John Nichols plans to retire after 33 years at Penn State

June 24, 2010

After 33 years at Penn State and a career marked by accolades and accomplishments, John Nichols admits he knew hardly anything about the University when he came east after completing his doctoral work at the University of Minnesota.

A native of the "Land of 10,000 Lakes," Nichols knew more about the Hudson Valley than Happy Valley at the time.

"But, they had an international communications position open and in an awful job market it looked like a good option," Nichols said. "My recollection is that Penn State was viewed as a kind of B-plus university with a football coach who was making a name for himself. I thought it would be a good stepping stone for my career."

Three-plus decades later, Nichols, professor of communications and associate dean for graduate studies and research, plans to retire in September. He ranks as one of the most respected faculty members at Penn State.

He helped shape the creation and progress of the College of Communications; has been honored for his teaching; has chaired the University Faculty Senate and has served on numerous University-wide committees.

Along with serving on the strategic planning commission that recommended the creation of what is now the College of Communications, Nichols chaired that group's graduate programs subcommittee and was a founder of the doctoral program in mass communications.

He chaired the committee for Penn State's first doctoral students in mass communications, and has been a member of more than 60 other graduate committees -- the majority of them doctoral and most as chair.

Under his leadership in recent years, the doctoral program has become the second-largest in the field and earned many accolades, including a No. 1 ranking in 2005 for the scholarly productivity of its faculty.

He might not have known much about Penn State when he joined the faculty in 1977, but he knows the institutional history of the College of Communications better than anyone else these days -- because he helped craft that history with his own creativity, enthusiasm and tireless dedication.

"Although I've had plenty of opportunities to leave, I haven't had to because Penn State has done all the stepping for me," Nichols said. "We've gone from a pretty good university to a great university. We've gone from a sleepy little journalism school to the largest and arguably one of the very best communications colleges in the nation.

"I'd rather be lucky than smart. I just happened to luck into being hired by a university that has moved up pretty aggressively. It's a wonderful university and it's been on an extremely positive trend line for almost all of the three decades I've been here."

With typical Midwestern humility, Nichols often points to luck or right-place-right-time explanations for his tenure at Penn State. Those who know him, those who have worked side-by-side with him, know better, though.

According to Nichols, his success -- which includes roles as an expert on Cuba and international communications issues (he's testified before Congress on the topic nine times and has made frequent national television and radio appearances) as well as founding leadership roles for the College of Communications, Department of Film-Video and Media Studies, and the Page Center for Integrity in Public Communication -- just happened as a convergence of place and time.

Others know better.

"I understand that perspective, because it's easier for me to talk about John's accomplishments than it would be for me to talk about mine. But let's be clear, he has distinguished himself, repeatedly, with his balanced, thoughtful and respectful approach. He's been a great teacher and administrator," said John Romano, Penn State's vice president for commonwealth campuses, a man who has worked in numerous leadership roles at the University (including a stint as interim director of the journalism program in 1983-83), for the past 41 years. He, himself, plans to retire at the end of June.

"John has been the classic faculty member in the sense that he came here as a junior member, passed through the ranks and took on important service to his college and the University," Romano said. "He's served as a role model for the junior faculty members who have come after him. He's done his best for decades to make this place better -- and he's succeeded at that."

Nichols has taught at least a dozen different undergraduate and graduate courses throughout his career and was selected college or department marshal five times. He also earned Penn State's Most Innovative Teacher Award for work with an undergraduate international communications course during which he transformed his classroom into a mythical nation named Zangaro -- a small, ethnically complex and war-torn country on the northeast coast of South America. Students were similarly transformed into the leadership of the country, including the archbishop, commander of the military, chiefs of indigenous peoples, heads of political parties, manager of the national telephone company and owners of newspapers and radio and TV stations.

After decades of civil war, the United Nations has brokered peace in Zangaro and the country's leaders must design a new media system, write the communications law and address other complex problems.

"It was a great class. I was the superpower ambassador to the country," said Sean Misko, who earned degrees in media studies and international politics in 2004 and now works for the State Department in Washington, D.C. "It was something that allowed you to grapple with practical and policy issues. You could see how decisions impacted others.

"There were points of contention among those who were making decisions, and you could then see how decisions that were made affected things such as intellectual property rights or limits on free speech."

It's the kind of course that students never forget. Former students regularly reconnect with Nichols in person or by mail with introductory lines such as "You probably don't remember me, but I was the archbishop of Zangaro."

"Most of the time, I actually do remember them," Nichols said. "Zangaro was fun and I thought it contributed significantly to student learning."

As a young faculty member, one of his early undergraduate advisees was Justin Cantanoso, who earned his journalism degree in 1982 and had visions of work as a foreign correspondent.

"I loved that he was into the Sandinistas, Cuba and all those revolutions. I wanted to be able to talk to him, so I'd read about those things, just so I could say, 'Hey, I read in The New York Times or Rolling Stone that ...,' and that would be our starting point.

"He just exuded this presence that journalism was a serious profession."

After graduation, Cantanoso remained in touch with Nichols occasionally and then reached out for advice about an investigative story he was writing about the tobacco industry. Cantanoso had obtained a copy of a confidential document and wanted to know how to protect it from another news organization that was doing the same story.

"They wanted to short cut their reporting and I just needed some advice," he said. "It seemed like he got a kick out of hearing from a former student, and I just automatically assumed he would be responsive."

Cantanoso, now an executive editor of the Business Journal in Greensboro, N.C., returned to campus in the spring as a guest speaker for the Penn State Forum. He made time during his visit to meet with Nichols.

"What was neat was that I felt like a peer for the first time," Catanoso said. "We connected at that level I always wanted as a kid."

Connections and decency might define Nichols' career more than anything else. He's a throwback of sorts, a "company man" who has given all he could to the institution with his proudest moments coming -- as one did in mid-May -- when a graduating student brought her parents by to introduce them to Nichols.

"That's what it's all about," Nichols said afterward. "I'll miss that. I won't miss the committees and e-mails but I'll miss that."

Nichols plans to maintain an office on campus and, with administrative burdens gone, focus on his already lengthy and impressive research efforts.

Nichols is the author or co-author of numerous monographs, books, chapters and articles on international communications and foreign affairs. His co-authored book, "Clandestine Radio Broadcasting," received the Outstanding Academic Book award from the Association of College and Research Libraries.

"I'm still young enough, and there's a lot that's gong to happen, so I think it'll be productive," he said.

Not surprisingly for a specialist on Cuba and revolutionary movements, Nichols has a rebel streak. In 1994, he participated in a constitutional challenge to the U.S. ban on travel to Cuba by going to the island without official permission.

Nichols and faculty from other universities were detained by federal agents upon their return, but because U.S. authorities ultimately declined to prosecute, the constitutional test failed and the ban remains in place today. But Nichols continues to push the envelope. He testified before Congress on the right to travel, joined a recent lawsuit to force the U.S. administration to restore academic travel to Cuba and hopes to complete a book on the topic in retirement.

Finally, in typical John Nichols' fashion, he has set the stage for his successor. (Associate professor Marie Hardin will take over the graduate program in the College of Communications and become director of the Page Center.)

"I doubt that any member of the University Park faculty has served the University in such far-reaching and dedicated fashion," Dean Doug Anderson said. "His departure will leave a huge void. But thanks to his stay-the-course, consistent and visionary work during the past, the next associate dean will be able to work from the nationally respected platform John has played a leadership role in constructing."



  • John Nichols

    IMAGE: Penn State

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated October 17, 2019