Introducing New Director Elisia Cohen

Where she's been and what she has planned for the Hubbard School.

By Amanda Fretheim Gates

The Hubbard School of Journalism and Mass Communication is not only uniquely positioned within the College of Liberal Arts, but also in the Twin Cities market. When it was time to search for a new director, the College and the School wanted to find someone who could continue to build excellence in scholarship and research, adjust curricular offerings to keep up with changing times, draw and recruit additional faculty, show a commitment to diversity and much more. Elisia Cohen was one of three final candidates to present her vision for the School in fall 2016 to faculty, staff and the public, and it was clear her experience and thoughts on the School’s future met these expectations. Cohen started at the Hubbard SJMC at the end of June, ready to listen, engage and advance the School’s mission.

Meet Elisia Cohen

It all started with the debate team. Cohen was born in Santa Monica, California, but her family moved to Louisville, Kentucky, when she was young. In Louisville, she was such a super star on her high school debate team that it earned her a scholarship to the University of Iowa, where she pursued an interest in mass communication and political science. She ended up moving back to Kentucky, to attend the University of Louisville, finish her undergraduate degree in political science and continue to debate at the collegiate level.

“I thought I would go to law school, like a lot of political science majors were doing,” Cohen said. But a debate coach she’d met through national competitions suggested she might want to consider communication instead.

Cohen ended up receiving a debate assistantship from Wake Forest University in North Carolina where she worked alongside that coach, Allan Louden, and pursued a master’s degree in communication. “He told me that being a professor is a better deal [than law] because you get to work with people and students and watch them grow as opposed to being in an adversarial role as a lawyer,” she said.

Louden said Cohen had a great impact as a coach for the university’s intercollegiate debate team. “Coaching is defined by long hours across long seasons, competing at the highest national levels, with intensity and personalities laid bare,” he said. “Through it all, Elisia provided the care and guidance toward student excellence, all with a caring demeanor.”

Health Communication Interest Takes Hold

In the late ’90s, the use of the internet for news gathering and news consumption was starting to grow rapidly. Cohen’s interest in internet research and narratives led her to the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism where she worked as a graduate assistant, continued coaching intercollegiate debate and earned a Ph.D. During her time at the University of Southern California (USC) she was influenced by her research training working for the Metamorphosis Project, directed by Dr. Sandra Ball-Rokeach. The project examined problems of communication and community after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Later, the team developed a communication infrastructure perspective on how people construct and revitalize their residential communities through interpersonal and media storytelling, and how they go about solving every-day problems of family, health, intergroup relations and ethnic identity.

After her time at USC, Cohen was hired by St. Louis University as a tenure-eligible media professor, where her interest in health communication grew. (Her husband, whom she’d known through intercollegiate debate since she was an undergrad, worked across the border at Southern Illinois University.)

“I was very interested in problems related to media storytelling, community health and in doing community-based research,” she said. “I wanted to tell better stories about cancer and how to enhance the reach of high-quality cancer information in support of the under-represented communities in those stories. Because of this, I decided I wanted to move to a research-extensive university. I never thought I would move back home to Kentucky.”

But that’s what she did. In 2007, Cohen became a tenure-track assistant professor at the University of Kentucky. During her time at Kentucky, she earned tenure, became chair of the Department of Communication and acted as the director of the Health Communication Research Collaborative (HCRC), an organization that encourages faculty members across disciplines to work together to solve health communication challenges. Some projects the HCRC has taken on include improving adherence to the HPV vaccine and working with March of Dimes to create effective messaging on the importance of full-term birth. She hopes to bring a similar mission of cross-collaboration to the Hubbard SJMC.

“I’m really excited to leverage the resources of the Hubbard SJMC to partner with colleges of public health, medicine, social work, design and even within arts and science—to improve outcomes for patients, communities and organizations,” she said. “The researchers in our building have a lot to offer in this area.”

As the director of HCRC, Cohen was able to increase the number of grant submissions and health communication partnerships with other colleges. She also collaborated with others to advance the Kentucky Conference on Health Communication as a nationally and internationally recognized conference on health communication.

A Focus on Diversity

As chair for the department of communication at Kentucky, Cohen provided leadership in the area of diversity. She worked on partnering with the Martin Luther King Jr. Center to improve the recruitment of diverse students into the communication major. She also provided resources for faculty to develop distance learning or study abroad opportunities, with proposals coming in for partnerships in South America, China and Europe.

“The Hubbard School of Journalism and Mass Communication is a hidden gem within the College of Liberal Arts,” she said. “It’s really important for the school to reach out to diverse constituencies and to include other areas of the campus in conversations about journalism, strategic communication and media.”

Cohen hopes to develop a strategy to do just that. The School could offer courses or events (in partnership with the Minnesota Journalism Center) that invite in students from outside the Hubbard SJMC more broadly to make the School feel more inclusive, she said. She suggests partnering more with diverse organizations and student groups on campus to offer programs that talk about common problems, like explicit bias in media and implicit bias in society. She plans to help the School target messages that are aimed at students, alumni and other stakeholders to enhance that inclusive atmosphere, all in an effort to increase diversity in the student body and enhance the inclusiveness of its offerings. “We may do more to advertise some of our ‘teaser courses’ in our curriculum that meet general education core requirements, so that a first-generation student would be comfortable trying something new even if they never had a journalism or media course like ones we offer at their high school,” she said.

Why the Hubbard School?

When the search firm contacted her, Cohen knew she was coming to the end of her time as chair of the department of communication at Kentucky. And the thought of the University of Minnesota and the Hubbard School of Journalism and Mass Communication was quite appealing, for a number of reasons, including the School’s position within the College of Liberal Arts (CLA) and the University’s location within Minneapolis.

“There are very few campuses that are flagship universities, have academic medical centers and have schools of journalism and mass communication with faculty engaged in the research,” she said. “I love that the U is in a thriving urban community and that the School also has a history of engagement with the community and culture.”

Cohen also thinks the School is a strong leader within CLA, particularly because there has never been a more important time for the teaching of media literacy. “The school is really essential to the mission of CLA,” she said. “We teach students to think about media and problems of media and democracy—fundamentally those are elements of a broad-based liberal arts education.”

All of that was only a bonus to how special she thinks the Hubbard SJMC is as whole. It was quite clear from the start how strong the School’s relationship was with both the community and its alumni. She thought it was a benefit that alumni provide such a deep personal and a professional network for the School.

The School’s faculty was also a huge draw. There is a lot of talent within the walls of Murphy Hall, and it excites her how it has continued to grow. “The faculty members are incredibly current, have great professional skills and are interested in developing the program to reflect recent changes in the media environment.”

A Look to the Future

So, what’s in store for the Hubbard SJMC? Growth, both internally and externally. Cohen hopes to work with faculty and staff to expand the School’s research portfolio and enhance the graduate program and its offerings, while also helping individuals grow and pursue their professional interests.

“I hope to lead the faculty in a series of conversations around strategic planning,” she said. “As part of this planning process, we will discuss strategies for enhancing faculty and student success. This will involve making critical hires in areas where the school has identified unmet student demand and has high potential to augment research efforts.”

The alumni she’s had a chance to speak with have all expressed a desire to have more engagement with the Hubbard SJMC. Cohen plans to look at the resources directed at supporting student internships and job placement and what else can be done to make those opportunities more visible to students.

In the end, Cohen hopes to polish a program she thinks is already shining. “I’m thrilled to join the Hubbard SJMC as its director and carry on its many established traditions,” she said. “By working closely with faculty, staff, students and alumni, I hope to strengthen the School’s reputation for producing creative and entrepreneurial journalists and media professionals.” 

Elisia Cohen