A History of Communication Studies at the University of Kansas
In the United States, the Communication discipline dates its history to November 1914 when a small group of 17 public speaking teachers voted to leave the National Council of Teachers of English and create their own, new organization. In doing so, they founded the field of speech, which later became the field of communication. Here at KU, university leaders followed suit in fall 1923 with the creation of a new academic department—Speech and Drama. While elocution and public speaking had been taught at KU for many years, the decision to launch the Department of Speech and Drama represented then-Chancellor Ernest Lindley’s commitment to have a program in the university focused on the importance of human communication. One hundred years later, that commitment carries on in the Department of Communication Studies, where our mission is to focus our research and teaching on the ways in which human communication can help build communities, bridge cultures, organize people, and strengthen relationships.
While we are proud to continue this work, we are also proud of our past, which begins in earnest during the spring of 1923 with KU’s decision to hire “Jesse Allen Crafton of Carlton College, Northfield, Minnesota” to head a newly imagined department. As Crafton’s background was in theater, he quickly made the decision to name his new department Speech and Drama. With Crafton in place as department head, two additional faculty joined the program—Margaret Anderson, who would go on to help create the program that would become KU’s Department of Speech-Language-Hearing, and Bryan Gilkinson, who focused on speech and debate. Two years later, Crafton would hire Ezra Christian (E. C.) Buehler to “put KU on the map in forensics,” and the foundation for the next 100 years had been laid.
Under Crafton’s leadership, which lasted until 1956, the department flourished. During the 1930s, the department expanded its scope. In 1935, they added a “Public Speaking” course specifically for students in professional school programs. In 1937, the first course in “Radio Speaking” was added to the catalog, and two years later the first course in film, “The Motion Picture,” appeared. Indeed, by the end of the 1930s, the department was providing instruction in four areas that would develop into four clear divisions: Speech Communication and Human Relations, Radio-TV-Film, Speech Pathology and Audiology, and Theatre and Drama.
In the 1940s, the department continued to expand. It added new courses, created a speech clinic to help students with speaking difficulties, and changed its name to Speech and Dramatic Art. It also, for the first time, began granting graduate degrees. The first recipient of the Master of Arts degree granted by the department was Willa Elizabeth Stevens, whose work was mentored by Margaret Anderson. Stevens's thesis was titled, "A Study of Methods and Materials Used to Correct Articulatory Defects in Children." Stevens earned her MA in 1946.
In 1956, the department saw more change. First, for the first time in its history, it was under new leadership. Jesse Allen Crafton stepped aside and William Conboy took over. A scholar focused on the social influence of speech and the science of listening, Conboy would serve as department chair for the next 16 years, providing the department with continued leadership consistency. Second, the department, which had been stuck in the basement of Green Hall for many years, found a home in the brand-new Music and Dramatic Arts building, later to be renamed Murphy Hall. Nestled in that new home, the department would, by 1977, grow into a faculty roster of dozens and a course catalog of over 200 courses.
In that new home, the department also made another major change. In 1960, the department created a doctoral program. The first Ph.D.s to be conferred by the department were awarded in 1964 to Richard Johannesen ("John Quincy Adams' speaking on territorial expansion, 1836-1848") and Sidney Berger ("The theme of persecution in selected dramas of the Yiddish art theatre"). That same year, the department awarded 22 MA degrees.
By 1970, the Department of Speech and Dramatic Art had grown so much that the four divisions noted above became even more distinct with the creation of Division Heads. Indeed, one of the department’s core faculty members at the time—Bobby Patton—noted the new Division organization when he recorded the leadership structure for the Speech Communication and Human Relations Division in 1972:
Division Head (Dr. Donn Parson)
Director of Graduate Studies (Dr. Tom Beisecker)
Director of Undergraduate Studies (Prof. Robert Hamlin)
Director of Fundamentals of Speech Program (Mr. Richard Barnes)
Director of the Communication Research Center (Dr. Kim Giffin)
Director of the Human Relations Program (Dr. Paul Friedman)
Director of Debate (Dr. Donn Parson)
Under this leadership structure, the Division flourished throughout the 1970s with a strong group of faculty that included Jon Blubaugh, Karlyn Kohrs Campbell, Nobleza Lande, Dorthy Pennington, and Bonnie Ritter.
The 1980s were a time of change for the department. The overall organizational structure changed significantly during the early 1980s, with several name changes: first, in 1981, the Division of Speech Pathology and Audiology was renamed "Speech‑Language‑Hearing: Sciences and Disorders." Second, in 1982, the Department of Speech and Drama was renamed and reorganized as the Division of Speech and Drama, with oversight for the four separate department programs. In addition, the department of Speech Communication and Human Relations renamed itself Communication Studies. Bobby Patton explained the change in an open letter published in the Division's October 1982 Update newsletter:
At the suggestion of Dean Robert Lineberry, we have become a Division of Speech and Drama, consisting of four departments. This change in labels both brings more symmetry to the College organizational pattern and indicates the autonomy of our four separate programs. Despite the change in titles, however, we continue to work together as we have in the past.
The optimism may have been warranted, but it would ultimately not bear out. Within six years, the Division would be dissolved entirely.
Under Bobby Patton, the department had swelled considerably, producing noteworthy scholarship, but it had also expanded to a breaking point in an unfavorable climate of financial setbacks and faculty attrition. In 1984, due in part to faculty losses, two departments—Radio-TV-Film and Theatre—merged into the Theatre and Media Arts Department. Then, in 1988, the Division holding the three departments together dissolved entirely. Completely divorced now from both Speech-Language-Hearing and Theatre and Media Arts, the Department of Communication Studies now stood alone within the College. However, it remained in good hands under the stewardship of Dr. Wil Linkugel, who had taken over as chairperson after Dr. Parson.
On its own, under the leadership of Wil Linkugel, and securely housed in Wescoe Hall, the Department of Communication Studies grew stronger. The 1980s saw the addition of several important faculty members, including Diana Carlin, Mary Lee Hummert, and Robert Rowland. Then, in 1991, Scott Harris joined the department as its sixth head coach, continuing a long legacy of incredible success.
Indeed, KU Debate has been housed in the department since 1925, when E. C. Buehler joined the faculty. Professor Buehler led the team until Dr. Kim Giffin took over in 1948, which just so happens to be the year after the National Debate Tournament was launched as the preeminent debate tournament designed to crown a national winner each spring. Since its inception in 1947, KU Debate has won the NDT a total of six times—once in 1954 under Coach Giffin, then in 1970, 1976, and 1983 under Coach Donn Parson, and finally in 2009 and 2018 under Coach Scott Harris, along with Coach Brett Bricker who joined the faculty in 2013. Those six wins are the most of any public university and fourth most all time behind Northwestern University, Dartmouth College, and Harvard University.
Just as KU Debate has continued its long history of success, the Department of Communication Studies as a whole has continued to thrive in both research and teaching as it has maintained a consistently strong group of award-winning faculty over the past thirty years. Housed in Bailey Hall since it moved from Wescoe Hall in January 2001, the Department has had years of consistent leadership, and the department now focuses its research and teaching in two broad areas: Rhetoric & Political Communication and Relationships & Social Interaction. Across those two areas, we continue to explore all the ways in which humans communicate with one another in interpersonal settings, organizational settings, and public forums within and across cultures. With hundreds of undergraduate majors, dozens of graduate students, and twenty faculty, we remain committed to our mission because we know nothing ever gets done without effective communication.
Jesse Allen Crafton July 1923 – June 1956
William Conboy July 1956 – June 1970
Donn Parson July 1970 – June 1979
Tom Beisecker July 1979 – June 1985
Wil Linkugel June 1985 – July 1991
Howard Sypher July 1991 – June 1998
Diana Carlin July 1998 – June 1999
Robin Rowland July 1999 – June 2009
Beth Innocenti July 2009 – June 2012
Tom Beisecker July 2012 – June 2017
Jay Childers July 2017 – Present