The University of Mississippi School of Journalism and New Media has established a scholarship in the name of a journalism professor who spent almost three decades teaching media law and educating students about the First Amendment.
Jeanni Atkins, Ph.D. said the school’s dean gave her the good news. “I’m very honored that Dr. Norton wanted to establish a permanent endowment fund in my name that will help Honors College students pay for their education,” she said.
Atkins said Will Norton Jr., Ph.D. was very supportive of her as a faculty member, and she appreciates his friendship and encouragement.
She said the scholarship has been created as a University of Mississippi permanent endowment fund of $25,000 that will increase over time. Full-time students in the Sally McDonnell Barksdale Honors College majoring in journalism or integrated marketing communications will be the recipients.
A committee in consultation with the dean determines who receives a scholarship. The amount of the grant each year depends on interest earned and additional contributions. Former students are among the contributors.
Norton said the scholarship committee will decide how much money to provide. There could be more than one scholarship awarded annually.
“Dr. Atkins was the intellectual strength of the graduate program here for decades,” he said. “She taught courses with rigor, and outstanding students graduated with her as mentor. There are leading media professionals who will tell you that she is the reason they have done so well in the business. The scholarship is in honor of a dedicated teacher who made a difference in students’ lives for decades.”
Atkins earned a bachelor’s of arts degree from Maryville College in East Tennessee, where she grew up. She worked as a full-time secretary at the college while taking courses part-time.
She earned a master’s of arts degree and a doctorate from the University of Missouri School of Journalism. While there, she worked full-time as an office manager/researcher for Professor Paul Fisher, executive director of the Freedom of Information Center, a national FOI clearinghouse in the journalism school. Fisher influenced her career path, she said.
“My dissertation was a comparison of the development and legal interpretations of open meetings laws in the 50 states,” she said.
The positions Atkins held between her master’s degree and Ph.D. gave her valuable research experience. She worked as the chief of research for Legis 50/The Center for Legislative Improvement in Colorado.
She worked as a research assistant to the director of the Communication Research Division for the Young & Rubicam Advertising Agency in Chicago. And she was the editor of two media law newsletters: Access Reports/FOI and Access Reports/ Privacy based in Washington, D.C.
She was also a research analyst for the Shook, Hardy & Bacon Law Firm in Kansas City.
After noticing an advertisement in the Kansas City Star for a Graduate Professional Opportunities Fellowship funded by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services for women and minorities to pursue a Ph.D. in journalism at the University of Missouri, Akins applied. The fellowship and a graduate assistantship enabled her to begin a career as a teacher.
“Samir Husni, a friend in the Ph.D. program with me, was hired by Ole Miss Department of Journalism Chair Dr. Will Norton to start a magazine program,” she said. “Samir told me about a faculty position opening, and I was hired in 1986.”
Atkins has presented many peer reviewed research papers at regional, national and international conferences of journalism, intercultural and mass communications associations.
Her articles on government secrecy, open meetings and public records laws have been published in the University of Missouri Freedom of Information Center FOI Digest and Center Reports. Others that have published her work include Access Reports/FOI and Access Reports /Privacy, FOI Spotlight and various newspapers.
“My experience at the Missouri FOI Center national clearinghouse led to a passionate interest in the First Amendment and the public’s right to know,” she said. “Teaching media law and educating people about their rights of access to government meetings and records and the problems secrecy poses through the work of the Mississippi Center for Freedom of Information (MCFOI) made it possible to continue to indulge that passion at Ole Miss.”
In 1998, Atkins said Mississippi Press Association president and Oxford Eagle Assistant Publisher Dan Phillips appointed a committee of a diverse group of journalists, attorneys, representatives of government agencies, and journalism academics to discuss establishing an organization to further more open government in the state.
“I served on the founding committee and wrote a proposal for the Ole Miss Department of Journalism to monitor and report on problems of access to government information,” she said. “MPA awarded Ole Miss a contract to handle administrative tasks and write and distribute a newsletter. I served as editor and publisher of the FOI Spotlight for 15 years and also as executive director.”
Atkins said her teaching philosophy has been to assist students in preparing for life after college, not just for a job. That means helping students broaden their horizons and develop better understanding of others with different life experiences and diverse cultural backgrounds. In addition to media law, she taught classes in media ethics, history, research methods, mass communications theory, public opinion and advertising copy writing.
“During 17 years of serving as graduate program director/student advisor, I chaired 29 committees and was a member of 25 others,” she said. “This position offered opportunities to get to know students on a personal level and learn from their research.”
Atkins said student feedback has been essential to understanding which teaching approaches facilitate their learning and growth. Even though she struggled with how much to push students and how demanding to make courses, she said she has learned good students welcome a challenge. And teaching has helped define the meaning of her life.
“Teaching is an incredibly challenging enterprise and a privilege,” she said. “Seeing the spark of interest and understanding in students whose minds are opened to knowledge and insights that helped them see people and the world in a different light and in the process know themselves better was a great source of pleasure.
“Following the career paths of former students and seeing their achievements continues to be rewarding. So many wonderful and interesting students—many I count as friends—enriched my life over the course of 29 years of teaching, and for that I am grateful.”
Atkins said she hopes the scholarship will help students achieve their goals.
“Since I worked my way through college and graduate school, I know how much scholarships can mean to students who can’t afford to further their education without this kind of assistance,” she said. “But a scholarship means more than financial aid because it helps to relieve the stress financial worries impose and bolsters confidence in oneself. My hope is that it will help enable outstanding students to attend Ole Miss.”
To request an interview about the scholarship, contact Assistant Dean Debora Wenger at 662-915-7912 or firstname.lastname@example.org.