University of Montana, Missoula. Photo by Wikimedia Commons user Dsetay.
Jeff Cole was the sort of journalist every journalist should aspire to be.
By all accounts – and I am talking about a lot of accounts – he was smart, tenacious, meticulously accurate and scrupulously fair. Although we both studied journalism at the University of Montana and graduated just two years apart – me in 1978 and Jeff in 1980 – I did not know Jeff at school. My career began with The Associated Press in Montana and then brought me to the East Coast, where I got my MBA and left the business eight years later. Jeff got his start after college on a newspaper in Everett, Washington, and ended up as The Wall Street Journal’s aerospace editor. He died in January 2001, when a private jet piloted by Atlas Air founder Michael Chowdry crashed just after takeoff from a Colorado airfield. True to form, Jeff was aboard the two-seater Czech-built fighter jet to get an interview with Chowdry, who also died that day.
While I don’t recall ever having met Jeff, I did get to meet his widow, Maria Cole, a few months after his death. I was serving on the Journalism Advisory Council established by Jerry Brown, who was then the dean of my old journalism school. When Brown arrived on the Missoula, Montana, campus about a year earlier, his first order of business was to assemble a panel of alumni and other friends of the J-School who could provide political and financial support to replace the school’s Depression-era building. The council had other functions, too, such as advising on fundraising, curriculum updates and guest lecturers.
I welcomed the chance to help my old school however I could. I got my big opportunity when it happened that an old friend was serving on a state legislative committee whose approval was vital for the project to move forward. I called my friend and explained how badly the school needed the new building and how much support the council and other backers were prepared to provide. The Legislature greenlighted the project, and the new building opened in 2007.
But back in the spring of 2001, when planning for the new building was still in its early stages, Maria Cole had another project in mind: She wanted to create a Jeff Cole Legacy Fund at her late husband’s alma mater to help train future journalists in the spirit and memory of his work. Her grace and warmth were striking considering how recently she had suffered her loss. I was also impressed at the strength of her commitment to a state and school that were not her own. Maria became a regular presence at our gatherings and joined the council formally in 2005. Every year, she invited students working on the school newspaper to visit the home she and Jeff had built a few dozen miles outside Missoula. The year after the new building opened, Maria launched the annual Jeff Cole Distinguished Lecture in collaboration with the university and its journalism school, paid for by the legacy fund she had established.
I stayed on the council in the years that followed, making a point to schedule client visits in the Western states around virtually every meeting so I could attend in person.
Jerry Brown retired in 2009. His successor moved to a new, on-campus position in 2012 and was replaced by a faculty member who served as interim dean while a permanent dean was chosen. That took a couple of years (Missoula is not the easiest place to recruit high-level help), but eventually the university hired Larry Abramson to run the journalism school.
Abramson had studied comparative literature at the University of California, Berkeley before becoming a longtime reporter and editor at National Public Radio, where one of his beats was education. I visited him at his office in the new building in the summer of 2014, not long after he arrived on campus. I told him about my nearly 15-year stint on the Journalism Advisory Council and explained that I saw its function as being to assist the dean with whatever objectives she or he might set for the school.
I left our meeting, and then I never heard from Abramson about the council again. For years, I had no idea whether it continued to exist or if I was still a member. I shook my head over the unnecessary rudeness to a longtime supporter and wondered how many other donors (some of them much more financially significant than me) the new dean might be alienating. I did not care enough to protest, however. I have not lived in Montana, nor had any direct connection to the university other than through the advisory council, for over 30 years. Why pick a fight, I thought, when there are so many other worthwhile causes that I could support instead?
But I broke my silence recently after Abramson was publicly dismissive of Maria Cole. For the upcoming 10th installment of the Jeff Cole Distinguished Lecture, Maria chose to bring controversial conservative professor and columnist Mike Adams to campus. Abramson was, to put it mildly, not a fan.
Backed by an interim university president (who is scheduled to give way next month to the school’s new president, former General Electric executive Seth Bodnar), Abramson disassociated the journalism school from the upcoming lecture. But it seems Maria Cole controls both the funding and the name for the event, because at this writing it is still scheduled to take place on Feb. 13 in a large on-campus lecture hall that the university rents out to noncampus sponsors based on availability. The announced topic, which may perhaps be premature, is “The Death of Liberal Bias in Higher Education.”
Asked by the local newspaper whether he plans to attend, Abramson reportedly said, “I don’t have my calendar out that far yet.” That went too far for me to stay quiet. I emailed Abramson to say that “absent a child's out-of-town wedding or some similarly pressing conflict, you probably have nothing more important to do on Feb. 13 than attend an event funded and organized by the widow of a distinguished J-School alum, especially one who has honored her husband’s memory by generously working for more than 15 years to improve the school and enhance the experience of its students.” The local paper, the Missoulian, has reported that Maria has given some $1.2 million to the school since her husband’s death.
The same article noted that Maria herself wanted to bring someone with a different perspective to the Missoula campus. She knows Adams is apt to provoke emotions, but she hopes people will be respectful. It certainly doesn’t seem to be too much to ask, at least from the dean of a school to which Maria has given so much in her husband’s memory.
One of Abramson’s stated objections to Adams is that some students might find his views offensive. Having gone to school at the same time as Jeff Cole, I’m pretty sure he would have thought this is an odd position for a journalism dean to take. While I am not sure Adams is the best vehicle through which to bring some much-needed viewpoint diversity to the campus, Maria Cole has certainly earned the privilege of making that choice.
The current dean of my old journalism school seems to believe donors, even those as deeply committed as Maria Cole, ought to be seen and not heard. As for me, I believe Maria Cole is behaving in a way that honors her husband’s memory. I hope to someday see the school placed back in the hands of someone equally committed to the ideals that Jeff Cole embodied in his too-short life and career. It wouldn’t hurt if that future dean also knew how to at least be civil to the school’s friends.