The Department of Speech Communication at the University of Georgia began in 1969 when five faculty members who had previously been housed in the "Department of Speech and Theatre" were moved from the Fine Arts Building to create a new department housed in the re-named Geology, Geography, and Speech building. Dr. Dwight Freshley was the unit's first head, and he served for fifteen years in that capacity, the longest tenure of any head in the department's history. Dr. Freshley's motto was "To Build Something Excellent You Have to Hire the Right People," and he set to work scooping up the best talent from the best Ph.D. programs in the nation. Early figures included (among others) Dr. "Chuck" Gruner, a nationally respected scholar of humor and an expert in statistics, Dr. Dale Leathers, a famous figure in nonverbal communication who had developed a valuable method for studying facial expressions, Dr. "Cal" Logue (just "Logue" to his students), who was one of the first scholars studying rhetorics related to race in the South, and in 1978, the department's first African American professor, Dr. Thurmon Garner.
The undergraduate program began with a heavy emphasis on the fundamentals of public speaking, but soon grew to include the new booming area of interpersonal communication and many areas of rhetorical studies. The Masters Program was approved within a year of the department's formation, but it was not until almost twenty years later in 1988 that Dr. Cal Logue (then Head) gained approval for a Ph.D. program. Jean DeHart and Cathy Ross constituted the first graduating class of doctorates in 1992.
The Department's third Head, Dr. Dale Leathers, helped spur the growth of the department (it had 12 tenure-track faculty during his tenure) and also the expansion of the Ph.D. program, and he successfully garnered beautiful new quarters for the department on north campus in Terrell Hall. Dr. Donald Rubin was the fourth Head, and he shepherded the department into the era of grant funding and research prominence. At the end of his tenure, the department would be ranked as the number one doctoral program in rhetorical studies by the National Communication Association, scoring high rankings in health communication and interpersonal communication as well.
Dr. Jerold Hale began his nine year service as the department's fifth Head in 2000. Dr. Hale led the department through "the best of times and the worst of times" (to paraphrase Dickens). Dr. Hale managed the large undergraduate major (as many as 300 students) as well as a growing graduate program, and he battened down the hatches for two recessions. Through all of this, the department retained its reputation for research and teaching excellence and also a national reputation for being a place where the faculty got along with each other and the graduate students had a positive and supportive culture.
Throughout its history the department has not only been a model of scholarship, but also its personnel have been leaders in service for the discipline. Dr. Freshley was the first person to serve all three of the Southern Speech Communication's major offices - Editor of the journal, Executive Secretary, and President of the Association. Drs. Logue and Hale would also serve as Presidents of the Association, and Dr. Leathers would serve as the President of the National Communication Association. The department's members have reaped teaching and research awards, and its students have gone on to serve their communities and to pursue successful careers in academe, public service, and private business. (as told to Professor Celeste Condit by Professor Emeritus and Former Head Dr. Dwight Freshley in an interview on October 18, 2010).
Dr. Barbara Biesecker began serving as the Department Head in July, 2009. In 2010, the faculty voted overwhelmingly in favor of changing our name from the Department of Speech Communication to the Department of Communication Studies, matching trends in the field. Following a continued period of growth (now nearly 400 undergraduate majors and 300 minors as well as over 30 graduate students, with 16 tenure track faculty and 4 Lecturers), Dr. Biesecker led the Department’s move to the fifth and sixth floors of Caldwell Hall. In the excellent facility she designed, the department continued to prosper.
In the next era, the Department expanded its offerings to students. Under the leadership of Dr. Edward Panetta, who became Head in the fall of 2015, the Department added a graduate Certificate in Science and Health Communication and two “Double Dawgs” programs that allowed students to take a combined undergraduate/MA degree in two years. The Georgia Debate Union also reached its zenith in these years, achieving a #1 Squad Ranking in NDT in 2019 and winning the American Debate Association national championship tournament.
In 2020, the Coronavirus pandemic arrived to disrupt the University. Dr. Celeste Condit began her term as Head, seeking to guide the faculty, graduate students, and staff through a move in March to all-on-line learning. In the fall, the Department did its best to adapt to the University’s mixed-media teaching. Some faculty were on-line, some were in “hybrid” courses, and some were teaching live in the class room, but with “rotations” (different students came to class on different days because the social distancing rules meant the whole class couldn’t fit in the classroom at the same time). By fall of 2021, everyone was back fully in the classroom, but wearing masks and trying to be heard! Through it all, the members of the department worked together to generate a shared basic course shell, to support each other, and to have a one-of-a-kind holiday on-line party! Through these challenges the Department hired and tried new means of supporting a group of young and diverse social scientists studying health communication and interpersonal communication.
As the Covid-era began to abate, Dr. Peter O’Connell stepped up to head the department in the fast-changing world beginning August of 2022.