By Marshall Terrill
Battinto Batts Jr. has held a number of dynamic jobs over the past few decades: award-winning newspaper journalist, lecturer, philanthropist, strategic communications professional, higher education administrator and nonprofit executive.
He’ll soon make a new addition to his curriculum vitae: dean of the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University.
“The Cronkite School is a beacon among its peers in higher education, which means the job of its dean is more layered,” Batts said. “At the end of a visit to the Cronkite School in 2011, I thought, ‘This is a place where I would love to be able to come back and join the university.’ Now, to be chosen as the school’s dean … I’m still trying to wrap my head around it.”
Batts will have about six weeks to do just that. His post starts July 1.
Nancy Gonzales, Foundation Professor of psychology at ASU and the incoming provost, anticipates that Batts, like founding Cronkite Dean Christopher Callahan* — who led the transformation of the ASU journalism school into one of the nation’s top programs — will be an impactful leader.
“On behalf of the entire academic enterprise, I welcome Battinto to ASU and am thrilled that such an inspiring leader will lead the Cronkite School as its dean,” said Gonzales. “Journalism is vital to the health of society. Shaping the next generation of journalists and media professionals to positively impact our country and globe requires a vision for and commitment to inclusion and excellence. I am confident that Dean Batts has the experience and perspective required to lead the Cronkite community with these ideals at the core of his work.”
Batts said Cronkite’s dedication to excellence, experiential education and applied research and programs drew him to the job. Batts also said in his application process that his big mission will be to help all ASU students succeed.
“I offer additional personal perspectives and insights that are particularly relevant, given the university’s commitment to address issues related to underrepresented groups and individuals,” Batts said. “A commitment to diversity, inclusion and empowerment is inherent for me. … I want to help make the Cronkite School the model for higher education in terms of diversity and a source of expertise in terms of news coverage and communications research on topics that are relevant for communities of color.”
Batts believes solid journalism is needed now more than ever in smaller communities and larger cities as well as nationally and internationally.
“Cronkite is a trusted leader and will even be more so in order to help us confront this crisis in confidence and mistrust in the media,” Batts said. “The best way to do that is to turn up Cronkite’s volume in terms of presence and awareness beyond where it already is because Cronkite is already well-known.”
He has big plans for the Cronkite School.
“I want to continue to elevate Cronkite as a household name and to make it more of a global brand,” he said. “I want the school to reach additional audiences so that when people think of journalism and media education, they immediately think of Cronkite. I want to further leverage and integrate platforms such as Arizona PBS into the teaching and learning realms. We must also spread awareness of the school and collaborate with other academic units as part of an interdisciplinary approach to teaching, research and content development.”
Batts said his experience in philanthropy will be to the Cronkite School’s benefit when it comes to attracting additional funding resources for the school.
“My experience in philanthropy has enabled me to demystify the process of how and where funders decide to award resources,” Batts said. “It comes down to capacity, expertise and commitment. I rate the Cronkite School as a ‘goal-line program,’ meaning it’s always in a good position to score when it comes to funding.
At the Scripps Howard Foundation in Cincinnati, which he joined as director of journalism strategies in 2016, he collaborated with the foundation’s Board of Trustees and E.W. Scripps Co. leaders to manage journalism initiatives and set funding priorities. He also worked with trustees, advisers and staff to develop a strategic plan for the direction of the foundation’s programs, resources, fundraising efforts and award money from a $65 million endowment to journalism programs across the country. Batts was also an architect of the Howard Centers for Investigative Journalism that the foundation awarded $6 million in grants to establish at the Cronkite School and at the University of Maryland.
The Virginia native also has held posts with the University of Cincinnati, Hampton University, the William R. Harvey Leadership Institute, The Virginian-Pilot, the Tampa Bay Times, the (Newport News, Va.) Daily Press and the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. His career began at the Richmond Times-Dispatch, where he covered law enforcement in the Richmond, Virginia, metropolitan area.
“That was my first job out of college, and what stuck with me from the many crime scenes and cases I covered was how fragile life is, and how fortunate that I am,” Batts said.
Batts grew up in Ettrick, Virginia, near Virginia State University, a historically Black institution. It is the United States’ first fully state-supported four-year institution of higher learning for Black Americans. Batts said being raised near a university provided access to many mentors and role models who were committed to education and creating opportunities for others. In high school, he earned money mowing lawns throughout the community. One couple he worked for, the late Harry and Mae Johnson, were educators at VSU and world travelers who encouraged him to dream of a life beyond Ettrick.
“They exposed me to the importance of education by mentoring me and providing a good example of what it was like to be a role model,” Batts said. “In our community, it was an honor to be chosen to work for the Johnsons because of their stature. I believe that it does take a village to raise a child, and their example, along with that of my parents, who were also educators, made education a part of me.”
A writer from an early age, Batts’ original vocation was journalism, but education is what propelled his career and opened many doors. That’s something that resonates with ASU President Michael Crow.
“Education opens up incredible access to opportunities and ideas,” Crow said. “It’s a key part of our charter here, and Battinto Batts will continue that pursuit as he takes over the helm of the Cronkite School. Access to and the free exchange of ideas aren’t just a part of education; they are the lifeblood of journalism and Batts is well poised to expand those opportunities for more students and significantly influence the future of journalism.”
After he received his bachelor’s in mass communications from Virginia Commonwealth University, Batts got his master’s degree in media management at Norfolk State University. He said going for his doctorate in higher education management required a leap of faith, prompted by another mentor in his life, Hampton University President William R. Harvey.
“I had been covering higher education as a journalist, then got into teaching as an adjunct faculty member at Hampton, then later as a full-time faculty member,” Batts said. “Teaching really helped bring my passions together and understand my purpose better. Dr. Harvey advised me to get my doctorate, and that’s what really started my career in academic administration. He saw something in me that I hadn’t seen in myself to that point.”
His doctoral dissertation, “An Exploration of the Relationship Between Social Media Use and Engagement Among African American Student Leaders,” was inspired by his experiences in media and education and a desire to address challenges in degree attainment that minorities sometimes confront.
Batts has served in various roles in academia: professor of news writing, editing and ethics; administrator for a leadership institute; assistant dean for academic affairs; and director of journalism strategies.
He said his style of leadership is to “lead from behind,” utilizing influence and collaboration to gain support for initiatives, programs and external partnerships. He said the best part of the job, however, is interaction with people.
“I have a servant spirit within me, and I want to provide to students mentoring, guidance and support,” Batts said. “There’s also wonderful interaction with faculty and other administrators across campus. So it’s really all woven together.”
He enjoys mentoring all students, particularly students of color and different ethnicities.
“Like all young people, they need someone who is accessible, who listens to them without preaching and who can provide an example of staying on the right path,” Batts said. “I try and offer to them my experience and how I am able to help them continue their educational journey. That’s important.”
So is family.
Batts is married to Tamala, who went to high school in Phoenix. They have four daughters — Lyndsay, Mayah, Olivia and Jourdan — and a grandson, Brycen.
“My family feeds me,” Batts said. “Nothing is more important to me than being a father and a husband.”
Kristin Gilger, who served as interim dean of the Cronkite School since June 2020, will return to the faculty as Reynolds Professor in Business Journalism and executive director of the National Center on Disability and Journalism.
*In November 2019, Callahan was announced as the next president of the University of the Pacific, the nation’s oldest chartered institution of higher education in California.