” Professor Chuck Stone says. “In terms of administration, there’s nobody more productive or more efficient-or with a higher achievement quotient.”

The most recent accreditation report on the school praised its “exceptionally well balanced approach that makes it arguably the best all-around program in the country.” Reviewers admired the school’s balance of professional and academic preparation and its “driven, non-arrogant desire, whose tone is set and fueled by the dean, not to rest on its laurels.”

Richard got his start at Carolina in the 1970s as an associate professor teaching the core journalism classes of news writing, feature writing, and editing, courses then taught with a newspaper career in mind. Perhaps nothing in his credentials is as impressive as the fact that he was chosen dean at age 37.

He continually has set a high mark. He spends the first 10 minutes of every faculty meeting praising professors-and making those not named want to do something to get themselves mentioned next time.

He’s an affable presence in the corridors of Carroll Hall, a beautiful building he snapped up and renovated as soon as he heard the business school was vacating it. And Richard helps the school raise millions of dollars and cultivate prominent friendships to maintain its excellence.

His students will tell you that he’s an influence in their lives and careers long after they’ve left Chapel Hill. As one said, “I constantly observe that Dean Cole speaks about his beliefs and vision to ‘kings and commoners’ in just the same way…no student or alumni concern is too small for him…nor is he intimidated by the giants of industry whose favor can do so much for our School.”

Finally, Richard has assembled an impressive faculty, including 12 distinguished or chaired professorships. This impressive group of thinkers and practitioners will continue to benefit students for years after he steps down this year as dean. After a sabbatical year, he will be back in the classroom full-time himself, teaching budding journalists to report fully, fairly and accurately.

He has served longer than any other dean in Carolina’s history. For his success and the school’s, he will always credit the faculty, staff, alumni, friends and students first. But his leadership, his determination not just to keep up with change but to improve, is the constant in UNC journalism.

The GAA’s Distinguished Service Medal has been awarded since 1978 to alumni and others who have provided outstanding service to the GAA and/or to the University. The award is presented at the annual Alumni Luncheon on the weekend of reunions and Commencement in May. This year’s recipients are Doris Betts ’54 of Pittsboro, Richard Cole of Chapel Hill, Julian Robertson Jr. ’55 of New York and Richard “Stick” Williams ’75 of Huntersville.

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