The appointment of a white Loyola University Maryland administrator as the dean of a new center that honors Gwen Ifill, the late African-American host of the “PBS News Hour,” has become the focus of criticism at Simmons University.
Brian Norman, who founded the African-American studies program at Loyola, was named dean of the Gwen Ifill College of Media, Arts, and the Humanities at Simmons in April. Since then, the university has had to cancel a series of events this fall meant to inaugurate the new college that was announced after Ifill’s death two years ago from cancer.
Ifill, a 1977 graduate of Simmons, was known for her fierce mentorship of young, black journalists. She was a former Evening Sun reporter, covered seven presidential campaigns as a correspondent for NBC News and was a White House reporter for The New York Times. She also moderated two vice-presidential debates, in 2004 and 2008, and wrote a book, “The Breakthrough: Politics and Race in the Age of Obama.”
A year after Ifill’s death in November 2016, Simmons decided to name a new school in her honor. When alumni and students learned that Simmons had hired a white man to be the first dean of the college, they expressed disappointment that Ifill’s pioneering spirit was not represented in the selection.
Alumna Juliette Mayer said she was disheartened by the naming of a white man to the position.
“Given who she was and what she stood for and in honor of her memory, it would have been my preference that a person of color had been in the role,” said Mayer who was the first recipient of the Gwen Ifill Trail Blazing Leadership Award given last spring by the university.
Mayer said she hopes in the future the university will cast a broader net to attract applicants, including using its alumni networks in the search.
Alumni and black students told university President Helen G. Drinan they would boycott events surrounding the opening of the Gwen Ifill College, so Drinan said she, along with a member of the Ifill family, decided to put off the events, including a symposium that would focus on Gwen Ifill’s work and “truth in news.”
“If there is this much heartache, then … the last thing I want to do is have any controversy about Gwen’s legacy,” Drinan said.
Drinan acknowledges that mistakes were made during the search process.
“African-American women are not as large a segment of the population as white men. You have to add a lot more people to the pool [of candidates]. And that is the way to increase the likelihood that a woman of color would end up with the job,” she said. “No doubt we should have done that.”
Legally, the university cannot consider only people of color for the position, Drinan said. One finalist was a woman of color who dropped out of the running when she took another job.
Drinan said the university was not going to restart the process. With the college opening at the start of this school year, Drinan said, she believed the university couldn’t launch the college without a dean in place. She said it would have been “a very risky thing.”
Norman was named to the post in April, has moved to Boston and is in the job.
Norman said he believed Ifill was “a model of professional excellence, civic engagement, intellectual curiosity and this commitment to inclusive community and mentoring the next generation.” In his work with the faculty, Norman said, he hoped he could build a college that could carry on her legacy, “so the next generation can do the good work in the world that Gwen shows is possible.”
Norman spent a year as a research fellow at the University of Maryland Baltimore County before taking the job at Simmons. In his scholarship, he said, he has tried to “understand and take seriously the experience of marginalized groups across the spectrum.”
In the controversy over his naming, Norman said, he believes the university is wrestling with some of the biggest issues of its time in America, including its ambitions to become one of the most diverse campuses in the area.
“Even in her absence, Gwen is helping us have that conversation,” he said.
Drinan said the family has agreed to give Ifill’s personal effects, writings and papers to the university, including some of her signature bright jackets.