A scold who still breaks the mold Prof. Schaefer: Former Gov. William Donald Schaefer is teaching a journalism course, and his students say he's in a class by himself.

November 21, 1995|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,SUN STAFF

Note to the students of PUAF 698X: Don't expect any slack from your professor.

The man who often greeted male State House reporters with "Good morning, girls" (some unfortunates earned a gesture that is considerably less polite) is shaping the minds of future journalists.

Yes, that's William Donald Schaefer standing between you and an advanced degree in journalism from the University of Maryland. He's ready to get in your face, take you on, rail against your chosen profession.

Call it a governor's revenge.

"In the beginning, I wondered, 'Is this guy for real? '" said Brian S. Love, 21, of Fenton, Mo. "At this point, it's not quite so shocking. He's just different from any other person in the world."

After 40 years in public office, Mr. Schaefer has taken his unique, candid and often combative style into academia as the newest visiting professor at Maryland's School of Public Affairs in College Park.

On Monday afternoons, the 74-year-old former governor can be found in a windowless seminar room on the first floor of the $26 million Van Munching Hall -- built, incidentally, during his administration.

PUAF 698X is Public Policymaking for Journalists, a course required for the master of arts degree in journalism. The 15 graduate students study the procedural and political realities behind lawmaking in Annapolis and Washington. Mr. Schaefer is their living resource, a real-life former governor willing to correct them at every turn.

"You're all so cynical about politics," he scolded his students in a recent class. "Every politician is looked on as crooked. The opinion that many of you have toward politicians is wrong."

If Mr. Schaefer wasn't a typical governor, he is even more unconventional as college professor. He doesn't really lecture. He prefers to answer questions, making every class something akin to a news conference. He sometimes scolds.

Voice of experience

But mostly, he tends to reminisce, recalling episodes in his career from city councilman to the present that relate, sometimes only tangentially, to the day's topic.

Catherine I. Riley, the former Harford County state senator who co-instructs the class, acknowledged that Mr. Schaefer had to "get beyond a few things" before he could become an effective teacher -- namely, his feelings about reporters.

"It was a little rocky at first," Ms. Riley said. "But I've seen a change, and it's fun to watch."

Last week, the class discussed Ronald Reagan and the 1986 tax reform effort. Students made lengthy presentations.

Mr. Schaefer was quiet through much of the political science, but when personalities popped up, he was anxious to give his impressions.

On President Reagan: "A dynamic leader." On James Baker: "A very smart man." On former House Ways and Means Chairman Dan Rostenkowski: "I can't see him ever crying and meaning it."

The harshest words are reserved for the press (particularly this newspaper), the unnamed state legislators who deserted him on key votes over the years, and for fellow ex-Gov. Bill Clinton.

The current president, said Mr. Schaefer in his kindest assessment, "should never have been anything but governor of a small state."

The human element

At first, the students acknowledged, they were shocked at the governor's diatribes against journalists. They were unprepared for a politician who deliberately mispronounces names of reporters and once pointed an unloaded semiautomatic gun at a State House scribe.

"There's no love lost with reporters," said William E. Thompson Jr., 33, of Hyattsville. "He surprised me with how hostile he was with the press considering the way most politicians like to schmooze."

But most of the students have clearly grown fond of their teacher and his candor. Their questions to Mr. Schaefer are often tough and pointed, yet classes are quite civil -- a result, Ms. Riley said, of a mellowing ex-governor.

Reese Cleghorn, dean of Maryland's journalism school, said that bringing that human element to class is precisely the role he and others at the university envisioned for Mr. Schaefer.

The students, many of whom already have professional experience as reporters, have had only positive things to say about their teacher, he said.

"We all know his relationship with the press," Dr. Cleghorn said. "But these students are not a faint-hearted group. They can take care of themselves."

Mr. Schaefer, who will earn $40,000 for his year at College Park, said he has been less guarded with the students than he ever was in an Annapolis news conference.

But has the course changed his opinion of the press?

"No," he said flatly. The students are too cynical, he said, but added that he thought he had made them less certain in their view.

"All the kids are very bright," he said. "They make me feel there's hope."

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