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Columbia Business Monthly

Bierbauer’s Transitional Legacy

Apr 03, 2017 08:18PM ● By Makayla Gay

By AnnaMarie Koehler-Shepley

Photography © 2017 Brian Dressler /

The Charles Bierbauer of 30 years ago was not interested in teaching journalism. Back then, he said he wasn’t quite ready to give his job to some smart-aleck 25-year-old.

“Now my job is to train those smart-aleck 25-year-olds,” says Bierbauer, now 74. “And I really enjoy it.”

For the last 15 years, Bierbauer has served as the dean of the College of Information and Communication Sciences at the University of South Carolina. At the conclusion of this academic year, however, he’ll be stepping down.

As the first dean of the then newly-merged library and journalism schools and USC’s longest-serving dean, Bierbauer oversees 41 full-time faculty members as well as 20 to 25 adjunct faculty over a given semester.

One of the most visually obvious accomplishments of his tenure: the new journalism school building.

In 2015, after 46 years in the depths of the Carolina Coliseum, the J-school moved out of its old home and into a freshly renovated, state-of-the-art building, located in the center of campus.

“The building had been promised by so many of my predecessors,” Bierbauer said. “I’m pleased and take some pride in being the one to help bring it about.”

His legacy also includes expanding the degree programs offered across the college, such as the creation of the visual communications major that didn’t exist just a few years ago, and helping turn the student government outreach program “Cocky’s Reading Express” into a widespread literacy initiative.

“The literacy initiative that we’ve built over the last 11 years is something that all of us who have been involved in it are very proud of,” Bierbauer said. “To see that germinate from the school in a collaborative way, and to see it take on a life that has succeeded for more than a decade, and has gained statewide and national attention, that’s a big deal. I’m very proud of that.”

Bierbauer, who is perhaps more famously known for his career as a professional journalist, got his start early on, reporting for his high school and college newspapers. He worked as a wire service reporter for the Associated Press, as a correspondent for “Chicago Daily News,” and as a bureau chief and overseas correspondent for ABC News in both Moscow and Bonn, Germany.

In 1981, Bierbauer joined CNN, where he would continue working for the next 20 years. He came on board during the network’s first year on the air, and he enjoyed seeing it develop from something new and different to become a cornerstone of the news media.

“CNN was, by all means, the new kid, with a new approach to the news: it wasn’t just 30 minutes at 6:30 in the evening, but 24 hours around the clock,” Bierbauer said. “Could we do it? Could we do it effectively? Could we do it differently? And could we do it in an environment that wasn’t exactly receptive to us? It was both a chaotic and exciting time to be involved.”

Over the years, Bierbauer served as the network’s Pentagon correspondent, senior White House correspondent, and senior Washington correspondent. He was also a U.S. Supreme Court reporter and covered five presidential elections between 1984 and 2000.

And though he wasn’t officially covering this last presidential election, Bierbauer, who likens politics to a “year-round, four-season, full-contact blood sport,” was closely following along.

“The election coverage was as extensive as any ever has been, and I think it kind of grows exponentially, if not incrementally, through each cycle,” he said. “The scale and scope of coverage just keeps getting bigger [as well as] the variety and breadth of possibilities,” Bierbauer said.

Because the information is coming from so many directions, he says that it can be difficult to know the motive behind any particular communication, especially with the rise of “fake news” and the quarrelsome relationship between the press and President Donald Trump.

“The role of the press is to be a witness, a chronicle, an interpreter, an analyst, and in the end, a challenger to those in positions of power when that’s the appropriate thing to do,” he said. “[Donald Trump’s] real modus operandi is to demean anyone and everyone who challenges confronts or competes with him. He’s not running against anyone, so now it’s [the media’s] turn,” Bierbauer said, adding, “The media have no reason to be thin-skinned, either.”

Distrust in the media is not new, and despite the current tide, Bierbauer has faith that the system will endure.

“Presidents come and go, but we hope that the system stays,” Bierbauer said.  

A system where the public can hold its leaders accountable and ask difficult questions when they’re needed is exactly what Bierbauer has spent the last 15 years preparing his journalism students for at USC.

Beyond the technical skills required to be successful in the field, Bierbauer aims to provide students with invaluable experiences and skilled faculty mentors, similar to what he experienced during his undergraduate and graduate programs at Pennsylvania State University.

“It’s about who you meet along the way,” he said. “How do they guide you, inspire you, and give you good counsel?”

While the technology is ever changing and the discipline itself matures over the years, learning from those around you helps shape your abilities.

“The larger pieces are the people you meet and the experiences you have, whether or not that’s 50 years ago at Penn State or two weeks ago here,” he said.

While he’s enjoyed the role he’s had in mentoring USC’s aspiring journalists and making improvements to the college as dean, Bierbauer says that with two new directors in place and accreditation looming this year, it’s an appropriate time for him to step down, finish up some lingering projects and grants, and spend more time with his wife and grandchildren.

“I think this is a great time to step aside,” he said. “Let someone with a bright idea come in and do some different things.”