Journalism professor writes the book on student engagement

Roy Busby By Erin Cristales

One evening — which, no coincidence, immediately preceded a major project deadline in his Principles of Advertising course — Roy Busby’s phone rang.

And then it rang again. And again. And again.

In fact, it rang so many times, the Professor Emeritus of Journalism — who always hands out his number so students can contact him for help 24/7 — set a personal record for phone calls answered in a single night: 153.

You’d think half that number would lead to at least a twinge of regret about doling out your digits. But did Busby, a Mayborn institution who recently marked 57 years at UNT, spend the next sleep-deprived day questioning his altruistic act?

“Never did,” he says. “In fact, a lot of students keep my number and still use it. They call and say, ‘Are you still alive?’ or ‘Could we have lunch?’ or ‘Hey, I’m thinking about changing careers — what do you think I ought to do?’”

It’s no surprise, really, considering Busby’s legacy in the lecture hall. Students ranging from the late three-time Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Howard Swindle (’68) to Urban Decay CEO Wende Zomnir (’89) have considered him a life-changing professor. Busby — who earned his bachelor’s degree in journalism and master’s degree in business from North Texas, as well as a doctorate in business from the University of Oklahoma — began his career at UNT in 1961 as assistant director of the university News Service, subsequently serving as vice president in the Office of the President and with the Board of Regents. He transitioned into a full-time faculty position in 1979, where he taught undergraduate and graduate courses in journalism, advertising and public relations, and received numerous awards for his work, including the President’s Council Teaching Award. He also served as associate dean and interim dean of the Mayborn School of Journalism and as director of the Mayborn Graduate Institute.

“When you’re given the opportunity to work at a university, you think it’s pretty special,” says Busby, who currently teaches online graduate courses. “Most faculty members will tell you that when you shut the door to the classroom, it’s one of the best times you can have because you get to influence young minds. Not a lot of jobs allow you to do that.”

A passion for journalism becomes a talent for teaching

At the outset of his career, Busby never intended to work for a university. He initially accepted a job at Texas Instruments, where he handled marketing, advertising and public relations. But following a leave of absence to pursue his Ph.D., he signed on with North Texas’ News Service — and the rest is history.

Still, Busby maintained his corporate connections, consulting for 50 clients during his tenure at the university. He used his contract work as a teaching tool, inviting companies into his classroom so students could learn the real-world ropes of pitching advertising and marketing plans. It was one of many ways Busby kept, and continues to keep, his students actively engaged in their coursework.

“Students got pretty excited,” he says. “I think the energy was what they picked up on and enjoyed. It was not uncommon for those with other majors or those who were undecided to switch to journalism because they thought, ‘Gosh, not only could I make a living at this, but it’s fun.’”

Busby appreciated his students’ enthusiasm, particularly as it paralleled his own experience as an undergraduate journalism major at North Texas. He passed up a professional baseball contract to instead study under the legendary CE “Pop” Shuford, alongside other well-known classmates including Bill Moyers, Charldean Newell, Burle Pettit, Mike Cochran and Ray Moseley.

“It felt like we were walking hallowed halls when we were studying under Pop Shuford and so many others on that faculty,” he says. “People told me if I got through that program, I could do anything, and they were right. I thank God every day that Pop Shuford came into my life. I was asked recently what influence he still has on me, and I said, ‘I think he’s looking over my shoulder.’”

Relaying hard-earned lessons

Busby credits Shuford, along with many of his economics and accounting professors, with molding his teaching philosophy: Be better each time you step into the classroom.

“Regardless of the information, if you make it interesting enough, the light bulb comes on,” he says. “The visual approach to your class is very important — if you’re trying to teach a concept, you need to show examples of that concept. You have to assign projects where students do what you’ve been teaching them, and then you critique them in a positive way where they can see the value and some of the shortcomings in what they did.”

And, Busby says, you have to keep it real — not just in terms of offering real-world experiences, but also by being authentic and possessing a genuine interest in students’ success.

“I had a kid in my class one day ask me, ‘Can I get a job in this business?’ And my answer was, ‘If you’re any good,’” he says. “If you’re real, everyone picks up on it. If you’re not, if you’re just into this monologue way of teaching a class, they’ll sense that it’s just the rut you’re in. You have to be real and personable. No. 1, they’re spending a lot of money for the class, and No. 2, they better get something out of it. Most people appreciate working hard in a class if they can see the results doing them some good.”

As he reflects on his legacy at UNT, Busby says he’s filled with gratitude. He’s worked with three College Football Hall of Fame coaches, arranged a press conference for Muhammad Ali’s on-campus visit (which took place on the same day the Supreme Court reversed Ali’s conviction for refusing to report for induction into the U.S. Army), and instructed the next generation of journalists and advertising executives.

“You know, when I was a consultant, one thing I found was that many CEOs wished they had my job. They envied the position I was in, to teach people,” Busby says. “I believe it was the poet John Masefield who said, ‘There are few earthly things more beautiful than a university.’”