Q&A with David Rubin
Former dean at S.I. Newhouse of Public Communications and TV show host recently moved to South Carolina. He talks about his career, how to improve Syracuse, the role of the media during the Trump administration and what he plans for retirement
By Mary Beth Roach
As 2016 came to an end, Dean Emeritus David Rubin, 71, concluded his career in education that spanned more than four decades. He and his wife, Tina Press, have relocated to Summerville, S.C.
Rubin has been known to the Syracuse community as dean of Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse of Public Communications from 1990 to 2008; a faculty member at Newhouse after his tenure as dean, the host of a local public affairs television program — The Ivory Tower — which he began in 2002, and a columnist with The Post-Standard. Prior to his arrival in Syracuse, Rubin had been on the faculty at New York University since 1971.
Shortly after his move in December, Rubin took the time to share his thoughts on his tenure as dean and television host, the Syracuse community, and the future of the media, especially in covering the Trump administration.
Q: You were dean of Newhouse from July 1990 to June 2008. What do you think is your greatest accomplishment?
A: I think what I’m happiest about is having taken the Newhouse School at a point in 1990, when it lacked a strong infrastructure and was not focused as much as we would have liked on the students, and I left the school with a very, very strong infrastructure and a faculty and staff wholly committed to student welfare and the classroom experience. As a result, our students have been very successful in the job market. And I believe they know that the staff and the faculty care very much about their welfare. And we give them a good education. That, to me, is what a university should do. It’s what very few universities do. And the fact that I was able to build that culture between 1990 and 2008 and then hand it off to Lorraine Branham, who’s continued that culture. That’s really the strength of the Newhouse School. In addition to that, we’ve made it a first-rate physical plant, with Newhouse 3, changes to Newhouse 1, Dean Branham added on major changes to Newhouse 2, so that now the students are learning in a physical plant which is far better than anything else in the United States. I’m proud of that too. Putting the two together is what really produces students’ success and helps us recruit good students and good faculty.
Q: What prompted you in 2008 to step down as dean?
A: I’d been dean for 18 years. At that point, I think I was tied with the dean of the University of Missouri for the longest-serving communications dean in the United States. I had served far longer than any of the other current deans then at SU and it’s highly unusual for deans to go on so long. Number 1, I was getting tired of the paperwork and the demands from central administration. But mainly, I felt that 18 years was long enough. I waited until we finished and dedicated Newhouse 3 and we were in it for a year which was 2007-2008. Then I thought that was the right time to step down and get some new leadership. And then I took a year off and then I came back to the faculty and taught full time.
Q: Is that uncommon — for deans to rejoin the faculty?
Yes and no. I taught every semester — 36 semesters that I had taught as a dean, and I had taught well over 100 students each semester, so I hadn’t lost at all my ability to teach, so therefore, in rejoining the faculty, that was not really a problem. Second, you have to have a good relationship with the rest of the faculty if you’re going to join the faculty. Deans who don’t teach, deans who are basically full-time administrators, they often don’t have that relationship with the faculty. That was not a problem for me because since day 1 I’ve viewed myself as first, a teaching member of the faculty and, second, the person who had been chosen to lead the faculty for a period of time. So, I don’t believe that the faculty, not only were they not surprised that I stayed and joined the faculty, I believe they were very happy that I did because I’m a pretty good teacher.
Q: What was it about Syracuse and Newhouse that appealed to you to make you leave the faculty at NYU?
A: I had been at NYU for 19 years. When we were being recruited in 1989-1990 by the then-provost Gershon Vincow to come and be the dean, New York City was not a very nice place to live. The city was dangerous, the city was dirty, the city was in financial trouble. We lived in an NYU apartment, but we had a small house Upstate — in Highland — and we were spending a lot of time at that house, and so we weren’t using New York and its cultural treasures as much as we should have been. If you’re going to put up with New York, you might as well use it. So, when Syracuse came knocking, my wife and I said to each other, ‘you know we’re not really very happy here in New York anymore. The city is not in good shape. And there’s another way to live. We’ve done our New York thing for 19 years. Let’s see what it’s like to live in a much different environment.’ And so we came.
Q: When did you start Ivory Tower television program?
A: Ivory Tower went on the air in September of 2002, so it’s now been on the air for about 14 years and three months.
‘I got involved in the cultural community as a member of boards, giving money, advice, writing about the arts because I love the arts and because I believe Syracuse needs the arts in order to survive.’
Q: What made you start, in the midst of running Newhouse, what was the impetus for creating that show?
A: The impetus came from Michael Fields, who, at the time, was the general manager of the station. Michael had been recruited by the board to replace Dick Russell. Michael discovered that WCNY was doing almost no local programming and that surprised him. And he wanted to do it. I met Michael at a brunch. We got to talking. We both had New York City ties. We got along. We’re the same sort Type A person. Michael asked me whether I had ever done television, and I said no. I had helped to produce television in New York City and I had done radio, but I’d never been on the air for television. And he said would you be interested in giving it a try because. He wanted to start a number of local shows pretty much on the cheap and see what might work. There was going to be a show focusing on religion in the community, arts issues in the community and I think racial issues. And he wanted a show dealing with public affairs. So he asked me if I’d be interested in doing it and I said I thought I’d give it a try because one, I thought it’d be good for the visibility of the Newhouse School, and two, because Syracuse needs all of the public affairs programming and general public affairs discussion in the media it can get because it’s a community that does not talk well to itself, which is one of the reasons I left. Michael said great, and I went out with one of my assistants at Newhouse, Lynn Vanderhoek, we auditioned and recruited a number of panelists. We came up with the idea of having a regular panel of Central New York academicians. I came up with the name, I came up the idea of giving A’s and F’s at the end of each show. I came up with the theme song, which is the “Boys from Syracuse.” And we went on the air, debuted at 11 p.m. on Friday night. Not your best time slot, but it caught on pretty quickly, and Michael moved the show to 8 p.m. Fridays, which is a good time slot, right before McLaughlin. The other shows that he started rather soon went away because for those shows to work you have to have both a moderator and a panel and understand television that create that atmosphere that people let you into their home via the television set. We had to understand this is not an academic show aimed at an academic audience. I got lucky. I got a panel of people who get that and have become television stars in the community. They are all well-recognized as the Ivory Tower group. I continued doing it for the past 14 ½ years. I did it because it was a. a lot of fun; b. because we got to say some very blunt things on television, which you simply do not hear on the commercial stations, and we had a chance to move the needle in town on local issues and statewide issues. But it was a lot of fun, and I’m going to miss it.
Q: Back to your tenure as dean. You were dean from 1990 to 2008 — years that saw a lot of changes in the media. What do you see as some of the major changes in media? What are you most optimistic about with these changes? What concerns you most about these changes as we head into the future?
A: I’m highly pessimistic. I’m frightened. You can trace it all to two things. One is the disruption created by the digital environment, and how this has affected the business model for newspapers, for serious public affairs magazines, and for the way in which television news goes about its business, and the impact of its business model also in relation to the economic collapse in 2008 tied to the mortgage crisis. This was a perfect storm. The two of them coming together and they decimated the business models for serious journalism. It’s had an effect in Syracuse and all around the country with daily newspapers and cutbacks in the newsroom, cutbacks in investigative reporting, cutbacks in staffing in the beat system. It’s had an effect even up to the New York Times, which has had cuts. Everybody is still struggling with how to deal with the movement of information off the printed page and online and how to pay for that, and how to get advertising to support, how to get people to subscribe to it online. So we’re in the middle of this revolution. The industry is economically shaky, and this comes at a time when we have a president-elect who cares little and knows nothing about First Amendment freedom and the importance of media in a democracy. If ever there was an administration that’s going to require very close reportage it is the Trump Administration, and he’s coming in at a time when the press doesn’t have the resources I wish it had to do that. So I’m very worried about what he means for the future of the free press of the United States, and therefore the future of democracy, since there is no such thing as democracy without a free and vigorous press.
Q: You’re a Cleveland, Ohio, native, but you immersed yourself in the Syracuse community over the past 25 years or so. You were involved in the local arts community. What motivated you to become so involved in the local community?
A: I really had two levels of involvement. One was in the arts community because I think if Syracuse is ever going to pull itself out of the doldrums, it has to attract more people. We don’t have enough people in Syracuse. And we don’t have enough people because people don’t want to move there. There’s a lot of reasons they don’t want to move there and one of them is that there isn’t enough to do. If you don’t have a strong cultural presence, and by that I mean, museums, music and dance and everything else, you’re not going to get people moving there. And if that happens, businesses are not going to want to set up there, there isn’t a good pool of people to hire and the whole area will remain stagnant. And what we will become — and this is a phrase I’ve used before — Amsterdam, New York with the Carrier Dome. And there’s no future in that for Syracuse University. The university itself has to have a vibrant community around it, or students won’t want to come there. To her credit, [former S.U. president] Nancy Cantor recognized this, and her major achievement was town-gown relationships, attempting to use the university’s resources to promote the city. She went about it in a way I would not have gone about it, but I think her instinct there was right. So I got involved in the cultural community as a member of boards, giving money, advice, writing about the arts because I love the arts and because I believe Syracuse needs the arts in order to survive.
On the political front, I used my column at The Post-Standard for lots of different things, but one of them was writing about a lot of local issues because the community doesn’t talk to itself very well and it doesn’t want to face the reality of why things don’t get done in Syracuse. And they don’t. The city changed remarkably little in the 26 years that I lived there. And I felt that the platform that The Post-Standard graciously gave me as a community columnist, I was going to try to, quote the phrase, “print the news and raise hell” and point out where I thought local leaders, Albany leaders were holding the city back, in hopes of sparking a community conversation and creating change. And I did that for two reasons: I live in Syracuse; I wanted to live in a city that was a better city than it is, and I recognized that the Newhouse school won’t be strong if the city around it is crumbling, so I got involved. That’s what citizens should do.
Q: With the past election being what it was, what do you think the media’s responsibilities are for the future?
A: I don’t think the responsibilities are any different than for any other administration. And that is to hold them accountable; to provide a marketplace of ideas about what the administration is achieving and not achieving; follow up on the promises that have been made; to make sure that what Trump says are his accomplishments are, in fact, accomplishments or whether he’s bending the truth as he wont to do; to follow very closely what’s happening in the various cabinet departments, where there will be a lot of changes. I think it’s probably wise to not pour your resources into covering the White House. I think that’s going to be a complete waste of time given the people that Trump has appointed to speak to the media. I think it would be much wiser to just let him communicate as he prefers to on Twitter and really put your resources into what’s actually happening in the Defense, in Health and Human Services, in Housing and Urban Development and so on. So we see what he really is doing on the health care front, on the military front and so on. If I were an editor, that’s where I would put my scarce resources, rather than having 30-40-50-60 people or more all covering the White House because I don’t think you’re going to get squat out of this White House.
Q: What are your retirement plans?
A: Well, I’m thinking of a number of things. One possibility would be to go back to doing something I did at NYU. I volunteered to work with the American Civil Liberties Union in New York and I was quite involved on their communications media committee that helped set policy for the union on First Amendment issues. I may look into helping the South Carolina chapter of the ACLU, particularly if the Trump Administration makes any kinds of moves that would diminish the civil liberties that our Founding Fathers created for us.
There is a weekly paper that serves Summerville, and if there’s a possibility of writing for them, I might do that.
I’m going to check and see if there’s an equivalent here to OASIS in Syracuse. I would like to teach my First Amendment law course, freedom of speech and press, to an adult audience.
And then finally, WCNY has a new chief operating officer, Chris Geiger. Chris and have talked about an expansion of the WCNY website to become a much more important news and commentary portal in Syracuse. If that happens, I said to Chris that I would be happy to continue contributing in some way, so, that while I have physically left the area, I won’t have mentally or journalistically left the area.
Goodbye Syracuse, hello South Carolina
We’ve asked former S.U. Newhouse School dean why he moved to South Carolina. His reply:
“We had spent parts of eight winters on the Isle of Palms outside Charleston. I think it is obvious why we chose to get away for part of a Syracuse winter. We liked the beach on the Isle of Palms and we liked Charleston, which is about 30 minutes away. Charleston has a lively cultural scene. All of that appealed to us, which is why we moved within a 40-minute drive of Charleston. We never cared for Florida, and North Carolina is not far south enough. The taxes [In South Carolina] are low.”