The School of Communication was first formed as a supplement to Western State Normal School's teaching training curriculum. Courses in the Department of Expression, as it was initially called, were introduced in the school's 1906 catalog as electives for students in the Life, Graded School, and Rural School courses.
During the 1918-19 academic year, the Department of Expression was renamed the Department of Speech. Seven years later the first references to a speech major and minor were included in the Western State Teachers College catalog, and the list of courses expanded to eighteen.
In 1921, Laura Shaw was named the first head of the Speech Department. She led the department through the Great Depression era during which time the Speech Department saw little growth except in the area of speech disorders and speech correction. In 1965, the speech pathology and audiology program separated from the Speech Department and became the Department of Speech Pathology and Audiology.
In 1950, radio was also receiving post-war attention and specialists in media and broadcasting joined the department. Radio courses had been offered since the 1940s and led to the creation of WMCR-FM in 1950 and WIDR in 1952. WMCR-FM call numbers were later changed to WMUK.
In the late 1960s the concept of interpersonal communication emerged. Under the direction of Dr. Charles Brown course offerings within the department became increasingly focused on intra- and interpersonal communication as a more scientific approach and began to shift away from the performing arts and public speaking as the communication core. This led to the department's name change in 1970 to the Department of Communication Arts and Sciences.
The early 1970s also marked the establishment of television production and performance as a new departmental branch. In the mid 1980s, film courses were added as electives in mass communication; and by the late 1990s traditional distinctions among radio, television, and film were becoming less clear. By 2000, the wide use of personal computers and digital media placed a new emphasis on multi-media.
In 1976 faculty interested in the performing arts separated from the Department of Communication Arts and Sciences to form the Department of Theatre. This same year, Dr. Richard Dieker was appointed as the new chair of the department. Under his leadership, the primary changes in the curriculum included the continued development of interpersonal communication courses, the addition of courses related to organizational communication, and the addition of an interdisciplinary public relations major in 1981.
The Department of Communication Arts and Sciences became the Department of Communication in 1987. By 1993, the general Communication major was dropped and six new majors were added including: Broadcast and Cable Production, Communication Studies, Media Studies, Interpersonal Communication, Organizational Communication, and Telecommunications Management. In 2001, the Journalism major was moved from the Department of English to the Department of Communication and raised the number of undergraduate majors to eight.
After Diekers successful tenure as chair, Dr. James Gilchrist was selected to serve as chair in 1993 followed by current chair Dr. Steven Rhodes in 1999.
Department of Communication has always been characterized by a strong research component beginning in 1958, when then Vice president Russell H. Seibert established the Center for Communication Research and appointed Dr. Charles T. Brown as the first director.
This strong research focus became a catalyst for the creation and growth of graduate education in the department. New courses in interpersonal and intrapersonal communication were introduced to the curriculum, and by 1970, the department offered its first general masters degree in communication.
Dr. William Buys became the first director of the graduate program in 1970. By the completion of his role in 1979, the general masters degree had evolved into two masters: interpersonal communication and organizational communication.
When Dr. Shirley Van Hoeven replaced Dr. Buys as director of the graduate program in 1979, the department expanded its organizational faculty. Course offerings and graduate school enrollment increased significantly due to the departments extensive course offerings in organizational communication and the addition of a new telecommunications masters degree program in 1994.
Because of the national reputation of the master’s degree, the graduate program continued to flourish in the 1990s with consistently higher enrollments. Students showed primary interest in the organizational communication program and the department continued to show commitment to the program through the hiring of faculty at the graduate level.
In 1999 Dr. Steve Rhodes took over as the department chair. Under his leadership several innovative and exciting initiatives were undertaken. Dr. Leigh Ford was appointed director of the graduate program in 2001. A doctoral program in Communication has been developed and been approved by various university committees. The plan is to send the proposal forward for acceptance by Michigan’s Council of Presidents as soon as budgetary constraints allow. The establishment of a doctoral degree in Communication will continue to build the national reputation of the graduate program.
On July 1, 2004, the Board of Trustees for Western Michigan University gave their unanimous support to change our name and status from Department of Communication to School of Communication and appointed Dr. Steve Rhodes as the first Director of the School.
The new name -- School of Communication -- provides a level of visibility and recognition that will benefit our students, alumni, faculty, emeriti, programs, the College of Arts & Sciences, and Western Michigan University in a number of ways: student and faculty recruitment; accreditation efforts for journalism and public relations programs; alumni development; and outreach development for internships, research opportunities, and service learning opportunities.
More specifically, becoming a "School" places WMU and the College of Arts and Sciences in line with peer institutions that have "School of Communication" academic units. A school structure will facilitate the existing interaction among our faculty members who serve our diverse programs while providing a showcase for each of our distinct undergraduate and graduate communication programs.
In addition, the size and diversity of the communication programs at WMU are commensurate with the development of a School of Communication. As such, our new school structure is more appropriate for the level of administrative and operational complexity necessary to carry out our programs than is a departmental structure. The diversity of programs indicates the complexity of the administrative structure necessary to develop, coordinate, schedule, and implement the program curricula. The diversity of the programs also indicates the complexity of faculty recruitment and development, and the development and maintenance of the physical resources necessary to implement course offerings.
In supporting our name change, the University recognized that the School of Communication has the largest undergraduate enrollment in the College of Arts and Sciences; that within the College, the department offers more undergraduate degree options than any other department; and that we have a strong graduate program. In addition, the name change acknowledges that there is significant diversity in our department’s programs and research. Faculty expertise necessary to serve the variety of programs includes members who study individual and small group communication behavior; organizational communication; mass media analysis, criticism, and production; telecommunication and information management, technology, and interactive media; journalism; public relations; health communication; and leadership.
As reflected earlier in this overview of our history, the current name change marks the fifth name change for the department in our 99-year history. Over the years, each of our name changes has been a reflection of the changing nature of our department, its programs, and philosophy. This latest change acknowledges our strengths, raises our prestige, and accurately reflects the quality, size, and complexity of our department as it enters the 21 st century.
Assuming history does indeed repeat itself, it is certain that faculty, staff and students in the School of Communication can look forward to another progressive century.
In 2009, Dr. Leigh Ford was appointed the director of the School of Communication and Dr. Joseph Kayany took over as the director of graduate studies.