A Brief History of the Department of Communication

The University of Oklahoma opened its classrooms in the fall of 1892. David Ross Boyd, the first OU president, hired three faculty members to undertake teaching responsibilities for the new school. There is no record of these early OU professors teaching any classes in communication; however, there are accounts indicating first year students participated in a preparatory program that included “drills in the art of public speaking.” Coursework closest to a modern communication class was first offered in 1896. Remarkably, the instructor was 16-year-old Grace Adelene King. Miss Grace, as she was known, was the head of the school of music and offered classes in oratory and elocution until she left the university in 1901. In 1904 the university established the Department of Public Speaking and Dramatic Art. The first Department chair was Mary Louise Guelich (1904-1908).

The department was renamed to the Department of Public Speaking in 1912. At the same time, Burton Frank Tanner took over as department chairperson and maintained the title until 1915. Joshua Bryan Lee became the new chair and remained so until he was elected to serve in the U.S. Congress in 1934. In 1937, the chair, Charles P. Green, worked to have the unit renamed yet again to the Department of Speech. The department started offering a B.A. Degree in 1935, M.A. degrees in 1937, and Ph.D. degrees in 1971. It continues to offer all three degrees. The department became the Department of Speech Communication in 1971 and the Department of Communication in 1977.

The department was located in Kaufman Hall for many years. Today it is housed in Burton Hall. The current building was added to campus in 1952 and was named for the long serving director of the School of Home Economics, Dr. Helen B. Burton. Home Economics was housed in Burton Hall until the school was closed in 1984. Classrooms in Burton Hall were updated with the latest educational technology in 2009.

Several factors mark important points in the department’s history. One such factor was the affiliation with the United States Department of Defense. Starting in 1970, the department taught graduate courses to various military personnel on campus. In the main, the military personnel were from various public affairs position across the service branches. The goal of the curriculum was to expose students to the modern communication theory and research, and its application to the military public affairs setting. The affiliation continued until the Department of Defense discontinued the program due to budget cuts in 2007.

Another important point in the department’s history was the 1985 purchase of the world’s largest collection of political radio and political television commercials. The state purchased the collection from Julian Kanter, also the first archivist of collection. Mr. Kanter started collecting political advertisements as an executive at a local television affiliate. When Mr. Kanter sold his collection to the University he had over 25,000 commercials. Today, the archive is named in Mr. Kanter’s honor and houses over 90,000 advertisements. Over the years, researcher from universities across the country and internationally have made use of the archive holdings in an effort to better understand the communication that takes place in political campaigns. The collection has also served as a resource for a large number of media organizations and political campaign consultants over its nearly 30 years of existence.

The department has continued to grow and prosper. It began the 2011-2012 academic year with the largest number of tenure track faculty in its history. It is consistently one of the largest departments in the College of Arts and Sciences based on the number of undergraduate majors each year.

Chairpersons Serving Department*

1904 – 1908 – Mary Louise Guelich
1908 – 1915 – Burton Frank Tanner
1915 – 1934 – Joshua Bryan Lee
1935 – 1951 – Charles P. Green
1957 – 1963 – Sherman P. Lawton
1964 – 1969 – Charles P. Green
1970 – 1980 – William R. Carmack
1977 – 1980 – William D. Brooks
1982 – 1987 – Gustav W. Friedrich
1987 – 1988 – H. Wayland Cummings
1990 – 1992 – Robert W. Norton
1992 – 1993 – Sandy Ragan
1993 – 1994 – H. Wayland Cummings
1994 – 2000 – Dan O’Hair
2000 – 2001 – Larry Wieder
2001 – 2009 – Michael W. Pfau
2009 – 2010 – Kevin B. Wright
2010 – Michael W. Kramer

*May not reflect some acting chairs or short term appointments