The Department of Communications offers a major, a minor, and elective courses in mass communication (journalism, visual storytelling, integrated marketing communications and media leadership & performance), communication studies (intercultural communication and health communication), and theatre (performance and production). The history of the program is rich dating back many years on this campus to its early days of media, communication and theatre study when classes, offices and facilities were spread out among the Women's Building, Learning Resource Center and other buildings. Now, most of the program is housed in the Performing Arts Center except Forensics (located in Crouch Hall).
In 1925, thirteen years after the university was founded, the Department of English began offering speech courses. By 1939, a minor was offered, including courses in phonetics, speech correction, community theater, playwriting, and stagecraft. In 1943, student Elaine Sherrill walked into the office of President Walter S. Davis with a request. She wanted to be graduated with a degree in speech and drama so that she could go to Yale to pursue an MFA degree. Dr. Davis called in the Director of the Division of Humanities, Dr. Thomas E. Poag. At that time, Dr. Poag was the only African-American with a Ph.D. in drama, having just completed his degree from Cornell. Dr. Poag established the Department of Speech and Drama in 1943 and served as the first department head. During this time, theatre faculty and students traveled abroad on several USO tours.
Poag’s distinguished career at Tennessee State University began in 1939. During his tenure, he organized the Department of Speech and Drama; founded the Tennessee State Players Guild, now called the T.E. Poag Players Guild. Among Dr. Poag's former students are Oprah Winfrey, Academy Award nominee (Best Supporting Actress, 1986, for the film, The Color Purple ), broadcast journalist, Emmy Award winning television talk-show host, entrepreneur, and philanthropist; Moses Gunn, distinguished stage, screen, television actor, and playwright; Helen Martin, Broadway, film, and television actress; Ellwoodson Williams, playwright and actor; and Joan Pryor, professional actor in New York.
Following Dr. Poag’s retirement in 1973, Dr. Jamye Williams served diligently as department head until her retirement in 1987. Under her leadership, the department became the Department of Communications, a mass communication curriculum was added, and enrollment quadrupled. Dr. Maurice Odine was department head from 1992 to 2004. The department moved into brand-new facilities, including a 350-seat theatre, in . Dr. Lawrence James served as acting department head in 2004-2006. Dr. Donald Page served as acting Department Head in 2006-2008.
In 2008, Dr. Terry Likes took over as permanent Department Chair and remains in that post. Since 2008, seven new tenure-track faculty were hired, Speech Communication was renamed Communication Studies, curriculum in all three concentrations (Mass Communication, Communication Studies and Theatre) was updated, facilities were expanded and renovated and programs were turned into award winners (2010-2013 Mass Comm students won 32 AP, SEJC, SPJ and SEJC awards, students won 7 awards at the 2011 Nashville Black Film Festival while two theatre productions received regional honors at the KCACTF Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival). In 2012 the construction of a new million dollar multi-media center, the Center for Media Arts and Production which includes: WTST, TSU TV, the TSU News Network, The Blueprint (magazine), Tenn State IMC Agency and PAC House Productions was completed. In 2012 Mass Communication initiated two new tracks in Integrated Marketing Communications and Media Studies (the latter retitled Media Leadership & Performance in 2013). In 2013 the Performing Arts Center saw completion of its Black Box Theatre.
Today, the Department is comprised of twenty-five full-time personnel: six tenured faculty, six tenure track, seven temporary full-time and six staff members (some who also teach). There are also six to twelve adjunct faculty depending on enrollment. The program boasts over three hundred majors with steady enrollment over the years, making it one of TSU's largest programs.