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JCOM prof is no-nonsense, respected, loved, sometimes ‘dreaded’

April 30th, 2011 Posted in Arts and Life

Story & Photos by Shirrel Cooper

LOGAN—They either love her or hate her. That seems to be the consensus among Penny Byrne’s journalism students.

Byrne has the reputation of being the “dreaded” mass media law professor whose class has a rumored fail rate of 40 percent. Her bluntness is often misconstrued as rudeness and her written assignments and surprise quizzes are, for many students, complicated requirements standing between them and their journalism degree.

Yet despite the bad reputation, over 27 years Penny Byrne also has accumulated some of the most devoted students of any professor at Utah State University.

“Penny was by far the toughest professor I ever had, but once you won her respect, she was also one of the best teachers I ever had,” said Tania Mashburn, a 2000 broadcast journalism alumna who is now public information officer for the Utah Department of Transportation. Mashburn, who took her first class from Byrne in 1998, said the professor’s demanding attitude and honesty prepared her to work in a newsroom.

“Two words sum up how I felt about Penny as a professor—tough love,” said Mashburn, who spent eight years as a television news producer at KUTV2 in Salt Lake City. “She was definitely not the touchy-feely teacher, but I had an incredible amount of respect for her, and once I earned her respect, we worked extremely well together and I learned more about broadcast journalism than I could have hoped.”

Byrne retired last year but continues to teach the department’s required senior-level constitutional law course. She has been a fixture in USU’s JCOM department since 1984, serving as longtime assistant department head, as well as a USU Honors director for three years. She worked in El Paso, Texas, before coming to Utah State, where she anchored the broadcast news program and helped build the journalism department into the respected professional program it is today.

“We changed the program from a speech program to a journalism program” in the mid-1980s, Byrne said. It was a sometimes difficult transition, she said, “but we were too busy to notice. We were much younger and stupider.”

The changeover, which took place during 1984-1990, was the second broadcast news program she helped create.

Before coming to USU in 1984, Byrne was hired to launch a broadcasting program at El Paso Community College. “I worked there for six years developing their broadcast program,” she said. “It was from there I was hired here.”

Jay Black was the chair of the search committee that hired Byrne at USU in 1984. Now retired, Black returned to teach media ethics in the JCOM department this semester. Over a career that took him to the University of Alabama, the University of Southern Florida and other campuses, Black and his wife have stayed in touch with Byrne and her husband, Dean, who also teaches video in the JCOM department.

Black says Byrne “sold herself” with her letter of application and her initiative to “call and ask how the search was going. All in all, she wanted to be here, and we thought she’d be a good fit,” Black said.

Nancy Williams, a retired JCOM professor of print journalism, was another of Byrne’s contemporaries, teaching at USU since the mid-1980s. Williams says Byrne is “everything” to the department she helped create.

“She invented the broadcast department and all of the things that our broadcast students take for granted as the basis for their education,” Williams said. “She was like me—both of us came in as professionals who became teachers.”

Williams, who has worked with Byrne for 25 years, attributes Byrne’s success as a professor to her commitment to teaching her students the importance of accuracy and truth.

“She’s concerned that her students can go out and are able to land a job and keep it,” Williams said. “You can’t do that unless you’ve trained them in the skills that they’re going to need.”

Al Taylor is another of Byrne’s former students who remembers her as demanding and dedicated. Now promotions director for KSL, Taylor says Byrne set a high standard for her students and that she made him work for his grades.

“People come into her class thinking it’s a cake walk, but it isn’t,” Taylor said. He said Byrne taught him to adapt to the industry as it changes.

“She taught you to never be satisfied with the normal,” he said, “to always push and keep working and working.” To Taylor, Byrne’s legacy of hard work and her care for her students will make it hard for anyone to try to replace her.

That challenge fell to Brian Champagne, a KUTV2 videographer and journalist who was hired to replace Byrne last year when she retired. Champagne stepped into a broadcast TV news program that Byrne created, and taught for nine years in partnership with her husband, Dean.

“Taking over the newscast from Penny [and Dean] is a two-edged sword,” Champagne says. “On the one side, everything was all set up, running smoothly. The students know what is expected, and the shows as she set them up practically ran themselves.

“On the other side, since the show was successful, and winning awards, my possibilities are 1) stay the course, or 2) decline [in quality]. In that regard, it would’ve been easier to take over for someone who had been a disaster.”

Champagne said that since he arrived in the broadcast TV studios on the ground floor of the Animal Science Building, the “ghost of Penny” is still around.

“The other day I called up KSL and the person who answered the phone dropped Penny’s name,” he said.

Champagne is glad to have Penny’s ghost around.

“Just an hour ago, she gave me some good counsel on changes we’re going to have to make with our newscasts next fall,” Champagne said. “One change I won’t make is dropping either of our [news] programs; she started them in the 1980s, and I’m not about to stop that legacy.”

USU broadcast journalism Aggie TV students produce two half-hour news programs weekly during the school year, a straight newscast and a “magazine” program, “Cache Rendezvous,” which won second price in April as the best general news program in the Intermountain West from the Society of Professional Journalists.

Champagne says Penny helpful when he has a question for her, but she never forces her ideas on him.

“She has never intruded on what I am doing,” he said. “She also hasn’t offered any unsolicited advice.”

Byrne helped create a broadcast news program with old equipment, duct tape, creaky pipes, and an old ice cream freezer. Dale Cressman, former USU broadcast professor who now teaches at BYU, remembers Byrne assembling a TV control room when the department inherited the former Aggie ice cream store in the Animal Science Building lobby 10 years ago.

“I remember her assembling the broadcast facility in Animal Science building, and re-assembling it in what used to be the store for Aggie ice cream,” Cressman said. “The ice cream freezers were still in there when we installed the control room and I think we all took a perverse pride in that. She has a wonderful sense of humor.”

JCOM department head Ted Pease has worked with Byrne for 17 years. What he still remembers of the makeshift TV studio when he came to campus to interview is “duct tape and cinder blocks, holding up the ancient TelePrompter.”

“Making it happen—that’s what Penny Byrne is all about,” he said. “She is absolutely devoted to the program and to her ‘kids,’ and she’ll always find a way to help them make it.”

Byrne’s perseverance has taught her students they needed to make it happen no matter what.

“She may come across as an ogre sometimes, especially to the law class,” he said. “But she is passionate and goes the extra mile.”

Byrne’s colleagues note that she often has worked through injuries, some serious. A back injury and surgery left Byrne in chronic pain for years, said Pease, who also remembers her coming to work after breaking her ankle on a golf course sprinkler head.

Williams noted her black eye at the beginning of this spring semester.

“She ran into a deer on her patio,” Williams said. “It was a real great shiner. But it never ever got her down. She’s like the energizer bunny. She just keeps ticking.”

Byrne says she has only real health problem—“the world’s worst back.”

“My back went about a decade ago,” Byrne said “I had back surgery seven years ago, but it started crapping out a few years before that, which is really distressing because my husband and I have long been hikers and canoers, and it was not a happy thing when my back started to go.”

Byrne was implanted with a spinal cord stimulator last summer, which has reduced the pain enough so that she can be a little more active. She hopes it will help her get back to one of her favorite summer pastimes, golf. Her best round was a 78, she says.

“I’m a good golfer,” she said.

According to both students and faculty, she is also a good cook.

“I will never forget her Christmas parties,” said former KSL News anchor Amanda Butterfield, a 2001 broadcast news alumna. “All the delicious food. I still have her homemade eggnog recipe.

“I thought that was the neatest thing, that a professor would open her house to us, and spend days cooking for us,” she said. “I was touched. I remember there being so much food, there was no way to possible try everything I wanted.”

Byrne says she doesn’t really have a specialty, but does do a lot of Mexican cooking from her days in southern Texas. She lovers to open her home and kitchen to her students, she said.

“When I was working with broadcasters, we always had two big parties a year, a Christmas party and an end-of-the-year party,” Byrne said, “and I did all the cooking for that.”

Cooking for her students was just one way Byrne showed her students she cared. Current PR senior Alex Thatcher says he has found Penny to be helpful in becoming a better writer.

“She always gives us feedback after we turn in a paper and her comments are always direct and sometimes even harsh against our mistakes,” Thatcher said. “You don’t make the same mistake twice.”

Emily Johnson, a senior double-majoring in law constitutional studies and print journalism, thinks Byrne is a good professor.

“Penny’s really blunt, which I like,” Johnson said. “I like that she is pretty straightforward. … I feel like I learned a lot during the course of the semester.”

Cameron Cutler, a senior majoring in public relations who is Byrne’s T.A. in the media law class this semester, says Byrne is always available to help students when they need it—especially for the “dreaded” law class.

“I think that if you are really invested in your reading and you have good questions, if you go to Penny she’ll be very approachable,” Cutler said. “The few questions I asked when I was in the class were ones that she could see that … I had put in some time and effort and they were thoughtful questions. So I think if you go in with that attitude towards her, then she is very approachable. She was always really nice to me.”

Cutler believes that Byrne’s reputation as “dreaded” media law professor is unfair.

“I think that maybe in some other classes in the department you might be able to get away with reading a little bit less or being less invested in the material but, you know, obviously my experience in the class and with Penny was good,” he said. “I didn’t feel like the load was anything more than usual. I definitely didn’t dread her class or any of the assignments or anything.”

Byrne, who plans to teach the law class for one more year, says she doesn’t deserve her reputation.

“I really try hard to work with the students and to help them,” she said. “One of the things that bothers me is that I sit here for two-and-a-half hours, three days a week, and nobody comes, and then I read on my evaluations how I didn’t help you.

“I cannot help you, I cannot come knock on your apartment, I cannot hold your hand if you will not give it to me.”

And as for the rumors that 40 percent of her students fail, that’s “bulls**t,” Byrne says.

“A relatively small percentage, something like 6-8 percent of students, have to repeat. That means they make C-minus or less. That is miniscule,” Byrne said. “I want you to look at what political science or history or economic repeats are. I would compare that to anybody.”

For Byrne, a dedication to student success is what has driven her from the time she became a teacher—which has given her another indelible reputation: Despite the tough exterior, as more than one professor and student said, “Penny Byrne has a heart of gold.”


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