History of the Department

A Brief History of the UC Santa Barbara Department of Communication

By John M. Wiemann
Professor Emeritus of Communication, Vice Chancellor Emeritus 

This is a somewhat idiosyncratic history in that I rely mostly on my recollections of events and my memory of conversations over the years, augmented by some research in old yearbooks. *

In 1925, when the campus became a state college, there were six or seven departments:  Industrial Arts, Education, Music, Art, Manual Arts, and a general humanities department.  There was also instruction in Home Economics, but it is not clear if that was a separate department or contained in one of the other departments.  There was no Speech Department, and it is not clear if speech was taught in the humanities department or not.

Fast forward to 1947.  The college had 13 departments, including Speech, which had faculty teaching rhetoric and public address, theater and speech correction (pathology and its treatment).  In 1949 Edwin Schoell and Rollin Quimby joined the department.  They are the links from the state college to the modern UCSB and the Department of Communication.  Schoell, who came to UCSB from Michigan State, was the prototypical speech professor of the time.  He taught American Public Address, play writing and phonetics (for the speech correction students). 

Theater split from Speech in the 1960s.  Schoell had the option to go with either department and chose to stay in Speech. 

In the 1970s, the Speech department, which had only five or six faculty, hired its first quantitative scholars.  At that time, it added its first courses in interpersonal and mass communication.  This was an interesting move for what had been a very traditional department. Shortly after my arrival in 1977, Quimby told me, “We have a sleepy little department and Ed and I want to keep it that way.”  But there was already a sign on Tony Mulac’s office door, which read:  The Center for the Quantitative Study of Speech.  This was more than a sign on a door; it was a sign of things to come.

With the hire of Jim Bradac in the early ‘80s, the department began a significant transition from a traditional rhetoric and public address focus to a more eclectic curriculum.  Within a year or two of Bradac’s hire, Schoell and Quimby announced they were planning to retire.  At a department retreat to discuss our future in 1983, the two senior scholars encouraged the rest of us to become a social science department.  Specifically, they said not to replace them in kind or feel that we owed it to them to replace them in kind.  This was a liberating moment for the younger faculty and a turning point for the department.  At this retreat, and again with Schoell’s and Quimby’s encouragement, the faculty had its first discussion of splitting from Speech and Hearing Sciences.

Predictably, the faculty had trepidations about breaking up the Speech Department.  There was a long history there, and Speech and Hearing had a Ph.D. program, which gave the department credibility.  Bradac and I had a few preliminary conversations with David Sprecher, the Provost of the College of Letters and Sciences, shortly after the retreat.  Sprecher was both encouraging and helpful in our formulating a course of action.  As our thinking about how and why we wanted to become an autonomous program sharpened, Bradac and I had a meeting with Bob Michaelson, the Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs.  Michaelson liked the plan, and the separation of the two programs took place in record time.  Within a few months, we become the Communication Studies Program and moved to “temporary” space in Ellison Hall.  We stayed there until the Social Science and Media Studies Building was completed in 2009.

At this time, preparation of the Ph.D. proposal began in earnest.  But all was not peace and tranquility.  A few senior members of the Faculty Senate thought that since we were only a small “program” (small faculty and M.A. program, but about 700 undergraduate majors) and without a Ph.D., that the campus should close us down.  Later, as the Ph.D. proposal advanced through campus committees, we had opposition from faculty who didn’t understand the discipline or who thought there was already enough social science on campus.  But with the support of several key administrators, and—most importantly—a very high quality and productive faculty, the obstacles were overcome.

During this period we became a full-fledged department and dropped the “Studies” from our name.  We continued to get support from the administration for new FTE (faculty lines) and 

we continued to make high-quality hires.  Productivity of the faculty soared.

The Ph.D. program was approved in 1989.  The first class was admitted in 1990.  The first Ph.D. degrees were awarded in 1995 to Audry Weiss and Jon Busch.  In 2000, the first endowed chair was established in the department (the Arthur N. Rupe Professor in the Social Effects of Mass Communication). 

The rest is history, as the saying goes.  The once “sleepy little department” is now recognized as one of the best in the country in our various sub-disciplines by a variety of rankings, including the National Research Council and National Communication Association.  Faculty members have won many national and international honors, prestigious fellowships, and have served in leadership positions in national and international organizations.  And graduates of the department have gone on to successful and distinguished careers.

* There are probably better historical sources, but the yearbooks were all I had in hand when I was preparing this essay.  Using yearbooks is problematic because the quality of the data is not comparable or consistent from year to year.  However, I’ve done my best to piece together the early days of the department.