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$2.5 million gift creates narrative professorship

The Sumner M. Redstone Charitable Foundation endowed Boston University’s College of Communication with $2.5 million to create a new professorship in narrative studies, the foundation announced Tuesday.

“This fits in perfectly with our aspiration to be regarded as a college that puts storytelling at the center of its teaching,” said COM Dean Thomas Fiedler. “That’s the connective tissue that runs through all of what we do here at the College of Communication, and having a professor that will hold that flag for us is a major asset.”

A senior COM faculty member will be chosen to instruct students in courses to broaden COM’s focus on narrative journalism. The yet-to-be chosen faculty member will also produce original works or conduct studies on narrative journalism and help encourage others to study storytelling.

Fiedler said narrative storytelling is an important aspect of every field of communication.

“It’s really all about the quality of the story,” he said. “The technology changes; you use different technology sometimes to reach different audiences. But ultimately it all comes back to the quality of the story that you’re telling.”

The gift from Viacom and CBS chair Sumner Redstone, who also sponsors the annual Redstone Film Festival, will allow for the first interdisciplinary course of study in COM to focus primarily on narrative writing, Fiedler said.

“Even though we have incorporated aspects of storytelling in each of the departments and each of our programs, we have not had a single-focused place or professorship for narrative storytelling, where all of that could come together,” he said. “That’s what this enables us to do, is to really put a spotlight on the importance of narrative to what we do here in the College of Communication.”

Fiedler said the professorship will be designed as a position of limited tenure in order for it to be held by distinguished members of a diverse number of fields in communication. Professors could hold the position for no more than four years to allow experienced practitioners in the fields of journalism, public relations, advertising and filmmaking to teach and hold seminars about narrative storytelling within the context of their profession.

“Narrative cuts across so many other professions and pursuits,” he said. “What we want to be able to do here and can do when we build a program for the practice and study of narrative is to have those kinds of conversations and discussions. And I think it will be a distinguishing element of the College of Communication and something that very few other colleges and universities try to do.”

BU spokesman Colin Riley said it is a strong endorsement of COM’s academic prestige to have received a donation from Redstone.

“He’s been a leader and has been for decades in the world of media and entertainment,” Riley said. “It reflects well on the university to have a professorship in his name because everyone in the media world knows the name of Sumner Redstone.”

Redstone began work at theater company National Amusements, Inc., which is owned by his father, in 1954. In 1982, Redstone joined the faculty at the BU School of Law, creating one of the first courses in entertainment law and organizing the school’s intellectual property curriculum to expand protection in the entertainment industry.

Riley said the professorship focusing on narrative storytelling is important to have in a communication field that is increasingly shifting toward technology.

“The world of media right now is very dynamic. It always has been,” he said. “There have been so many changes that this [professorship], to me, seems like an anchor. One of the most critical aspects of journalism is being accurate and being able to tell things completely, and narrative journalism and narrative storytelling fits that.”

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