Lead Photo
SCHOOL OF COMMUNICATION Conversation with the Dean

An international outlook

A Chinese native, Hong Cheng is an expert in the rapidly shifting field of cross-cultural communication. At Loyola University Chicago's School of Communication, where he was appointed dean earlier this year, Cheng will keep students on the cutting edge.

We spoke to Cheng about advertising in China and about Chicago's rich media environment.

 

What have you been up to since July 1?

Largely, I’m learning about the school, about the University, about the community. I’ve tried to meet with people, basically. The people within the school, the faculty and staff, whoever is available during the summer. But on Day One, I sent a greeting email to everybody and also gave everyone an open invitation: if you are available and interested, I’m willing to meet and chat and learn about you and the wonderful things you’re doing and also about the school and our aspirations.

 

How much time have you spent in Chicago before?

This is, in some ways, a half-homecoming, if there’s a way to say that, [Laughs] because I started my career in Chicago. Twenty-five years ago, in the summer of 1994, when I finished my dissertation at Penn State University, I got my first job at Bradley University in Peoria. Before I started to teach, I did a faculty internship with WMAQ, Channel 5 in Chicago, in the Loop.

 

Where did you grow up? How did you get involved in communications in the first place?

I was born and grew up in China. I went to school over there and worked over there. I majored in international journalism, back in Shanghai. In the beginning of the 1990s, that’s when I came to the States as a doctoral student at Penn State’s College of Communications, where I pursued and finished my PhD in mass communications. Before that, I was teaching in Shanghai; I was already on the faculty for international journalism. With a PhD, I got new opportunities here, so that’s why I continued my career in the U.S.

 

What appealed to you about international journalism in those days?

My undergraduate studies were in English. At that time, international journalism was something very new in my native country. In the entire country, there were only five universities that offered an international journalism degree. My former university happened to be one of them. Almost all of the classes were taught in English rather than Chinese. Most of the typical journalism programs over there at that time, and even today, they are all taught in Chinese. Understandable, right? But to meet the needs of a country that’s opening to the outside world, they need to train journalists who are able to write or cover stories in English. That’s why they started to establish these programs.

One of the reasons that I was interested was because it was a brand-new area. At the same time, I wanted to learn contemporary English—how people who really use English write and speak. Of course, I respect Shakespeare, that type of English. But I know that’s not the English that people in the English-speaking countries really use. [Laughs]. And I was always interested in different cultures and people who are from different parts of the world. International journalism was a career path that could give me the opportunity to explore.

 

Did you focus on a certain type of journalism?

At that time, I was mainly focused on how to report China to the outside world. That program trained students as foreign correspondents or how to report on China to the outside world, if they are based in China. A lot of new Chinese media were launching at that time, like China Daily in the 1980s. That was started as a national English-language newspaper. I worked with the student newspaper, which was called the Shanghai Student Post. That was run by my university, circulated nationwide. At that time, it was only the second English-language newspaper in the entire country.

 

That had to have been exciting, to be on the ground floor.

Yes, exactly. Absolutely.

 

Then you moved into the world of the academy?

I wanted to pursue a PhD; that was my professional and personal dream. Mass communication was an emerging field, at least in China. To be honest, at that time, China was still so isolated from the outside world. Not like today; if you are interested in pursuing an advanced degree or studying overseas, you have so much information. You can find information about any university in the world, literally, by just doing some web surfing.

Back then, it was similar to the rise of digital media or the Internet more recently: even as a discipline, it was not available in any Chinese university at that time. I wanted the latest, the newest. That’s why I decided to pursue a degree outside the country. I applied for some universities in this country and also in Canada, and I got a scholarship at Penn State. Later on, I learned they had a great football team, too! [Laughs]

 

Why did you decide to stay in the academy after you earned your doctorate? What do you like about working in universities?

I like teaching. I like doing research. To work in academia gives me the best opportunity to do both.

 

What’s your specialty?

My specialty is international communications, and cross-cultural communication. And on a personal level, I was interested in studying how China is opening to the outside world and adopting a market economy.

When I was in my formative years, I didn’t see any commercial advertising. Before the Cultural Revolution, China did have commercial advertising. It started early last century, in the 1920s and 1930s. I did some studies about that. There were even foreign advertising companies in China at that time. It was growing quite fast. But then, for some reason, it was gone. Political reasons, maybe.

But since the late-1970s, all of the sudden commercial advertising came into being. There was an advertising renaissance in the country, when China reopened to the outside world. Today, it’s become the second-largest advertising industry in the world, after the United States.

So in that sense, when I started my doctorate program, advertising was just in that early phase, coming back to China. It was a new phenomenon. And the United States is regarded as the world capital of advertising. Why not take advantage of both? I happened to have some very good professors at Penn State who were very interested in international cross-culture advertising, they were experts in that. So I focused my dissertation on advertising, basically with a focus on international cross-cultural aspects.

 

Everything should have a purpose. The ultimate end of effective, professional communication is to help people to make this world better than it is.”
—Hong Cheng, Dean of the School of Communication

I’m noticing a thread, which is that you want to be on the front foot, the cutting edge. What drew you to Loyola at this time in your career?

It’s a great university in the greatest city. When people asked me where I was going, and I told them I was going to Loyola Chicago: “Oh! That’s a great city and a great university.” Everyone has said that. I feel exactly the same way. In particular, over the past few years, I heard a lot about the wonderful things that the School of Communication has been doing.

 

From what you’ve gathered and researched, what sets the School of Comms apart from other places around the country?

If we were just to pick up one distinction that sets it off from its peer programs, I think it’s Loyola’s deep and serious commitment to social justice and public service. Of course, no school or university would say they don’t care about this. But the School of Comms, along with the entire university articulate this forcefully and intentionally. I see this as something that sets this school apart. It’s exactly what we need in the field, as well as in the entire world, in our time.

 

How is social justice threaded into communications? Why is it something that you think is important to have in the field?

Everything should have a purpose. The ultimate end of effective, professional communication is to help people to make this world better than it is. For example, [keeping] everyone informed about what’s going on in the community and the world, that’s our basic function as journalists. And how to help people adopt healthy lifestyles, how to care about our environment. All these need good communications, strategies, tactics, storytelling skills, and so forth. For those injustices, when something is not right based on universal human values, communication can help to address those issues.

 

What other assets does the School of Comms have that sets it apart from its peers?

After social justice, [it] is that we have a comprehensive communications school. Communications is very broad and interdisciplinary. Some schools only have certain programs. Along with journalism, along with other programs in mass communication like advertising or public relations, we also have communications studies and film studies. That gives us a chance to bring all different types of talent in the field into the school and also provide a broad spectrum of choices for our prospective and current students. You can pick up whatever meets your career goals and dreams.

At the same time, we have the talent of two kinds of faculty. One is research faculty, the other is professional faculty. As you know, School of Comms is typically regarded as a professional school. The hands-on learning approach, learning how to write or how to use different types of communication equipment. It’s very important, essential. But at the same time, there is an important need for the school to do scholarly research. This school has the talent of both types of faculty. We have a world-class faculty of nationally and internationally well-known scholars in different fields of communication. At the same time, we have the best professionals that one can ever dream of, because we’re in Chicago.

The third one is our great location: Chicago. This global city will allow us to do a lot of wonderful things. The school has already achieved so much over the past 10 years. I’m sure with this great location and our great faculty, we can do so much more down the road, grasping onto new opportunities.

 

What are some of the short- and long-term priorities you’d like to see the school take on?

In the short-term, I would like to continue building on the excellence and prominence of the school, and to continue supporting the wonderful things that faculty are doing. We will keep updating and revising our curriculum and our studio and our computer labs, all the equipment, making them current for our teaching and research.

Basically, I’m thinking about how to best use the location and all the strengths that the school already has. How to make it what I call the “glocal,” the global and the local. Chicago is our home city here, it’s our community. In that sense, it’s local. But because of the status and the reputation of Chicago, it is also one of the best global cities in the whole world.

One of the beauties and strengths of being here is that we’re just a stone’s throw from the communication industry. When I was working for the Ohio University, for example, every February I took advertising students to Chicago just to visit an ad agency here in the Loop. But now, we literally can walk there on foot, when the weather allows. With this proximity to the media industry, how do we want to best use that opportunity? Basically, I hope to see this school become a “glocal” hub or powerhouse for communication, education, and research. We will foster or cultivate a media savvy and culturally competent and socially responsible student for the 21st century, who can survive and succeed in their career.

 

Where is the field of communications moving? What does the future hold for the field in five or 10 years? How does the school address some of those changes?

That’s a great question. It’s one that everybody can only answer half of, at most, because communication is one of the fastest, most constantly changing fields. Other fields don’t necessarily change at this pace. We need to keep a close look at what’s the latest, what’s for the future. We want to always make sure our curriculum is current and relevant to the media industry. That’s why it’s especially important for the school to stay very close in touch with the communications industry.

Another one is to best use our Jesuit values, to highlight and continue to emphasize those, and to promote and market them so more people in the community and in the whole country and in many parts of the world can hear about us and the good things we’re doing for communications.

 

What are some things that the Loyola community might not know about you, as a newcomer to Chicago and the school?

Nowadays, if I have spare time, I like the outdoors. I like jogging, for example. But unfortunately, I don’t feel like I have enough time to do that. If I had nothing to do, what would I do today? I would like to go to the lakefront to run for two miles or maybe get a bicycle to get a few more miles, to enjoy the outdoors. Also, I like to meet with people and work with people. If I have time, I would like to learn more about my colleagues and students. Whenever I have the opportunity to meet with them, I’d also like to go out to meet people in the communications industry. That’s actually part of the plan that I’m going to implement.

Side Image
A “glocal” hub

Learn more about Loyola’s School of Communication and its future communication professionals, scholars, and leaders.