University names college for Gwen Ifill, but causes discord in its choice of dean

The leadership of Simmons University has been forced to rethink their decision after selecting a white man to head a new college named after the highly respected black journalist

Several Simmons University events intended to launch the Gwen Ifill College of Media, Arts, and Humanities have been postponed after it was announced that the school named in honor of the pioneering black female journalist has chosen a white man to serve as its first dean.

Brian Norman, who founded the African American studies program at Loyola University, was officially named dean of the Gwen Ifill College of Media, Arts, and the Humanities at Simmons in April. Norman’s presence has sparked an uptick in protests and harsh criticism over the past three weeks from black alumni and students voicing their disappointment about what they believe is a tone deaf leadership choice.

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As a result, school officials have had to cancel a series of events this fall meant to inaugurate the new college.

“If there is this much heartache, then … the last thing I want to do is have any controversy about Gwen’s legacy,” conceded university president Helen G. Drinan, who chose to make the cancellations after she was informed by students and alumni that any events surrounding the opening of the college would be boycotted until a new dean is announced.

Ifill, who hosted the “PBS News Hour” before passing two years ago from cancer, graduated from the Boston school in 1977, and was widely known for her dedicated mentorship of young black journalists. The choice to name a new school in her honor a year after her death, led many to expect that it’s leadership would reflect her legacy.

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“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 alumna Juliette Mayer, who became the first recipient of the Gwen Ifill Trail Blazing Leadership Award last spring.

Drinan has since apologized to those offended about the oversights made during the staffing 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.”

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However, the university currently has no plans to restart the hiring process, and for the time being Norman will remain in his post.

In response to the controversy about his appointment, the new dean says he hopes to carry on Ifill’s legacy despite the skeptics, “so the next generation can do the good work in the world that Gwen shows is possible.”