Scripps Journalism School Director To Receive Medal Of Honor

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The Director of the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism, Dr. Robert Stewart will be awarded The Medal of Honor from one of the world’s most storied institutions – Leipzig University.

The German institution will impart its highest honor on Stewart while celebrating Founder’s Day – the university’s 605th anniversary – on December 2.

Stewart’s recognition comes for his continuous work with the University’s Communications and Media Sciences Institute.

Stewart has been facilitating relations between Leipzig University and Ohio University since 1992, when OU was selected by the U.S. Embassy to help restructure former East German universities as they switched to a democratic model following the collapse of the Berlin Wall.

The opportunity intrigued Stewart.  “Leipzig had a certain potential prestige that could become very good for Ohio University,” he said.

Founded in 1409, the University of Leipzig’s history is unique.

The University was a center for early studies in philosophy, mathematics and sciences. Notable alumni include Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Gottfried Leibinz, Friedrich Nietzsche and even the current German Chancellor, Angela Merkel.

The uniqueness was highlighted when Stewart once joked with a visitor from Leipzig about the older age of the University compared to its library.

“I said you were a university before the printing press so what did you do without a library all of those years and he said ‘well, you know Guttenberg didn’t invent the printing press until the 1450s so until he could do that we didn’t really have a library,’” he said through laughter.

“And that gives you some sense of history – I’ve always thought of it in comparison to Columbus [discovering America] in 1492, which was 80 years after the founding of Leipzig. “But Guttenberg really gives you pause when you realize they were a university 40 years before the printing press was invented,” Stewart said.

More recently the university has historical ties to the Cold War. Once dubbed ‘Karl Marx University’ during the East Germany era, it was the only journalism school in the German Democratic Republic.

Stewart said, “It was the only Journalism school in East Germany and it had the nickname ‘the Red Monastery’ – partly because the journalism school was housed in a red brick building, but also because it was like the temple of socialist journalism and you could not be a journalist in East Germany unless you got a degree from Karl Marx University.”

But the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 brought new challenges for the university as changes had to be made to reflect German unification.

“So it’s symbolically a very interesting history and when the wall came down the university administration said the communication and journalism program is too politically red we’re just going to kill it,” said Stewart.

That threat lead students and faculty to protest to keep the program, including in some cases going on hunger strikes.

“Ultimately the university said ‘okay we’re going to keep it but we’re going to gut it and start over,’” said Stewart.

“That process was well underway when we got involved in the early ‘90s and we were instrumental in coming in and providing some consulting and support. You know, pats on the back and ‘keep going; you’re doing a great job,’” he said.

“The people who were in charge though were all West Germans and that group of people are all about to retire now – that’s how long we’ve been at this,” he added.

In 1995, Stewart and other colleagues helped found Leipzig’s radio station Mephisto 96.7 after students expressed interest in starting a radio station.

Ohio University was an ideal partnership for training students because of the unique opportunities that it offers through programs such as WOUB Public Media, which allows students to work in various positions to get hands-on experience as well as ACRN (All Campus Radio Network) which is run entirely by students.

Stewart assisted in developing a radio station that would be run solely by students for two hours in the morning and two hours in the afternoon, sharing the programming with a commercial station.

His idea was based in part on the success of Ohio student-run station ACRN, which gave Mephisto 97.6 its student structure.
“We were an influence and consultants, but they did all of the work,” said Stewart.

Stewart said he is impressed with the quality of work generated during the four-hours broadcast each day.

The result has been a program that offers students a unique international educational experience.

While Stewart believes all study-abroad programs offer incredible experiences, he believes Leipzig offers something unique compared to other destinations.

“Not all of our students are going to be interested in going to developing countries. What Leipzig offers is a western European experience where you can still see the world changing,” he said.

Students from Ohio University’s WOUB Center for Public Media have the opportunity to work with the German students at Mephisto 97.6, while German students also come to OU and work alongside WOUB student staffers. Stewart said the program is a European adventure that is relatively safe for students.

“By having this ongoing relationship, we can reliably give our students an international experience,” he said.

This awarding of Leipzig University’s Medal of Honor will be a moving experience for Stewart.

“It’s the highest honor they have so it feels like a big deal for me personally,” he said. “I’m very grateful that they’ve acknowledged my contribution to their university.”