Professor Reveals Troubling Truths About the Airline Industry
William McGee’s book Attention All Passengers: The Truth About the Airlines will no doubt stir up some turbulence for the airline industry when it is published by HarperCollins this spring. McGee, an adjunct associate professor of English at Hofstra and Class of 1984 graduate, is also the travel editor for Consumer Reports. During his tenure at the well-respected magazine, he has covered a multitude of shortcomings and even dangerous practices involving airline maintenance, security measures, and safety guidelines, as well as passengers’ annoyance with the multitude of fees charged for baggage handling and other services.
McGee’s successful writing career has not been without its own bumps in the road. “I was not a good student before I came to Hofstra,” he admits and adds that Hofstra was the third college he attended. “Before I discovered writing, I never considered myself a good student, but coming to Hofstra turned my life around. Within one year I was on the dean’s list, won a creative writing scholarship, and the Eugene Schneider Fiction Award.”
He gives a lot of credit to his faculty mentors, Tom DeHaven and Julia Markus (who still teaches on the English faculty). “They convinced me I wasn’t crazy and that I had talent. They also encouraged me to pursue an M.F.A. in creative writing.” McGee isn’t shy about sharing his academic experiences with his own students. “I believe there are a lot of other people like me out there who might be confused about their direction in life and discover themselves in college.”
Following graduation, Professor McGee was eager to be free of the classroom for a while. He did not feel ready to dive into an M.F.A. program, which he did eventually pursue and complete at Columbia University. But first, he says, he began freelance writing, and “I wanted to travel. I took a job with a small airline working on charter flight operations.” He stayed in the industry for seven years and traveled around the world. His experiences in that job prompted him to focus his writing on travel and aviation. Eventually he landed a position as the editor of Consumer Reports Travel Letter.
Working with Consumer Reports was unlike any other writing assignment he’d ever experienced. “It gave me a lot of discipline. They’re very strict about fact checking – you can’t be sloppy about your research because every detail is vetted. If I didn’t have the experience of working at Consumer Reports, I wouldn’t have been able to write my book,” which needed the same level of attention to detail and carefully documented research.
Following the terrorist attacks of 9/11, Consumer Reports pushed McGee into the public spotlight as a media expert. While other magazines and newspapers held back on criticizing airline security because of the risk of losing big name advertisers, Consumer Reports – which is not-for-profit and doesn’t accept advertising – was not worried about sharing unsettling information about air travel and security. Post-9/11, McGee says, “I was in a media vacuum. People had stopped flying and no one wanted to address what was happening. At Consumer Reports we sat down and started talking about what consumers wanted and expected the airlines to do.”
Because of his continued coverage of the airlines, McGee was appointed in 2010 to serve on the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Future of Aviation Advisory Committee. The aim of the committee was to provide information, advice and recommendations to Transportation Secretary Raymond LaHood on ensuring the competitiveness of the U.S. aviation industry and its capability to address the evolving transportation needs, challenges and opportunities of the U.S. and global economy. McGee was the only representative on the 19-person committee representing the rights of consumers.
Among the panel’s recommendations was a proposal to educate parents and caregivers about the dangers of flying with young children in their laps, rather than seating them in child restraint systems. The committee asked the DOT to update the economic and safety data around the issue and consider a rule requiring all children under 2 to be in safety seats. Additional recommendations include urging the DOT to enforce airline passengers’ rights, and addressing concerns about airline maintenance outsourcing, which remains a critical threat to safety.
In the course of writing his book Attention All Passengers, McGee traveled on 15 different domestic airlines over an eight-month period, and even spent some time at an airline call center in India. He expects that the book will expose some details about airline operations that consumers will find disturbing, but he hopes the issues he raises will prompt positive action and policy.
Not too long ago, McGee reminisces, flying was an exciting and special adventure for people. He even cites the new television program Pan Am, which evokes the glamour air travel once held. “Along the way,” he says, “flying became a commodity, not a service industry. People are more brand loyal to supermarket products than they are to airlines. That’s the whole reason the frequent flyer programs were started – to promote brand loyalty. Consumers need to know that the airlines don’t all have the same safety records, they don’t have the same hiring standards and safety training for pilots – they’re not all equal. Car companies compete on safety – the airlines do not.”
Back on the ground at Hofstra, McGee serves as a thesis advisor for students enrolled in the English Department’s new M.F.A. in Creative Writing program. He also advises the Hofstra Writers Club and teaches creative writing and prose writing, which, ironically, is the same course that inspired him as a student. He says his work at Hofstra is healthy for his off-campus endeavors. “Your writing is going to be better if you’re teaching writing, critiquing writing. Constantly reading and thinking about the craft spills over into my own writing.”
Attention All Passengers: The Truth About the Airlines will be available in bookstores in May 2012.
Journalism Professor’s New Book and Course Meet a Growing Industry Need
In the black of night, the camera focuses in on a pair of legs wading through the knee-deep, murky waters of a remote swamp before it pans out to an image of armed police officers in pursuit of drug smugglers. Thus began a news story reported, filmed and edited entirely by G. Stuart Smith, who in the 1970s was a young journalist working for the NBC affiliate near Charlotte County, Florida. As a one-person bureau, he covered his beats alone, taking on the roles of both reporter and cameraman.
Little did he know then that 35 years later, he’d be writing about those experiences in Going Solo: Doing Videojournalism in the 21st Century (University of Missouri Press, 2011), a cutting-edge book aimed at training a digital generation of aspiring journalists how to singlehandedly create all the elements of a broadcast or Web video story. Smith, an associate professor of journalism at Hofstra since 2003, also uses his book to teach a new required course called Multimedia Journalism Video, preparing students to meet the growing need in a money-strapped industry for “backpack” journalists who can do it all.
Professor Smith, who has produced two documentary films and won more than two dozen awards over the years for his work as a videojournalist, had initially considered becoming a lawyer or going into the military as a teen growing up in Albion, Indiana. But in the late 1960s, when he was a junior in high school, his interests changed as he began to question the government’s role in the Vietnam War. “I didn’t trust government, and I understood even as a young person that they were telling us lies during the war, so I really wanted to speak truth to power,” he says. “Over the years as I worked as a reporter, I found that there are a lot of honest people in government, but there are also others who are in public service for the wrong reason. I’ve tried to point out both in my work.”
As a reporter for the college paper at Ball State University, Smith started to understand the power of the written word: “I really started seeing that I could have an influence. When I write something, people react to it.” Feeling his strengths lay more on the broadcast side, Smith minored in radio/TV along with a double major in journalism and political science, and would later go on to complete graduate studies in broadcast journalism at the University of Missouri, home to the country’s first-ever collegiate journalism school.
His first professional job was at WCTW-WMDH, a small AM/FM radio station in New Castle, Indiana, where he was reporter, then news director. “My beat was the county courthouse, and I’d go down there every day looking for news, talking to public officials in the various county offices or covering meetings,” Smith recalled recently. “And I began to see, over and over, that some people during the election season would be working on campaign materials in their offices, which was blatantly illegal. So I reported on that.” The move left him ostracized, but he didn’t regret it. “I was serving the public, and officials should not have been working on campaigns during public time. This is why I got into journalism, and it took time but people eventually respected my work and saw that what I was reporting was true and right.”
Smith’s commitment to unbiased reporting helped him break a story during the Watergate scandal. “I was in Indiana, far removed from Washington, D.C., but our congressman, David Dennis, was on the House Judiciary Committee, which was investigating the impeachment of President Nixon.” Anytime Smith saw something on the newswires about the Judiciary Committee, he’d call Dennis, a staunch Republican and Nixon loyalist, for comment. When the Supreme Court ordered Nixon to release the tapes and Dennis saw the damning evidence, he called Smith to tell him that he was now voting against the president. “He called me – I didn’t call him – because I had built up that contact with him over many months, and he trusted me to tell the truth about his perspective,” says Smith. His exclusive with the only Indiana official on the Judiciary Committee won his small local station some impressive statewide coverage.
During 17 years as a reporter, videographer and special projects producer in Fort Myers, Smith interviewed sources and shot video on subjects that ranged from important community issues (contaminated drinking water, harmful pesticides) to the quirky and offbeat (a Big Foot sighting). Then, as a senior reporter during the recession of the 1990s, he agreed to work for a while with a pay cut and fewer hours before turning his sights north and on teaching. It was time for a change, he says.
At Hofstra, Smith was encouraged by Carol Rich, then chair of the Journalism Department, to beef up the broadcast classes, which had up to that point been designed by professors with print backgrounds. “After I was there about a year, I told my colleagues that we’ve got all the pieces here for a converged newsroom. We needed to have a place where students could work and feel like they were producing an actual news product and not just doing class projects, so in the fall of 2004, I made a proposal for what eventually became NewsHub,” Hofstra’s state-of-the-art newsroom and multimedia classroom. He credits colleague Sybil DelGaudio, at the time dean of the School of Communication, for much of NewsHub’s success. “I thought we would just convert one of the existing classrooms but once she got hold of the idea, she really made it into something bigger and greater than I had ever conceived,” he notes. One of Smith’s goals over the years at Hofstra was to make sure journalism students learned how to not only write and report the news, but also shoot and edit video, a task that had been handled by students in the Radio, Television, Film (RTVF) Department. “My colleagues in RTVF agreed with this also, and slowly we’ve absorbed more and more of what the RTVF students were doing for broadcast journalism students.”
In fact, starting this year, the Department of Journalism, Media Studies and Public Relations has done away with “broadcast” or “print” tracks, instead requiring all journalism students to learn basic multimedia skills along with other core classes such as reporting, law and ethics. Students still have the flexibility to study and master one area such as magazine writing, broadcast journalism, online journalism or information graphics.
Next up, Smith hopes that journalism students will soon have the ability to produce a daily television newscast. “We’re doing that now with WRHU, which is such a wonderful tool for students. They do 24/7 broadcasting, including a lot of news reporting, and it’s a great deadline-driven experience. I’d love to see something similar on the TV side to help us get to the next level.”
Professor Smith is now working on a book and documentary project about his great aunt Elizebeth Smith Friedman and her husband, William Friedman, who were pioneer code breakers for the American government.
Bringing Hofstra’s M.B.A. Program Online
Dr. Kaushik Sengupta is the director of Hofstra’s newly launched online M.B.A. program, New York’s first distance learning program in strategic business management. Hofstra Magazine talked to Dr. Sengupta about the development of the program and its place in Hofstra’s academic community.
What was the driving force behind Zarb deciding to create a fully online M.B.A. program?
We have been offering online courses at both the B.B.A. and M.B.A. levels for about five years now. There is a core group of full-time faculty members who are quite adept at teaching online. We figured that this program would be the next natural step in the evolution of our graduate programs. In addition, we have had requests from prospective students and alumni that they would like to earn an M.B.A. from Hofstra, but could not do so because of schedule and logistical issues, having to come to campus two to three evenings during the week. This program allows working professionals to get an outstanding education without leaving their current location.
What were some of the issues or concerns that came about when creating the program?
We really had a very short time for developing and promoting the program. A program like this usually takes a year, sometimes more, to develop. We conceptualized the structure of the program over the 2010-2011 academic year, but really started putting it together only in February and March of 2011, with actual promotion beginning in April. That was the main concern – do we have sufficient time to do everything to get a cohort going in the fall? Thankfully, everything worked out great in the end, although we surely had some anxious moments over the summer.
What are some of the elements of the program that set it aside from others like it?
In terms of the structure and recognition, this program is no different from our on-campus M.B.A. offerings. For instance, the degree and transcripts do not indicate this is being delivered online. This program is also AACSB accredited. Taking advantage of the available technology, this is just a different way to deliver the courses. However, there are several components that make this program unique – the residencies in New York that allow the students to come together as a group for a few days and interact with faculty members and industry leaders; the global practicum, which consists of an international trip to supplement the global focus of the program; the availability of campus services, including The Career Center; and an outstanding quality of distance learning courses taught only by full-time faculty members, most of whom are experienced at teaching online. The strategic business management concentration is also new and unique for this program, and it was designed again with an eye toward the type of students we thought would be attracted to this program – students with several years of work experience, looking at a more general, strategic focus in their M.B.A., while anchored in the functional basics and a global setting. I think all these elements together set the program apart.
Tell us a little bit about the first class of students?
Our first cohort has 18 students – a really diverse group. Geographically, we have folks from Utah, Arkansas, Bermuda, Connecticut, New Jersey and New York. We have several who live and work in Manhattan who wouldn’t have joined a Hofstra M.B.A. program if it wasn’t online. About 30 percent of the group are Hofstra alumni, including people who have earned master’s degrees and J.D.s from Hofstra. A few of the students are already doing really well in their respective careers, and all of these people looked at the program as a way to increase their knowledge and to be even better in their professional roles. For example, we have a person who is the CFO of a major hospital system, another who is the senior vice president and general counsel of his company, several students who are in the financial sector in New York, and a few who have their own businesses. So, it is quite an eclectic and mature group.
In your opinion, what seems to be the driving force behind these students deciding on a fully online degree program?
I had extensive interactions with each of these students during the admission process. I think the major driving force is that all of them felt a need to further their education to progress in their careers. However, because of hectic work and family schedules, none really were in a position to be in a program that required them to be on campus every week. So, the online delivery was definitely a key factor in their deciding to join the program. This and the fact that they knew the quality of the programs that come out of Hofstra helped them decide to enroll.
Some of them were skeptical about the nature and quality of courses in an online setting. We discussed with them the highly interactive nature of the courses and the enhanced nature of learning that takes place in these courses. One of the things we developed during the admission process was to create a sample course for prospective students to view – this also helped them get a feel for how these courses would be taught.
The students are required to complete a residency program at the beginning of the semester – why make this a requirement, and how did the first residency go?
We did not want this to be an online program only, with no connection to the excellent, physical campus setting that we have. Right from the beginning, we had the objective that these online M.B.A. students should feel they are a part of the Hofstra community and, therefore, we needed to build this residency component. It was also important for the group to interact with the faculty members, administrators and other on-campus services. In addition, because we were doing this in New York, we designed a component where the students interacted with a few industry leaders. Therefore, the residency component was designed as an integral part of the program – this is not a correspondence course type of program. It is a program that brings much more value to the students, and the residency is a big part of it.
The first residency was outstanding. Over four days in August, we met at the Glen Cove Mansion and on the Hofstra campus. There were interactive sessions with senior administrators, faculty members and industry leaders. We had two excellent visits with Capital One and with Bank of New York Mellon. The students really came together as a group, and they deemed the interaction with faculty members as invaluable. For instance, the group met with each of the faculty members teaching the courses in the first semester in separate sessions – this was treated as an introduction to the courses and really helped the students get a sense of the course and instructor expectations. We feel this will continue to be a key component of this program and may actually end up having a slightly larger role in the future.
Please explain the global practicum requirement at the end of the first year.
As we all know, most business decisions and strategies today are devised in a global context. The concentration in strategic business management in this program has courses looking at the global perspectives of various business decisions. The global practicum is an integral part of this aspect. This would consist of an international trip to one or two countries where the students would interact with industry leaders and practitioners in those countries. Our experiences with such a component in other programs have shown that students come back with many new ideas and insights as to what it takes to succeed globally.
You are now into the first semester – how is everything going? How are students adjusting to the online curriculum?
Everything is going great so far. The students, I think, are still going through a period of adjustment, as many of them have not taken a formal set of courses in a long time. But I think they are doing fine overall and will do great in the program. These online courses really have quite a bit of interaction among the students and with the instructor. Students interact through discussion forums, videos and online case discussions – I don’t think the students are having any issues with this aspect. This is where the first residency in August really helped – these students already came to know one another as part of being together for four days; they also came face to face with the instructors. So, when they started the online courses, they already knew everyone, and this has significantly helped the interaction.
Tell us where you would like to see this program go in the future? Additional majors? Growth potential?
I would like to see this program develop further with additional majors and options. The potential is limitless, as the online delivery mechanism frees up the campus-focused constraints. We also strive to engage corporate clients, as the online medium of delivery allows corporations to have employees in various locations be a part of the program. While we think of expanding the program, we will be careful in deciding the exact path of future expansion. Our on-campus programs are the key to our success as a business school and will remain so for the foreseeable future. As I discussed before, the online program takes advantage of the available technology – the degree and transcripts are the same as in the regular M.B.A. Therefore, any subsequent developments in the program will happen with respect to the overall strategy for program development in the school. We are having discussions on adding new majors (such as health care) and providing an option for students to marry the on-campus majors with the online offering in a more hybrid option. These are still in discussion, but I think the program will have additional options in the near future.