Legendary OU, MSU journalism professor and lawyer Jane Briggs-Bunting dies at 70


Photo Courtesy of Holly Gilbert

Jane Briggs-Bunting with over a dozen former Oakland Post student journalists.

Every semester, every year, we love to regale our students with stories about the inestimable Jane Briggs-Bunting.

Jane was a journalist, First Amendment attorney, professor, director, author, advocate, non-profit founder, and student newspaper adviser in a Hall of Fame career that spanned five decades.

We cheerfully tell them about Jane’s history of filing lawsuits against her own employer — Oakland University and later Michigan State University — on multiple occasions whenever she thought officials were keeping secrets that should be made public.

Devoted students called Jane their “guardian angel.” She once told a close friend she preferred “avenging angel.”

She still had so much to give. She died Tuesday, March 23, at 70.

Jane Briggs-Bunting driving a boat. Briggs-Bunting was a journalist, First Amendment attorney, professor, director, author, advocate, non-profit founder, and student newspaper adviser in a Hall of Fame career that spanned five decades. (Photo Courtesy of Holly Gilbert)

Jane’s former undergraduates adore her — we are spread around the country and when we get together we always swap tales about life and death in Jane’s classroom.

She was notorious for her rigorous standards in her media law course and as a tireless advocate for freedom of the press. She is also credited for her fierce loyalty to student journalists – even in the face of criticism from members of the OU or MSU administration.

“I always thought it was unfair,” said journalist and former faculty member Kathy Dahlstrom. “She was doing what she was hired to do. She taught students to dig out the truth, on behalf of the public.”

We also remember Jane as a mentor and true friend who showed enormous courage in battling a rare form of cancer since 2014.

Her legacy includes the hundreds of Oakland U and MSU students who put to use the lessons learned in careers as attorneys, reporters, editors, advisers, and authors.

Her resume is truly remarkable:

  • Award-winning reporter for the Detroit Free Press from 1970 to 1978. She covered national stories such as the disappearance of union lead Jimmy Hoffa and the case of the Oakland County child killer.
  • Correspondent for Life magazine and People magazine. She covered the August 1987 crash of Flight 255 at Metro Airport that killed 156 people but spared the life of 4-year-old Cecelia Cichan, who became known as America’s Miracle Child.
  • Chair and director of journalism at Oakland University, 1978 to 2003.
  • Professor and director, the School of Journalism, Michigan State University, 2003 to 2012.
  • Founder, past president and board member, the Michigan Coalition for Open Government, 2012 to 2020.
  • B.A. and J.D. from the University of Detroit.
  • Founder of the Great Lakes Student Law Press Clinic in 2004.
  • Adviser to The Oakland Sail and Oakland Post, Oakland University’s independent student newspaper, until 2003.
  • Board member for The State News, Michigan State University’s independent student newspaper, 2003 to 2013.
  • Inductee into the Michigan Journalism Hall of Fame in 2003.  She served as a board member and past chair for the organization from 2006-2009.
  • First Journalist of the Year honored by The Metro Detroit Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists in 1991 and Lifetime Achievement Award recipient in 2014.
  • She was the first recipient of the Jane Briggs-Bunting Transparency in Government Award presented by the Michigan Coalition for Open Government (MiCOG) in 2020.
  • Benefactor –  along with her husband, Bob – of the Bunting and Briggs Freedom of the Press Endowed Scholarship at Oakland University.

Beyond her students, her teaching, and her First Amendment work, Jane was hopelessly devoted to the menagerie of four-legged friends she and husband Bob Bunting adopted throughout their 46 years of marriage. There were numerous dogs and cats, but also rescued horses and even a llama. Three of them became main characters in the children’s books she authored – “Whoop For Joy: A Christmas Wish,” “Laddie of the Light,” and “Llama on the Lam.”

For all the toughness Jane was noted for in her higher-education classrooms, she was equally in her element enchanting young fans of her fiction during readings at elementary schools and libraries around the state.

Briggs-Bunting (second from left) posing with former Oakland Post editors Sally Tato Snell, Rob Snell and Ann Zaniewski at an award show. (Photo Courtesy of Holly Gilbert)

Jane was diagnosed with neuroendocrine cancer in 2014 and she made it clear immediately that the disease had targeted a formidable foe. She approached her treatment the way she approached most things in her life – by making herself an expert on the subject, and a vigorous participant in the process. One of her doctors warmly recalled how she would arrive at his office armed with stacks of reports.

An ardent believer in the power of positive thinking and living, and prayer, Jane was not one to spend precious time lamenting her predicament.

“The good thing is she never wasted a day,” said Dahlstrom. 

Tributes to Jane are pouring in from around the country. Penned by former students, colleagues and coworkers, they focus on the facts — which would make Jane proud. They are evidence of her impact on us all. 

MARK CLAUSEN, attorney, colleague and former student

It is a truism to say that a good teacher’s influence extends to unknown and remote places.  You surely have heard that before.  What I want you to know now is that your influence has extended beyond the influence of any other teacher or professor I ever had.  It extends to my children, as I pass along to them the lessons that you taught me.  It reaches me every day I come into the office and work on cases for my clients’ benefit. 

Your presence is felt with every brief and motion I write, as your standards push me to improve that work.  It extends to every article and essay I read, as I remember your lessons on good journalism, good editing and good writing when I evaluate and act on what I read.  I hope it extends to how I treat those whom I work with – to keep a level of love and respect while communicating expectations that will make them perform better.

TOM STANTON, OU Class of ’82, Associate Professor Detroit Mercy, and journalist

At first, I had doubts. You were intimidating, both in that initial advising session, when you questioned William White’s wisdom in waiving my introductory courses, and then in your Media Law class, when you stood an immature, unprepared kid before his fellow students to answer questions about Sullivan v. New York Times. I still feel pangs of fear when I think of that class. But you taught us, and I learned a bit.

As The Voice newspapers grew, you defended us against libel plaintiffs and scared others from even filing. Meanwhile, you coached me to be even more aggressive in our coverage. When The Voice became embroiled in a national controversy with the U.S. military over a soldier’s letters, you were there for us. You were with us again during the Mark Foley page scandal, when my son turned over his laptop to the FBI. Every one of my achievements — from the Poynter and Knight-Wallace fellowships to the professorship at Detroit Mercy — has your fingerprints. 

Jane, you are a sweet soul. An inspiration. A lioness.

KATHY DAHLSTROM, journalist and former colleague

Jane was as much a friend as boss to me and others who worked for her. She was there when I went through divorce and my son’s death. She encouraged my move from reporting to teaching and was supportive when staffers needed back up. It’s unusual to work for someone who cares so much about those who work for her. I felt Jane truly did.

GAYLE ISSA-FAKHOURI, Multimedia Editor at Reuters news, former student

Jane, it’s been so long but know you are never forgotten. We dug up the tribute newspaper we wrote for you when you were inducted into the Michigan Journalism Hall of Fame and the pull out quote on my piece made me laugh out loud, “Getting an “ok” from Jane still feels like winning a Pulitzer.” And it really did. 

We were all in so much awe of you, despite initial feelings of being terrified! You used to tease me and say I was your “non-American” but I want you to know that I learned volumes from you about what it means to be an American and that the First Amendment is worth everything. 

I wish I could have seen you one last time and bantered with you one last time. 

ADAM NEAL, Managing editor at Treasure Coast Newspapers/TCPalm and former student

Jane has a very special place in my heart. So many great memories from college. She had such a profound impact on so many journalists, but none more than my career. Her law class is what helped me get my first job – a cops reporter – out of college. 

I’ve thought “what would Jane do” on many occasions over the last 17 years while making difficult decisions.  

GAIL DEGEORGE, journalist, former editor of The Oakland Sail (Post)

You may have entered my life as an admired professor who taught me how to write a news story and about media law and helped as an advisor with all the pressures and problems of being editor of the Sail – but you became so much more! You not only gave me the foundation of my career but a foundation for my life! You shared in my triumphs and setbacks.

We shared life’s celebrations and sorrows, and through it all I remember so many times of laughter with you. Your quick wit & wry humor cut through a lot of complexities and while I am pressed to remember specifics I am smiling as I write this. 

Thank you for fighting so hard so we could enjoy more time with you here.

ANN ZANIEWSKI, journalist and public relations professional, former editor of The Oakland Post

After making the difficult decision to leave journalism in late 2019, I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting on my career — the thrill of breaking big stories, the extreme stress, the intense deadlines, the wonderful privilege of serving as both a watchdog and a voice for the voiceless. I’m thankful for every bit of it. And it’s all because of Jane. 

I became a reporter because of her. I remember how her eyes would sparkle when she talked about the importance of the First Amendment and the role of the press in helping to safeguard democracy. Or when student journalists at The Oakland Post would tell her about the hot news tips they were following. I admired her tenacity and fearlessness. She was the first person I ever met who was truly never afraid to stand up for what’s right, no matter how daunting the opposition. I wanted to be just like her. 

I was editor-in-chief of The Post in 2003 when Jane was inducted into the Michigan Journalism Hall of Fame. The staff worked over several weeks to put together a special 8-page edition of the newspaper in honor of the occasion. The front-page headline was “Jane rocks” in giant type. Dozens of Jane’s current and former colleagues and students contributed stories about how she had impacted their lives. We surprised her with a stack of the papers at the banquet. When she saw them, she beamed. I’ll never forget that moment.